The political media has always taken it upon itself to make decisions about who is and who is not qualified to be taken seriously as candidates for higher office. Without even talking about whether they do this more or less to Republicans or Democrats, I can testify that I witnessed this phenomenon over and over again in the primary battles within the Democratic Party. It has always been true that the press corps has drawn upon internalized professional biases, high-school-style groupthink and the urging of insider wonks to separate candidates into “serious” and “unserious” groups before the shots even start to be fired.
At the outset of the 2004 campaign, for instance, the herd knew without being told that Kerry and Lieberman got the first paragraphs in the debate wrap-ups and Howard Dean, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich got the last paragraphs. The corps fought against Dean’s unexpectedly strong showing all the way through the early primaries and it was no surprise to anyone when they pile-drove him into total insanity before Iowa.
The point I’m trying to make is that the media has a long and storied history of just taking the gloves off and whaling on a dude until he screams uncle (in Dean’s case, almost literally) when they make up their mind about someone, and this phenomenon is not restricted to fights between Democrats and Republicans.
When that does happen, when the press corps decides to abandon all restraint and go for the head shot, it usually tells us a lot more about the reporters’ bosses and what they’re thinking than it does about the reporters themselves. Your average political reporter is a spineless dweeb who went to all the best schools and made it to that privileged seat inside the campaign-trail ropeline by being keenly sensitive to the editorial wishes of his social and professional superiors.
When their bosses were for the war, they were for the war, and they battered any candidate who was “weak on foreign policy.” When the political winds shifted four years later and the consensus inside the Beltway suddenly was that Iraq had been a hideous mistake, the campaign-trail reporters mysteriously started sounding like Sixties peaceniks on the plane and they hammered Hillary for refusing to admit her error on the Iraq vote clearing the way for Obama.
The tone for all this behavior is always set somewhere way up the corporate totem pole, and it always reflects some dreary combination of simple business considerations (i.e. what’s the best story and sells the most ads) and internalized political calculus (i.e. who is a “legitimate” candidate and who is an “insurgent” or a “second-tier” hopeful). It’s not that the reporters are making this judgment themselves, it’s that they have to listen to what the apparatus Up There is saying all day long — not just their bosses but the think-tank talking heads they interview for comments, the party insiders who buy them beers at night, the pollsters, and so on.
And when all these people start getting in their ears about this or that guy doesn’t have “winnability,” or doesn’t have enough money to run, or has negatives that are insurmountable, all that thinking inevitably bleeds into the coverage. It’s not that the reporters are “biased.” They just don’t have the stones, for the most part, to ignore all the verbal and non-verbal cues they get from authority figures about who is “legitimate” and who isn’t.
Once the signal comes down that this or that politician doesn’t have the backing of anyone who matters, that’s when the knives really come out. When a politician has powerful allies and powerful friends, you won’t see reporters brazenly kicking him in the crotch the way they did to Dean and they’re doing now to Sarah Palin. The only time they do this is when they know there won’t be consequences, meaning when the politician’s only supporters are non-entities (read: voters), as in the case of Ron Paul or Kucinich. Like America in general, the press corps never attacks any enemy that can fight back. ...
[Palin's] getting it from all angles now and that wouldn’t be happening if she still had any friends in high places. The press corps that is bashing her skull in right now is the same one that hyped that WMD horseshit for like four solid years and pom-pommed America to war with Iraq over the screeching objections of the entire planet.
It’s the same press corps that rolled out the red carpet for someone very nearly as abjectly stupid as Sarah Palin to win not one but two terms in the White House. If there was any kind of consensus support for Palin inside the beltway, the criticism of her, bet on it, would be almost totally confined to chortling east coast smartasses like me and Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan. ...
You teabaggers are in the process of being marginalized by your own ostensible party leaders in exactly the same way the anti-war crowd was abandoned by the Democratic party elders in the earlier part of this decade. Like the antiwar left, you have been deemed a threat to your own party’s “winnability.” ...
You had these people eating out of the palms of your hands (remember what it was like in the Dixie Chicks days?). Now they’re all drawing horns and Groucho mustaches on your heroes, and rapidly transitioning you from your previous political kingmaking role in the real world to a new role as a giant captive entertainment demographic that exists solely to be manipulated for ratings and ad revenue.