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Obama's Parking Tickets

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Our latest national scandal:

Obama received 17 parking tickets in Cambridge between 1988 and 1991, according to the city's Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department.

Of those tickets, he paid only two while he was a student and paid them late, said Susan Clippinger, the office's director.

In January, about when the Globe began asking local officials about Obama's time at Harvard, including any violations of local laws, someone representing the senator called the parking office
to inquire about the decades-old tickets.

On Jan. 26, the remaining $375 in fines and fees were paid by credit card using the city's website, Clippinger said. She said she didn't know who paid them.

"I think it's fabulous he finally paid them," Clippinger said by phone yesterday. "I think others who owe us money should pay us, too."

Damn right. Get with it, people!

At a time that the Boston Globe is shuttering its foreign bureaus, its reporters are devoting precious man-hours to chasing down old parking tickets? We await the report on Dennis Kucinich's library fines. Actually, this recalls the Seinfeld episode The Library, featuring Lt. Bookman, the Ahab-like library detective sent to recover Jerry's 20-year-old fine: "You'd better not screw up again, Seinfeld, because if you do, I'll be all over you like a pitbull on a poodle."

This is a serious issue, though. In the past few weeks we've seen a series of stories in the mainstream media about alleged ethical transgressions of presidential candidates. The Washington Post had the story on John Edwards selling his house to nursing home execs he didn't know, who were also under investigation, and some union supporters didn't like them, and ... no one was sure what the point was. The New York Times had a front-page story this week about a stock deal arranged by Obama's broker - without the candidate's knowledge - with some big-time donors. When Obama found out, he divested.

These are all noteworthy things - even the parking ticket story is interesting, in its whimsical way, if only for illustrating the lengths that presidential candidates must go to these days knowing that reporters are combing their paper trails.

The problem lies in the judgment of the media entities running the stories. A sense of proportion has been lost. The papers are seemingly trying to replicate the now-legendary efforts of Jeff Gerth, the New York Times reporter whose impenetrable Whitewater stories kept the Clintons back on their heels for years and the rest of us permanently befuddled. So they apply a witless, one-size fits all formula to everything: the ethical transgression story that "raises questions." Putting it on the front page confers a sense of gravity and ominousness that the story may not deserve. The formula obfuscates rather than clarifies - it makes it harder for readers to judge the issues.

The 2008 election has the makings of an historical moment. If we're going to spend the next 20 months reading about parking fines -- paid parking fines -- we've got a real forest-for-the-trees problem.