THE BLOG
05/02/2008 01:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coffeecups and Gutterballs: A Precision Media Hit On Obama, A Pass For Clinton

Let's start with a hypothetical situation: Suppose a small group of people controlled the press, and they wanted to ensure a Republican victory in November. A few weeks ago Obama seemed to be riding a wave of inevitability and positive perception. The Democrats seemed to have settled on a candidate, and he scored well against the Republicans because he was seen as post-racial and post-partisan. If this group were to write a memo to the media, what would it say?

Their game plan would have very specific objectives:

1. Extend the Democratic primary race as long as possible.
2. Remind the public that the seemingly "post-racial" Obama is a black man; make him seem as scary-black as possible.
3. Strengthen Hillary Clinton's image with white working-class voters by making her appear populist, folksy, and one of them. Conversely, characterize Obama as an elitist who is out of touch with "real people."
4. Break down Obama's post-partisan appeal to independents and Republicans by linking him to the divisive left/right politics of the 1960s.

Now look back over the media's coverage of the Democratic campaign during the past several weeks. Bingo: Mission accomplished. By giving the primary campaign more of a horse-race feel than it actually has, they've managed to extend it. The Rev. Wright controversy and constant mentions of Louis Farrakhan have made Obama seem more "scary-black." (It should be noted that Clinton has closer political ties to a Farrakhan lover than Obama does. Her PA campaign chair Gov. Ed Rendell said this of him: "His depth on analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation is astounding and eye opening. He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest... one of the 20th and 21st century giants of the African American religious experience.")

Those images of Hillary doing shots in Pennsylvania were broadcast morning, noon, and night, emphasizing her working-class image. So were images of Obama bowling a gutterball and looking "elitist." And by promoting Obama's alleged "ties" to Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers while downplaying Clinton I's pardon of two fellow Underground members, Obama was made to look more "leftist" than Clinton.

And that's not all, as they say on the late-night ads ...

Now we have the matter of Hillary's difficulty with a coffee machine. This video has gone viral, complete with goofy and irritating music. It shows Sen. Clinton struggling to operate the coffee maker in a gas station. It's become popular among Obama supporters because it shows the allegedly "populist" Hillary's bafflement at operating a device that is familiar to most working Americans. Why is the coffee-machine video so popular among Obama supporters? Because they think it would be airing 24 hours a day if their candidate had made the same mistake.

And it would.

So, is the coffee-machine video getting airplay on the cable news shows? Not really ... well, wait: CNN did run a piece about it, but only to debunk the idea that this means Hillary's out of touch. "These coffee machines ARE finicky sometimes," says reporter Jeanne Moos, "I nearly broke one at the car dealership ..." Yet CNN breathlessly repeated over and over that Obama only scored a 37 while bowling, without reporting that he never finished the game! And there was no Jeanne Moos to say "we all throw gutterballs sometimes."

But, stop already! Isn't this all ridiculous? Isn't it trivial to concern ourselves with whether the next president is able to go bowling or get a cup of coffee from a vending machine? Of course! But the media make us care about these things. They have an enormous ability to influence what we think about, and they've chosen to emphasize the reality-show aspects of this race. Then, having done that, they skew the race in favor of different candidates in a naked display of their ability to influence the outcome. That's the lesson of the bowling incident and the coffee-cup video: One gets exposure and the other doesn't, because the narrative has already been written.

In this particular reality show, they've decided who they want voted off the island next.

So what does this all mean? Is our hypothetical group real? Did instructions come down from on high? The crystal balls are murky. But it's clear that American media outlets are owned by fewer and more powerful interests. And they don't necessarily have to write memos. All they have to do is hire and promote well-intentioned but biased reporters who don't even realize how they're distorting the news. Throw in a couple of cooperative editors, and you've got yourself a "free press" ready to do the bidding of its owners. And most of those owners are Republican.

We know that the right-wing learned how to spin and manipulate the news using outlets like Drudge and Fox. And rather than fight this system, Clinton campaign advisors like Sid Blumenthal decided to exploit it for their own ends. Blumenthal's been circulating the most scurrilous right-wing attacks against Obama to a mix of friends and journalists, and some of his readers have printed them. (Blumenthal's the guy who found the Obama campaign's idealism infuriating; guess we know why now.) And it turns out that Rev. Wright's latest public tirade was orchestrated by ... a Clinton supporter.

But, some Democrats will ask, don't we want people like than running the Democratic campaign? Won't they be more effective at winning? Maybe - but that argument would be more compelling if they weren't losing. If the Clinton campaign wanted to run such a negative campaign, it should have done so from the very beginning. But they were overconfident. By turning ugly now, when they're behind, they're damaging the party. And, ironically, that may be why they're been getting such favorable media treatment lately.

If the media's first job is to cripple or take out Barack Obama, then the Clinton campaign is just a means to that end. Whether Obama yields to Hillary or takes the nomination in a weakened position, the Democrats will have been wounded. And the extended race will have provided months of extra "horse-race" stories for the media.

At that point Blumenthal et al. will find that their usefulness to the media machine has ended and they're yesterday's news. Their tactics won't work any more. Suddenly Clinton will be the target again - and John McCain will be on his way to the Presidency.

Word to Sidney Blumenthal and all the other Rove-emulating Clintonites: You're disposable tools in a bigger game. You guys, of all people, should understand that.

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UPDATE: Two alleged statements by Clinton associate Mickey Kantor have been removed from this post. He says he never said the more extreme statement, and there's evidence the video we saw was doctored. So we take him at his word. Another phrase that he used, "these people are sh*t," seemed to refer to Indiana voters but is ambiguous. (Not that ambiguity would stop the press if they were determined to smear a candidate by association, as the Clinton team knows all too well.)

Kantor reportedly asked that the more extreme statement not be repeated, even as a retraction. Fair enough. We've honored that request, and have also removed the other one. We suggest that Clinton and McCain supporters likewise refrain from repeating scurrilous and false remarks about their opponents in the future, even if only to deny that they believe them.

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