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Media should ignore punches



Bill Shaheen was clearly wrong. The Hillary Clinton supporter and husband of former Governor of New Hampshire Jeanne Shaheen ignited a firestorm by suggesting that Barack Obama’s open admission of drug use in his youth could be ammunition for the Republicans in a general election. In case you missed it, what he said was that Obama’s candor “could open the door” to further questions from those mean old Republicans. “It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ … It’s hard to overcome.”

The short answer is: No, it’s not. See George W. Bush. When he was young and crazy, he’s said enough times to make it a mantra, he was young and crazy. More than that he would not say, lest he serve as a bad role model for kids, and more than that no one ever demanded.

The problem with Shaheen’s comments, though, is not simply that they were wrong or unauthorized, or that they forced Hillary herself to repudiate him and them. He hurt the candidate he was trying to help. He helped the candidate he was trying to hurt. He made Hillary look desperate. He made Barack into her victim. He commanded attention he didn’t deserve, hadn’t earned and that his comments didn’t merit.


Why does anyone really care what a volunteer who is best known for being somebody’s husband has to say about what the Republicans would do in a general election?

It’s a reflection of what politics has come to that nothing either candidate said or did in the last two days commanded near the attention that Shaheen’s unauthorized comments did. What politics has come to is a slugfest, and if the candidates themselves aren’t throwing the punches, the press is willing to cover anybody who does, in whatever form they’re thrown. If Billy Shaheen had given a two-hour speech on all the things he likes about Hillary Clinton, no one would have written a word about it. Who cares, we would have said. But throwing a punch at Obama? Now that’s news.

Shame on us.

The press is desperate to turn this into an ugly war, even if they have to use sucker punches by nobodies to do it.

Of course, it’s true that Obama’s people seized on the remarks, seeing in them an opportunity to portray their opponent as desperate, and as acting in a way inconsistent with her own prior statements. Why wouldn’t they? This is how the game gets played. If politics has become a business in which the fact of an attack gets more coverage than its substance or merits, why not look for an opportunity to brand your opponent as an assailant?

Volunteers, including “officials of state campaigns,” are what we in politics call “loose cannons.” Many of them have titles, titles being a dime a dozen in politics. They say lots of things. But they don’t deserve the press’s attention, or the country’s.

When a loose cannon takes a bad shot, it shouldn’t be enough to start a war. It shouldn’t be the story of the day, with the apology becoming the story of the next day. This is why people hate politics. And they’re half right. It isn’t politics they should hate, but what those of us in the media have done to turn it into a combat sport in which only the punches get attention. If a nobody throws a punch and we all ignore it, it’s not a punch. It’s a tree falling in a forest that no one sees.

In a campaign that’s likely to go on as long as this one, we’ll all be stuck in the swamp by the time it’s over if we’re not careful. Billy who? Forget him.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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