She tried to make a joke of it. At the debate in Cleveland last week, Hillary Clinton brought up a "Saturday Night Live" skit about journalists fawning over Barack Obama at a mock debate. "Maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow," said Clinton. Humor is often a substitute for anger, and if Clinton wasn't all that funny, maybe it is because she is sore at the press for seeming to go easier on her opponent. She has a point, but the truth about the media and the campaign cannot be caricatured simply as the deification of Obama and the hounding of Clinton.
The pols and the people invest the press with great power. Conspiracies abound. Right-wing talk-show hosts love to go on about the liberal media establishment. Lefty commentators accuse the press of rolling over for George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq. Politicians of all stripes accuse the press of being unfair, even cruel. Sometimes we are. On the day Vice President George H.W. Bush announced for the presidency in October 1987, he watched as his 28-year-old daughter, Doro, wept when she picked up NEWSWEEK's cover story that week, picturing Bush driving his speedboat under the cover line FIGHTING THE 'WIMP FACTOR.' Bush was, understandably, furious. The phrase "wimp factor" came from Bush's own pollster, and we said he was fighting it, but we nevertheless left the impression that we were calling the vice president a wimp. In the end, the story had little impact because voters already understood that Bush, a World War II hero, was plenty tough. He was elected president the next year.
Certainly, there are editors and publishers who would like to be kingmakers, or just kings. From William Randolph Hearst to Henry Luce to Rupert Murdoch, press barons have sought to leave their personal stamp, if not change the course of history. But for the vast majority of media, the reality is much more mundane; the press's impact on elections, as well as most other human events, is murky.
The mainstream media (the "MSM" the bloggers love to rail against) are prejudiced, but not ideologically. The press's real bias is for conflict. Editors, even ones who marched in antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam era, have a weakness for war, the ultimate conflict. Inveterate gossips and snoops, journalists also share a yen for scandal, preferably sexual. But mostly they are looking for narratives that reveal something of character. It is the human drama that most compels our attention.