Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Gotcha Campaign

Mary McNamara argues that American politics is now all about "gotcha," the drama of hammering the candidates on their latest gaffes and missteps:
FOR DECADES, political pundits and voters alike have complained about the banality of the national conventions. Gone are the days when the party platforms really meant anything to anyone, when loyalties were bartered and policy deals hammered out in those iconic smoke-filled back rooms by men in wilting white shirts. Now it's just an office party of sorts, a series of scripted speeches and sound bytes signifying nothing. We are, after all, a nation that increasingly chooses its president based on that most ephemeral of factors -- personality.

So basically what we're looking for as we approach the conventions is some wonderful off-mike moment -- a backstage meltdown involving a Clinton perhaps, a racist comment from a McCain supporter, a wonderful/terrible political gaffe from either candidate. Something that would tell us all we really need to know without making us think too hard about the wars or the economy or our rapidly eroding education and healthcare infrastructures.

Something we can watch on YouTube and send to all our friends just like all the other news loops that have dominated this year's coverage.

Barack Obama's guns and religion comment. John McCain's Pakistan border mistake . Obama's rock star reception in Europe . McCain's golf cart incident. The greatest hits of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Paris Hilton video, the Obama fist bumps McCain's melanoma issues. The tire gauge controversy.

SO MUCH has been said about the media's handling of this campaign that it's almost embarrassing to address the topic. But after watching hours, days, weeks of it on television, the cry of anguish cannot be suppressed: For the love of all that is holy, how did one of the most important presidential races in history, between two men who embody such disparate political possibilities, wind up looking like a montage sequence in a Will Ferrell movie?
Read the rest of the article, here, but I think McNamara pretty much answers her query further down in the essay:

The gotcha moment isn't exactly new: It's been the holy grail of covering presidential politics since Richard Nixon broke out in a flop sweat during the first televised debates. Going, going, gone is the journalistic chivalry that kept Franklin Roosevelt's inability to walk and/or John F. Kennedy's promiscuity a well-known secret. Vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton lost his spot on the ticket when it was revealed he'd had electroshock treatments; Edmund Muskie was toast when he seemed to weep while denouncing attack ads aimed at his wife.

While such stories were anomalies, or sidebars, now they are the main event. Now, like the conventions, the entire campaign -- all those speeches and whistle stops, all those meetings with leaders and foreign heads of state -- is increasingly perceived as nothing but stagecraft. God, or truth, we are told, is found in the details, in odd little moments that if replayed often enough by every media outlet can't help but take on the air of political or personal revelation.
There's more to the story, of course, from technological change, to evolving standards of what's morally acceptable, to the lowest-common-demominator sound-byte media cycle. It's an empirical question as to whether gotcha politics has increased engagement and political knowledge, but if the trends toward 2008 being a "high interest election" hold up, all of the controversy and scandals may end up just part of history in the making.