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John McQuaid Headshot

The Media Parties Like It's 1997

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Looking over the political coverage of the past week, a casual observer might think s/he was back in the 1990s. There's a big scandal involving the Democratic governor of Illinois trying to sell the president-elect's senate seat. Will it hurt the party? The incoming administration? Caroline Kennedy wants to be the next junior senator from New York. Are the Democrats embracing dynastic politics? The president-elect gives a press conference announcing the new secretary of education -- in which he dodges questions and bores reporters present -- just like his obfuscating predecessors.

I sympathize. The fact is, there isn't much political news right now, though there's a great hunger for it. Obama is not yet president. He's making appointments, but those people aren't actually doing anything yet. Bush is making dog videos. And Congress has adjourned after deadlocking on the auto bailout.

But what we see here is more than just an attempt to fill space. The media is falling back into old habits perfected during the vaporous Clinton scandals of the 1990s. The not-so-subliminal message in this coverage: You thought things would be different with Obama. But they're not. Politics as usual. Scandals. Spin. Coverups. And, if we're lucky, a feeding frenzy!

Drill down a little, though, and most of this huffing is off-base. Take Dana Milbank's piece on Obama's press conference. Is it reasonable to expect a press conference announcing the new education secretary to be anything but deadly dull? Is it reasonable to expect Obama to step into the state-level political tempest over how to choose his replacement in the Senate? Or to opine on an investigation in which he is at best very tangentially involved? When Clinton or Bush "dodged questions" about investigations, they (or their subordinates) were the ones being investigated. I'm not saying that scenario will never come to pass with Obama -- odds are, it will at some point -- just that the accusation is silly right now.

Enormous changes are brewing in the country and in government itself. Big Government is back -- and it may be the only thing that can save us. This has tremendous implications for American politics. The political media, however, doesn't seem to get this. It's bad at covering the actual workings of government, the nexus of politics and policy. In a pinch, it always returns to a set of commonly-held tropes and cliches forged during the Clinton scandals of the 1990s. Proven cable chat-generators, these focus heavily on the habitual hypocrisy of politicians, the always-disjointed relationship between their words and actions -- but not on the substance of the actions themselves.

This is both predictable and comforting -- all the more reason we're seeing it now, when no one knows what the hell is going to happen. But not promising.

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