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The Method to Bill Clinton's Meltdowns

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Bill Clinton has a negative outburst a few days before each state race in the Democratic primary. There was "roll the dice" before Iowa, and "fairy tale" in New Hampshire. A few days before Nevada voted, he aggressively confronted a reporter on camera, and just pulled the same stunt on a CNN reporter in South Carolina. Each time, the media fixates on the spectacle, dutifully debating whether he is too angry or too misleading. But as Clinton knows, it doesn't even matter what people say, as long as they are talking about him and his latest attacks on Barack Obama. Like clockwork, these supposed outbursts give airtime to attacks while pulling attention away from Obama in the crucial, closing days of each primary.

Yet while much of the media hangs on every Clinton complaint -- from old school networks to new school blogs -- it turns out many voters want to hear from the people who are actually running for President. This week, a 34-minute video of a new Obama speech, laying out ideas to resolve America's "moral deficit," shot past shorter, spicier items to become the third most viewed item on YouTube. It even beat several clips of another media darling, Britney Spears, an unprecedented feat for a long political speech.

Many commentators said 2006 was the first "YouTube election" because Sen. George Allen was damaged by his offensive "Macaca" recording. But after another week of media coverage of non-issues and non-candidates, this could be a more profound turning point in YouTube politics: The public is seeking out serious political information that TV won't provide.

That doesn't mean people will vote for who they watch online. Or vote at all. But it does reveal that some of the television media -- which can provide a vital democratic service by directly reporting on the candidates -- is underestimating the public.

Bill Clinton's latest attack was on both Obama and a CNN reporter, whom he blasted for focusing on Clinton's misleading statements about Obama, instead of issues. "This is what you want to cover. This is what you live for!" he chided, adding that voters' concerns are "not going to be in the news coverage tonight because you don't care about it."

But as Clinton understands perfectly, now the "news coverage" is once again about his latest outburst. Even his advisers admit that some of "his criticism of Mr. Obama" are "choreographed" with Hillary's campaign. It has worked well every week since the race began in Iowa. Now the "news coverage" is not about Obama's new speech -- which is literally breaking records in public viewership. It's not about John Edwards' stimulus plan -- which has driven the economic policy debate since he unveiled a populist proposal weeks before any other candidate. Come to think of it, the news isn't about that other candidate for president, either. It's all about Bill Clinton's attacks. And as he said, that's a bad thing. Except for the frontrunner in this race.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this column first appeared.