One of my former grad students emailed me this morning to note how negative the press has been in their coverage of the presidential primary campaigns, especially the Democratic campaign. As usual, the news media have focused on the negative and the horse race and have failed quite strikingly to cover the issues, especially now that voters are trying to decide for whom to vote.
I typed him a long email that I want to share, because I've been thinking about this quite a bit:
I agree that the media is completely fixated on the negative: it's such a juicy story to see a female candidate and the former president going after a black candidate. Race and gender, especially race, are two topics that are highly controversial. The news media loves a good controversy. It helps when the black candidate fights back. Even more to cover!
Now, in my estimation, Bill and Hillary get some of what they deserve with regard to all of the negative coverage. When major political elites, John Kerry, Representative Clymer of South Carolina, Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle, etc. all speak publicly about Bill Clinton needing to town down his rhetoric about Barack Obama, you know that even political elites of the Democratic party thought he went too far in pushing race onto the agenda.
But, you see what Bill's doing, right? He's trying to marginalize Obama by turning him into "the black candidate." The spin from the Clinton campaign, from Bill, who is playing "bad cop," before and after South Carolina was to say that Jesse Jackson won South Carolina, too. That's code for "blacks vote for black candidates" or "Obama's a black guy and won't have mass appeal across the rest of the country."
Hillary's statement before MLK's birthday that it took LBJ to sign the civil rights legislation that MLK advocated for made my jaw drop. It could be read as a sincere statement that underscored the importance of the president in establishing law. Or, it could be read as "it takes a white president to get things done." I don't believe the Clinton's do anything innocently or with good intentions (and I don't think journalists think so either, which is part of why they're covering this so heavily).
So, you can see why this is such sexy news to cover. Nothing like watching the former President of the U.S. turn into a knock-em-down, drag-em-out street fighter for his wife against a black candidate (which, then brings up the story line of a female candidate being overshadowed by her husband -- another compelling story line that seems to repeat itself over and over again in campaigns with female candidates). The former "black president" against a potential future black president. That brings eyeballs to advertisers.
And, as far as the journalists are concerned, there aren't any real differences between the candidates, and their issue positions are old news. They announced their health care plans and plans for Iraq nearly a year ago. Their plans for an economic stimulus got some coverage, though, which is good.
One other thought, Tali Mendelberg wrote a book that came out last year titled The Race Card. I've read bits of it. It focuses on race in political campaigns. I think it's why I read the Clinton's as playing dirty pool with race. In it, she argues that when white candidates make subtle allusions to race when the opponent is black -- using code words, invoking images that speak to whites' fear of blacks, or that invoke and underscore the "blackness" of the candidate -- those appeals work very effectively at turning white voters against the black candidate. UNLESS: the white candidate is called on it, either by the media or by the candidate, and the allusions, the implicit racial appeals, are rendered explicit. When that happens, white voters (and the news media) tend to turn on the white candidate, because, although whites may have concerns about blacks subconsciously, consciously we have a sense of justice and rightness that apparent racial appeals violate, and voters punish the candidate who violated our sense of rightness.
I think that's some of what's happening here. The news media and some of the political elites cried "foul" on the Clintons. I think it's some of the reason why Hillary lost the white vote in South Carolina (as well as the black vote). Whether that loss continues is an open question, though.