As the successful mission against Osama bin Laden makes clear, the media narrative of President Obama as weak on national security betrays an institutional preference for marketable stories first, evidence later.
An exchange from CNN's Reliable Sources Sunday:
Howard Kurtz, host: Will this change the media perception of Barack Obama from what it had been, a kind of a overly cautious, consensus-seeking law professor?
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post: If his poll numbers hold up, the media follow the polls...
Kurtz: That is very depressing.
Milbank: It is very depressing, and very true.
The bin Laden mission also shows that when a story is about strong leadership, the media seems to have forgotten what that looks like.
Americans' most enduring symbol of strength is the cowboy, whose image still lies just below the surface of our political coverage. It was formed from a mix of novels, movies, TV and reality, all influencing each other. It evolved into an ethos, "the cowboy way," which was so powerfully resonant that, for much of the 20th Century, no one had to explain what it meant.
Apparently that's no longer the case, because somehow the media have now got it exactly backwards. Fear-mongering, chest-thumping blowhards are accepted at face value as showing "toughness." Meanwhile the strong, silent type, who gets the tough jobs done, is seen as somehow weak.Admittedly, few reporters these days have the opportunity of checking their assumptions with actual cowboys. But they do have Google, and if you Google "the cowboy way," you'll find lots of ready references. Here are a few thoughts from a book called Cowboy Ethics, by (fittingly enough) ex-Wall Streeter Jim Owen:
- Do what has to be done.
- Be tough, but fair.
- When you make a promise, keep it.
- Talk less and say more.
The media's confusion about strong leadership seems in no small part related to a more general confusion about manliness. It used to be that almost all leaders were men, and they were expected to have proven their physical courage, usually in wartime. Now we're learning that strong leaders can come from all kinds of backgrounds, and we're re-examining what leadership and courage are really made of.
And yet political coverage is still full of all this "tough guy" stuff, badly misapplied, often by men who sure don't look like they've been in a fight lately. To anyone who's ever met the real thing, the play-actors dressing up as cowboys in recent years have obviously been all hat and no horse. And yet they've gotten away with it, largely unchallenged by reporters who apparently didn't notice a problem.
Meanwhile along comes Barack Obama. No military experience. Never even pretended to be a duck hunter. And yet he shows the kind of quiet strength that doesn't need to prove itself, except in the act of doing what needs to be done. No gloating or boasting (think of that silent visit to Ground Zero). Just taking responsibility, while giving the credit to those who risked the most.
In other words, the cowboy way. Funny how truly modern that turned out to be.