Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Democrats v. Democracy
From this week's Newsweek cover story on Dean:
But while Edwards was hurt by a weak performance in "the Russert primary" (NBC’s "Meet the Press"), Dean’s testy and unpresidential appearance on the show on June 22...didn’t hurt him at all. In fact, his fund-raising surged that Sunday, testament, perhaps, to a feeling among some liberals that the media are now on "the other side." In truth, Dean is no favorite of working reporters, who tend to like their candidates funny and solicitous. So do voters.
It's an amusing story, full of sound and fury, but that last sentence is my favorite. Let's go over this slowly (for the J-school graduates in the audience): The Dean fans you've spent the whole story talking about are, believe it or not, voters. The Dean ascendancy that landed him on the cover of your magazine? It's the result of his popularity with voters. Sure, some of it's fundraising, but even then the story is that he's raising that money from a large number of (here's that word again) voters. Hell, even some of the high school kids like Alex Doonesbury will be voters by the time the election comes around.

Last time we did this dance, the media told us roughly a year in advance who the candidates would be: Bush and Gore. People weren't particularly excited about either one, but whenever voters started to get excited about any of the other candidates, we were told in no uncertain terms that it didn't matter, because Bush v. Gore was "inevitable". Election day arrived and, with it, record low voter turnout. Big surprise.

The media likes a good story, and seems to prefer one that can be told in 20-30 seconds using a sixth-grade vocabulary. The result is that our presidential candidates get labeled like the seven dwarfs and are, like Tinkerbell, reduced to only having one emotion at a time. So Dean is renamed Angry, and all the normal human contradictions in his character are flattened out. From what I've heard he is "funny and solicitous", but that doesn't fit the media-issued template, so it doesn't make it into the story.

Except it does, actually. That's what makes the media coverage of Dean so entertaining. They'll talk about how popular he is, then say, "But who knows if he'll catch on with voters...", or show him joking with a crowd, then say "But voters like their candidates funny...". To get all postmodern on you for a moment, the media has created a narrative which the individual reporters are now struggling to escape. Whether they have what it takes to do so, however, remains to be seen.

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