The presidential campaign of 2008 seems pretty far off these days. An economic collapse will do that. But given the profound challenges facing the nation and the president these days, it's worth reviewing the media coverage of the race to see if journalists last year effectively probed the candidates vying to lead the country through a difficult period. Sadly, there were far more media lowlights than highlights during the campaign, as too many reporters and pundits focused on flag pins, bowling, and fairly trivial faux pas.
One could do a full article just on William Kristol's errors and flubs at the New York Times (my favorite coming when Kristol touted Clarence Thomas for vice president long before he fell in love with Sarah Palin). Moreover, it often seemed that America was trapped in an alternative universe shaped by the media, with John McCain running against some scary, inexperienced, part-Muslim who was palling around with Weathermen radicals and terrorists. Then the votes were counted, and the boogeyman was gone. Today, even half the people who voted for McCain say they are optimistic about Barack Obama's presidency. So much of the media's performance ended up not mattering—or being trumped by other factors.
Going back only to last April, here are some defining media moments of the 2008 campaign
On April 18, in perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on small stuff when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care and mortgage crises, the state of the economy, and other pressing issues had to wait until the midway point. Before then, Obama was pressed to explain (once again) his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his reason for not wearing a flag pin, while Clinton had to answer for her Bosnia trip exaggerations. Obama was also forced during this debate to defend his slim association with former 1960s radical Bill Ayers. This led to Obama's claim that Hillary's husband pardoned two other radicals. And so on. Gibson only got excited when he complained about anyone daring to raise taxes on his capital gains.
Remember "Bowling-gate"? While campaigning in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama threw a few gutter balls attempting to bowl. Suddenly many in the media were depicting him as a wimp and out of step with America, even though his skills at playing a far more popular sport (basketball) suggested he was actually the best athlete to run in years. Joe Scarborough at MSNBC opined that Americans want a real macho man in the White House and that Obama was "prissy." Maureen Dowd actually referred to it as Obama's "bowling debacle." Elizabeth Edwards, with so much else on her plate, was driven to write an op-ed for the Times titled "Bowling 1, Health Care 0." In a column, I dubbed it "the return of gutter politics." Does anyone now care about Obama's misadventure in bowling?
In May, liberal bloggers and commenters at The Washington Post's website rightly criticized a column by syndicated scribe Kathleen Parker that questioned whether Obama "gets America" and if his "DNA" was "full-blooded" enough. But she was only following the footsteps of Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal who raised similar issues three weeks earlier—and was praised by NBC's Brian Williams for a "Pulitzer"-worthy effort. Noonan had written, "Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem...[H]as he ever gotten misty-eyed over... the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford?"
Henry Ford, by the way, was a vicious anti-Semite, but no matter. Noonan continued: "John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee...Mr. Obama? What does he think about all that history? Which is another way of saying: What does he think of America? That's why people talk about the flag pin absent from the lapel...But what about Obama and America? Who would have taught him to love it...[N]o one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness." No one? Surely not Peggy Noonan.