03/28/2008 02:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Message Dissonance And Media Slant

Late Monday afternoon, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson spent some time on a conference call assailing the media for not being even-handed in their treatment of his candidate:

I think it is true that every time the Obama campaign in this campaign has attacked Senator Clinton in the worst kind of personal ways, attacked her veracity, attacked her credibility, said that she would say or do anything to get elected, the press has largely applauded him. When we have attempted to make contrasts with Senator Obama, we have been criticized for it.

That is a fact of life that we labor under.

Mmmmmm...yeah. I don't really buy this. On a day after CNN ran a silly poll that asked if Obama was "patriotic" enough to be President, any reasonable observer would have to conclude that, at the very least, there seems to be a loose definition of what constitutes "applause." Real life, I'm afraid, does bear some distinctions from the average cold open of Saturday Night Live.

But if we back off the specific context of Wolfson's immediate grievance, and examine the matter in toto, you'd have to conclude that there have been some particularly grating instances of shoddy treatment of Clinton from the traditional media. First and foremost, of course, is Chris Matthews' constant derision, fueled not by evidence, but by barely-veiled personal animus. Additionally, the weeks of "gender-card" discussion comes to mind - endless roundtable chit-chat that took on the inane issue of whether it was fair that Clinton had ovaries. As if she could, by force of will, opt out of her physiology in the spirit of equity. And let's not forget the inane ruminations on the power of Clinton's tears in New Hampshire - my feeling is that a very good case could be made that Clinton won in New Hampshire solely on the basis of good strategy in the field, but the media seems bent on remembering the success in context of a few stifled sobs.

That said, certain things cannot be pinned on media bias. It was not, for instance, the media's fault that "change you can Xerox" went over like a lead balloon. That was a turd that no amount of polish could redeem. And yet, there are other moments that no amount of bias or animus can sully. As an example, recall Clinton's graceful, final statement at the end of that debate. Now, that was a riveting moment - quiet, sincere, large - a fine way to leave things.

Some may have read Clinton's closing remarks as a valediction or noted that it was cribbed from other sources, but it couldn't be denied that it was a statement that drew listeners in and inspired some reflection. Frankly, it went a long way to proving many of the points Clinton's tried to make during her campaign. Rhetoric, as it turns out, can be elevated without the grandiose blandishments of Obama's oratorical style. And her succint summation of the passion and reason that's fueled her long and ongoing career had to make some people think that maybe there really was something to all the decades of experience to which Clinton had laid claim.

The unfortunate thing is, at some point, Wolfson might have to confront the extent to which his candidate has been undone, not by the media, but by the the nibbling-to-death of her consultants. Somewhere, a dial-measure didn't uptick quite fast enough or high enough at the end of the debate, because days later, the euphonious tone struck by the candidate was swapped out for a radically different message. On to the next microtrend! And there Clinton was, in Ohio, brandishing a mailer, admonishing Obama for, of all things, his "behavior." And later, there Clinton was, in Rhode Island, delivering a deranged-looking vaudeville act that seemed to delight in mocking everyone who had cast a vote for her opponent.

This was seventy-two hours of pure schizophrenia, and I find it very hard to believe that no one in Clinton's campaign thought that the media might take the three moments - from the end of the debate to Ohio and Rhode Island - and juxtapose them all on the same television screen. But that is precisely what the cable news networks did on Monday, and they ran this message mashup all day long.

Now, for all I know, there's some Rust Belt focus group that's watching these shifts in tactic and tone and is taking to it like gangbusters, but these dissonant tactics could come back to haunt Clinton even if they are ultimately successful. John McCain isn't likely to be concerned with the manner in which Clinton confronted her intra-party opponent, but he's definitely going to broadly suggest that Clinton - if she wins the nomination - lacks the fitness to confront our nation's terrorist enemies. It's not a stretch to suggest that her Ohio and Rhode Island appearances, along with the nannyish hectoring and sarcastic mockery that defined them, may very well provide the grist for a future GOP attack ad. Winning the primary is of paramount importance, of course. But you cannot blame the media if you've allowed yourself to become, as Milan Kundera once described, the brilliant ally of your own gravedigger.

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