[Guest post by DRJ]
I want to start off by saying that I know the Democratic Party will eventually unite behind one Presidential candidate and run a formidable and maybe even a winning race, but it’s nevertheless fascinating to watch the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Here’s an example that really tickled my funny bone — John Heilemann in the New York Magazine analyzes how and why the media treats Hillary Clinton so much worse than Barack Obama:
“[F]or the better part of a year, [the Clintons] have complained to any reporter who would listen about what they regard as a manifest pro-Obama, anti-Hillary tilt in the press corps. With the contretemps over David Shuster’s “pimped out” comments about Chelsea Clinton, this line of argument has become more heated, to be sure, especially as it pertains to NBC and MSNBC. (“A horror show” is how one Clinton adviser describes her nightly treatment by Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and even Brian Williams.) But it’s connected to a long-simmering sense of grievance that’s deeper and more subtle.
That the campaign exaggerates its degree of outrage, and Hillary her victimhood, in order to gain a tactical advantage is obvious. But that doesn’t mean their critique is meritless—quite the contrary. The more interesting question, however, is what role each campaign has had in fostering a media dynamic that has clearly favored Obama and plainly damaged Clinton. And also whether that dynamic will come back to bite Obama if he’s the Democratic nominee.
It’s worth pointing out, to begin with, that the Clinton forces are hardly alone in noting the disparity. “Both of them have gotten an enormous amount of play,” says Marion Just, a political scientist at Wellesley who has made a systematic study of the coverage of the race. “But the coverage of Hillary has been primarily negative, while the coverage of Obama has been so positive that you have to call him, though I really hate this term, a media darling.”
Got that? The Clintons are upset they aren’t the media darlings and that (gasp!) the media even attacks them. It’s not surprising they think the nightly news is a horror show. Welcome to the GOP’s world, Billary.
Heilemann then turns to the ‘meta-narratives’ the campaigns and the media have created for each candidate:
“Theories abound as to why the media has treated Clinton and Obama so differently. The simplest is that reporters simply like Obama better; that he’s new and fresh and unburdened with anything resembling Clinton fatigue. Another theory revolves around cultural bias. “The fact is that the national press is a bunch of northeastern liberals,” says the adviser to an erstwhile Democratic runner, “and they just love the idea of this post-racial black dude being the nominee.” A third revolves around the respective dramatic arcs embodied by Clinton and Obama. Citing the Times primary-beat reporters assigned to the candidates, a competitor of theirs observes, “Pat Healy’s job is to challenge the Clinton myth and machine. Jeff Zeleny’s is to write the epic rise of Barack Obama. That’s generally the media’s approach—Clinton and Obama are just at different points in their stories.
All these theories contain at least some truth, but it’s the last one that edges closest to what I think has actually gone on. Campaigns are, at bottom, a competition between memes: infectious ideas that gather force through sheer repetition. The most powerful of these memes are what Just refers to as meta-narratives, the backdrops against which everything plays out in the media. “Clinton’s meta-narrative,” she says, “is that she’ll do anything to win; she can’t be trusted, she’s ethically challenged; she’s manipulative, calculating, and programmed.” Obama’s meta-narrative is decidedly otherwise. “It’s the same, in a way, as John McCain’s,” says Just. “He’s authentic, honest, free of taint. Then you add in new, charismatic, and an agent of change.””
This almost sounds like Hillary was asking to be disrespected. And here I thought the conventional liberal wisdom holds you can’t blame the victim.
In any event, I have a fondness for the term ‘meta-narrative.’ It’s so chic, so in, so … meaningless. Some might even say it’s so easy to blow it to pieces:
“The trouble for Obama is that the Republicans aren’t terribly likely to let that dismissal stand—nor the polite avoidance of discussing his controversial minister, his wayward youth, or, indeed, his blackness itself. Again and again, as Clinton often points out, the GOP has proved painfully adept at taking compelling, carefully honed meta-narratives and blowing them to pieces. In ways too numerous to mention, Obama has been toughened up by the primary process. But no matter what his handlers say, the notion that he’s been subjected to the most withering press scrutiny imaginable is—how to put this?—a fairy tale. His success has turned in no small part on his skill at avoiding such flyspecking, and on his rival’s inability to muster the same kind of dexterity. If Obama winds up facing John McCain, a man whose meta-narrative is spun from pure gold, he is unlikely to be so fortunate again.“
We’ll see — It’s too early to know what surprises this election will bring. In the meantime, read the whole thing.