Friday, April 11, 2008

What the media get wrong

John McCain is one angry man. Everyone knows that.

So no one was surprised last week to learn of his tirade against a hapless Teutonic foreign minister at the 2006 Munich Security Conference.

"I haven't come to Munich to hear this kind of crap," the Mighty Mac roared, unleashing the biggest German explosion since the Hindenburg.

That led to much tittering about the perils of having a petulant president with his creaky finger on the button.

There was only one problem: The McCain meltdown never happened. The account of one anonymous source was promptly contradicted by several eyewitnesses on the record, including former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz.

"There was a bit of tension for 15 or 20 seconds when there was a problem with the translation," recalled Schwarz, who had sat six feet from McCain. "There was no outburst, no shaking, no rising out of his chair."

Newsweek, which didn't even check the story with the senator, issued a semi-retraction this week. What happened is all too familiar. In the magazine's rush to churn out a piece in the familiar Mad McCain motif with a new twist, the staff didn't vet the lead anecdote.

It seemed true, so it must be. After all, who wouldn't be scrapping for a fight after being shot down in the Vietnam jungle and tortured for more than five years? And McCain did seem awfully peeved to have lost in 2000 to that ingrate, George W. Bush.

Throw in a couple shoutfests with Sens. John Cornyn and Chuck Grassley and presto! McCain is a walking land mine.

Just like back in 2000, when priggish presidential hopeful Al Gore was slapped with the "serial exaggerator" label. When he was misquoted about taking credit for discovering Love Canal, few media bothered to correct it. Instead, they ran with the "There he goes again . . ." storyline.

Good thing the man who did make it to the White House never lied about anything of life-or-death consequence, like the al-Qaida-Saddam Hussein connection, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or Saddam's uranium-hunting trip to Niger. And kudos to the media for dropping those bummer storylines.

We've officially entered the silly season in politics.

Forget the hysterical whining about lib-rul media bias (and the flipside in the lefty blogosphere). Here's the real problem with media coverage.

Whatever policy debate there was (i.e. a brief segue about the apparently permanent surge in Iraq before in-depth analysis of Angelina Jolie's baby bump) has evaporated into the fresh spring air.

Tee-vee personalities, who wouldn't know journalistic standards if they read them off a teleprompter, have dug into tough political issues like Hillary Clinton's cleavage malfunction and Barack Obama's abs glistening on a Hawaii beach.

But the neverending Democratic brawl has worn on actual reporters, who last saw their kids in a media-release program for an hour over Christmas before the Iowa caucuses.

Sleep-deprived and slap-happy during a season that was supposed to end on Super Tuesday (sorry, Hillary), journalists have to bustle at a breakneck pace through Puerto Rico's June 1 primary or even the Denver convention in August.

The unforgiving 24-hour news cycle and incredibly shrinking newsrooms mean more work, like insipidly blogging about wintry mix forecasts on the trail in Iowa for the world's greatest newspaper, The New York Times.

It's enough to drive you mad. So reporters succumb to pack journalism and pump out pieces assiduously free of policy debate that follow a set narrative, which often are quarantined from what's actually happening.

Better yet, they can just play those four clips of Obama's irascible pastor (the only dude even angrier than McCain!). Heaven forbid we see an endless loop of the senator's speech on the racial question, a truly spellbinding oratory that scholars will still scrutinize in decades to come.

But buxom, Botoxed Fox News babes carped it was all about Obama hatin' on his white grandma, making you shudder at how they'd have shrilly bashed Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King back in the day.

These storylines do serve a useful purpose for those who don't care to pay much attention. You now have permission to vote against Obama. Not because he's black (oh, no) but because his craaaazy preacher means he simply cannot be trusted to solve the foreclosure crisis.

Same goes for McCain. It's not that you think he's an old coot; it's just that he lacks the correct temperament to fix Medicare.

The sad part is they're two of the most authentic and genuinely engaging candidates we've had to choose from in decades. The media do them and the public a tremendous disservice by boiling this race down to sound bites and stereotypes.

This is the contest the press has been clamoring to cover since Kennedy-Nixon. Not a mudslinging slugfest between the lesser of two evils, but a reasoned choice between political philosophies, policies and leadership styles.

If we get the chance, let's not blow it with braggadocio. The stories will practically write themselves.

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