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The Power of No

Posted: 09/11/08 06:27 PM ET

On Tuesday night, a serious journalist finally gagged in revulsion at so-called campaign coverage.

On CNN, Mark Halperin, TIME magazine's principled and thoughtful political analyst, shook his head in dismay as the network's Anderson Cooper prodded him to dissect the "lipstick" imbroglio. Halperin wouldn't go there."Stop the madness!" Halperin fumed in exasperation, adding that the moment marked "one of the low days of our collective coverage of this campaign."

With the nation in economic meltdown and multi-front wars, Halperin summoned the Power of No. He declined to engage what he considered a stupid and distracting "issue" in the final weeks of one of the most important presidential campaigns in our nation's history.

The "issue" was the McCain campaign's shrill complaints that Barak Obama owed Sarah Palin an apology for saying of John McCain's economic policy, "You can put lipstick on a pig: it's still a pig." The apology was owed, the Republicans thundered, because Sarah Palin had said during the Repubilcan convention that the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom was "lipstick."

This had been the relentless story line for the past several days, sucking up hours of airtime and he said/she said back-and-forth barbs from the two campaigns. And the press -- especially cable television -- has lapped it up.

On CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," Mr. Cooper was doing what all the other cable television commentators had been doing -- to their collective shame.

He showed the video clip of Obama making the lipstick comment, then turned to his commentators, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen and Halperin. Gergen dismissed the dust-up as "silliness."

But with Halperin, something seemed to snap. He was disgusted even to be asked about something that was, to his mind, a clear campaign maneuver and manipulation in which the so-called serious press was the shill.

And he had had enough.

Would that the rest of the news media had that gag reflex and collectively decided, "Enough!"

Though Halperin did not say so, there is something sinister about the press's complicity in allowing campaign coverage to feed hungrily on meaningless charges and counter-charges. It is not unlike the McCarthy period in which Senator Joseph McCarthy's allegations about communists in the State Department were considered legitimate news simply because he said it.

The truth or legitimacy of what he said was not seriously questioned. Today, in the echo chamber of the fast-moving web and cable news environment, the truth of something is almost immaterial as long as the charge can be repeated and repeated and repeated again.

The news media's passive willingness to be used by campaigns is bad enough. But add to that the effort to stifle serious questioning of such things as Sarah Palin's political history -- a journalistic inquiry that is central to the role of a responsible press. The public's broad contempt for press coverage of the stupid stuff creates fertile ground for silencing legitimate, tough reporting. For instance, the McCain campaign canceled John McCain's appearance on CNN's Larry King show when CNN reporter Campbell Brown had the audacity to ask some probing questions. It was a move right out of the Bush Administration's playbook for punishing pesky reporters.

It is time for news organizations to stop being shills and for serious political reporters to stop being hacks. Mark Halperin and Campbell Brown have showed the way. Don't play the campaign game. Don't scramble after the next shiny object the campaigns throw your way. Take yourself and your work seriously. If the subject is stupid, say so. And say no.