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Think Again: Politico's Top 10 Stories of 2012 -- or Maybe Not

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In keeping with the list-making mania of this time of year, Politico's Dylan Byers made his own list of the "Top 10 media stories of 2012." Because Politico has, almost by popular acclimation, become the most influential publication that covers -- some might say that "over-covers" -- the ins and outs of insider politics in Washington, it strikes me as a useful exercise to examine the underlying assumptions determining what makes a story "important" in the mind of a Washington insider. After all, it certainly doesn't appear to be a story's implications for policymaking or even its informed discussion of the issues that determine its value and ranking on Byers's list. Still, a story's designation as "important" does offer a window into what drives the coverage of Washington politics -- and, if only by extension, policy itself.

Here are Byers's choices of the past year's top 10 stories, followed by what I hope are insightful explanatory comments of my own. Coming in at number...

10. John King invites the wrath of Gingrich

"CNN's John King opened January's Republican primary debate in Charleston, S.C. pledging to stay out of the way," notes Byers. But he failed to do so by asking Newt Gingrich to respond to his ex-wife's accusation that he had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich, according to Byers, "responded with a fierce attack that saved his own reputation -- he would go on to win the South Carolina primary -- while dealing a considerable blow to the moderator."

Gingrich Press Secretary R.C. Hammond claimed King's question was an example of the "gotcha journalism" routinely employed by the mainstream media. Gingrich himself added that, "I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I'm appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

But ask yourself: Why in the world does this exchange between King and Gingrich qualify as a top story of 2012?

In a more sensible country -- or even a sensible political party -- Gingrich might have had a point, but in this case, all he had was a great deal of chutzpah. While it's true that a candidate's love life has no bearing on the kind of president he or she might be, we live in a country where politics has become a tributary of the entertainment industry, and as such, we feel entitled to eavesdrop on the love lives of the stars. Moreover, Byers does not mention thatGingrich famously attacked President Bill Clinton for his adulterous activities while partaking in some of his own as House Speaker. As the Clinton impeachment episode demonstrated, and virtually every 2012 Republican presidential candidate agreed, the private lives of presidential candidates became fair game for the media and for other candidates long ago.

Finally, for all the success ascribed by Byers to Gingrich's attack, nowhere was King accused of inaccuracies. Once again we see conservatives attacking journalists for reporting on what they themselves have previously raised as an issue. But this flap did not matter a whit as far as who was going to be America's next president. Newt Gingrich was never going to be president or nominee or anything like that. His entire campaign, similar to those of most of the GOP presidential hopefuls -- particularly Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann -- was just a media-fueled ego trip.

9. Brian Ross's Tea Party error

"ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross came under fire for the umpteenth time," Byers notes, "after he reported that the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in July may have had connections to the tea party." This claim, as it turned out, was erroneous.

One gets the distinct impression that either Byers (or his editors) must really have it in for Ross or they wish to demonstrate some extra special love for the Tea Party, because this is hardly one of the single most egregious inaccuracies of the year. What's more, a relatively quick apology was issued for the misstatement. Yet Byers goes on to write that, "The episode not only added to Ross's reputation as a reporter prone toward spectacular errors, it became a black mark for the network."

In fact, a more significant error regarding the reporting of the Tea Party was the consistent overestimation of the popularity of its policy positions, to say nothing of their coherence -- or, more accurately, their lack thereof. This was something that the mainstream media missed consistently, no outlet more so than Politico itself.

8. PBS capitalizes on Mitt Romney's 'Big Bird' remark

We all remember when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney invoked Big Bird during the first presidential debate, saying that, "I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I like you too," he told PBS's Jim Lehrer at the October debate in Denver. As Byers quickly points out, however, "[I]t was PBS that decided to seize on the remark and turn it into a promotional opportunity" with a series of statements and a media tour by Paula Kerger, its president and chief executive officer. President Barack Obama's campaign then picked it up, too. Byers thinks that this "actually raised awareness and rekindled debates about the future of federal funding for public broadcasting."

But, seriously, so what? So the candidates wasted their own and everyone else's time discussing an issue that, according to its own reporting, constitutes about .00014 percent of the federal budget. Why in the world does Politico think this story is important, much less one of the top 10 media moments of the year? Heck if I know.


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