These days, if you walk into any campaign office, you're not likely to be able to swing a stick without thwacking somebody who feels the media isn't treating their candidate fairly. It's much less frequent that these grievances receive a fair hearing. And it's rarer still to find the media willing to assail itself for its perceived harms. Yesterday, however, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz did just that on behalf of Hillary Clinton. And what can we say? It's a nice piece of work, if your campaign can get it.
Kurtz's overarching point is this: "Clinton's senior advisers have grown convinced that the media deck is stacked against them, that their candidate is drawing far harsher scrutiny than Barack Obama. And at least some journalists agree." There's a case to be made, here. As a fitting example, Kurtz makes lengthy mention of David Gregory's recent tilt with Clinton on the Today Show. During his interview, Gregory, appropriately, pressed Clinton for failing to give him a straight answer on her campaign's contention that a vote for Barack Obama was a "roll of the dice." A day later, however, Gregory failed to apply the same tenacious standards during his interview with John Edwards. Faced with a response filled with the same dodging and the same empty platitudes, Gregory let Edwards skate. In both cases, it was like watching a grown man interrogate a Pez dispenser, but in the case of Edwards, Gregory was only too happy to swallow the candy.
There's an even better example of rank media "unfairness" toward Clinton that Kurtz fails to mention, actually. In the period between the debate in Philadelphia and the one in Las Vegas, the media indulged itself in a hopelessly inane discussion of Clinton's use of "the gender card." Chris Matthews was one of the notable drum majors of this discussion, quixotically endeavoring to find dark undercurrents to her use of Harry Truman's famous "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" line and a statement Clinton made at Wellesley, in which she praised the institution for preparing women to ably compete in a man's world. As if she would say otherwise, in deference to every other candidate.
The "gender card" discussion was, at the root, unfair. Clinton, obviously, can do nothing about the fact that she's a woman. But more to the point, if there's advantage to be had there, why is it unfair for her to claim it? Rudy Giuliani gets to make hay of his proximity to the World Trade Center, after all. John Edwards gets to bask in his "mill village" upbringing. Neither man has been the focus of a fortnight's senseless circumlocutions on these circumstances.
The whole thing reached its apotheosis in Las Vegas, where Campbell Brown, of all people, asked Clinton if she believed in the existence of an "old boys' club." In the split second after the question was asked, I wondered exactly what brand of mouthwash Brown was going to use to rinse the taste of utter preposterousness out of her mouth, but then there was Clinton, parrying the question with charm and aplomb, simultaneously arch and above the fray: "Campbell...Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments." It was a great answer, and it went a long way toward finally changing the conversation.
So, Mark Halperin is correct when he tells Kurtz, "She's just held to a different standard in every respect." He's similarly right when he says, "It's not a level playing field." But there's the rub. When CNN begins its debate by egging the other candidates to attack Clinton, it's not a level playing field. But it's also not a level playing field when Clinton gets handed the planted "diamonds or pearls" question. It's not a level playing field when, as Kurtz himself notes, all six morning news shows are ready to respond at a moment's notice to help Clinton launch the new "humanizing" facet of her campaign message. And until any other candidate gets Howard Kurtz, Mark Halperin, and Howard Fineman - luminaries all - to inveigh on their behalf against the media's unfairness, we're just going to have to say, yes, indeed, it is most definitely not a level playing field.
Let's face it. In the grand scheme of things, Clinton is The Get. She's the number-one seed. The road to the White House goes through her. And if the downside is scrutiny, the upside is the ability to change the conversation, as we've mentioned before. The talk of "the gender card" has indelibly shifted to talk of "change" and "experience." This is a fair fight, it's the fight the Clinton campaign sought, and it's the fight it's getting. Howard Fineman is of the belief that the media isn't "tough enough on Obama," observing, "There may be something to that. He's the new guy, an interesting guy, a pathbreaker and trendsetter perhaps." But whose "path" is Obama trying to "break?" Whose "trend" is he attempting to offset? Clinton's, of course.
In the end, we have this quip from Clinton spokesman Jay Carson: "I'll just say that at the Clinton campaign, we do our best to live by the old adage that it's not wise to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel."
Seeing as those people are so willing to reach into that barrel to make a donation, why would they?