The 2008 race for the White House is now revving into high gear as the biggest primaries appear on the horizon for early February. The excitement in the news media is close to a roar, though most Americans are considerably less interested.
By now, the candidates’ images are like wallpaper that has been hung all around the national media echo chamber. We may think that we know who the candidates are and what they stand for – and if we have any doubts, numerous media outlets are pleased to set us straight.
But images tend to be selfperpetuating, and what we know most about the candidates is along the lines of what image they’re trying to project and how successful they’ve been in that effort.
An editorial the other day by The Washington Post used the kind of slippery quasi-substance that is standard material for the construction of media images in the presidential race. “Sen. Barack Obama has filled the hearts and minds of Democrats, independents and quite a few Republicans with hope,” the newspaper declared. “While his appeals to unity are explicitly about bridging the partisan divide between red states and blue states, they also are implicitly about bridging the racial divide.”
That passage from the Post’s Jan. 21 lead editorial, which was ostensibly about the present-day relevance of Martin Luther King’s “vision,” conveniently confined that vision to racial equality. No need to mention King’s impassioned work against economic injustice and war during the last few years of his life.
After all, a less simplistic storyline could raise difficult questions about why Obama and the other media-touted leading presidential contenders are so cozy with the kinds of forces for economic inequity and militarism that King fervently opposed. The media image of Obama as some kind of apostle of King’s message – an image that Obama has actively sought this month – can succeed only when basic realities are blurry.
A parallel distortion, which we might call a tacit whopper, involves the assumption that Sen. Hillary Clinton is some kind of avid feminist. In fact, she was an apologist for the Clinton administration’s 1996 “welfare reform” law that booted women off welfare to the detriment of their children as well as themselves.
Rhetoric about “a woman’s right to choose,” repeated by Hillary Clinton’s campaign apparatus, uses the phrase to emphasize the importance of abortion rights. But what about a low-in- come woman’s “right to choose” to raise children in conditions that do not penalize the family for poverty? Apparently this authentic “right to choose,” fundamental to many genuine feminist precepts, goes out the media window of the bandwagon.
These examples are far more than nitpicking or hairsplitting. They go to basic questions of history and values.
Is the historical record of Martin Luther King Jr. merely to be putty in the hands of an eloquent politician and a sometimes Orwellian press? Is an entire social movement for women’s rights to be rendered as rhetorical fodder for a candidate who has made her peace with poverty much as she has made herself an instrument of corporate power?
The “Super Tuesday” arriving early next month is a wide battleground that shifts the terrain even more to media combat – complete with multimillion dollar ad expenditures and pivotal media strategies. It’s a very long shot to genuinely connect with most voters in a direct or personal way when millions of them will be voting on a single day.
No wonder the journalists on the campaign trail are apt to be so much more excited about it than the people who are eligible to vote along the way. Professionals in the news media are keenly aware that candidates keep trying to concoct a saleable image. But those media pros are so often fascinated with the effort that they routinely become part of it themselves.
©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.