05/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Political Media Freakshow: What Went Wrong?

With so much at stake -- Iraq, the economy, global warming -- how is it the presidential campaign descended into a parade of irrelevancies? The media know better. Is there is anyone working for a media organization (new, traditional, left, right) who genuinely believes that Jeremiah Wright's views on HIV, race, or Israel would have any impact whatsoever on how Obama conducts himself as president?. The standard explanation is that "character concerns" of voters drive this type of coverage -- but this isn't an explanation as much as an excuse, as the polls show voters care a lot more about, well, issues with a direct impact on their lives.

Obama's been the been getting this treatment lately, but they all get it sooner or later. Part of the problem, of course, is the never-ending Democratic race, which has created a maw that must constantly be fed on cable chat shows, which trade on character-driven morality plays for their ratings -- celebrity crackups, missing white girls and sinister black guys. But obviously, the problem is bigger than that.

What went wrong?

I've been thinking about this for a piece I've written, not yet published. And it's a strange convergence of trends. One of those trends is ... Maureen Dowd. More than anyone else, Dowd legitimized "character" -- not character, but a kind of flip shorthand for reading surfaces and political images that passes as insight into character. Twenty years ago, this was a great innovation -- you could write impressionistically about campaigns! You could dig underneath the carefully-crafted image, revealing some truth beneath the hucksterism! I loved Dowd for this, and still do -- but less and less these days. This technique -- call it ripping off the mask -- has become the alpha and omega of political journalism. It assumes the mask is a lie designed to mislead, and there is always going to be an embarrassing truth lurking underneath it.

MoDo came on the scene in the 1980s. In the 1990s, there was the rise of the right-wing media, with its culture-war obsessions. Fox, Drudge, Coulter et al took "character" journalism and gave it a brutal twist: No matter how dull Democratic candidates were (and, with the exception of Bill Clinton, man, were they dull), the politician's bland mask came to obscure all the transgressions, real and imagined, of the 1960s.

This politics-as-innuendo approach generated great fodder for cable chat shows, generating high ratings and billions of page views -- and, most important, lots of money. The mainstream media, meanwhile, was fumbling and adrift -- willing to try anything to reclaim its cultural primacy, or at least its political savvy. So, to its shame, the MSM bought into this approach too.

I think most of the voting public isn't paying much attention to all the current BS, and in a year with such big issues, and such stark differences between the two parties, the culture war stuff won't ultimately swing things one way or another. But the media spin has simply become disengaged from reality. I wonder what it will take to get it back on track.