Friday, July 30, 2004

Paul Krugman is on target as usual in "Triumph of the Trivial," his column about TV news coverage of politics. But I want to talk about one particular passage in the column:

Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates' policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry's haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush's brush-cutting, not his environmental policies.

Even on its own terms, such reporting often gets it wrong, because journalists aren't especially good at judging character. ("He is, above all, a moralist," wrote George Will about Jack Ryan, the Illinois Senate candidate who dropped out after embarrassing sex-club questions.)

Yeah, I love that "Gotcha!" -- but I'm more interested in what Krugman is saying about journalists as character judges. He's right: They're awful. They can't read gray. They can't comprehend facets of personality.

And right-wing character assassins take full advantage of this.

Three figures in public life the press absolutely cannot comprehend are Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. It seems obvious to me that they're all somewhat similar -- Gore can get silly, Kerry has a big, goofy grin, Hillary a big, hearty laugh, yet all have obviously had to fight through natural tendencies toward inner-directed wonkiness to function in public life, none of them having the natural flesh-pressing gift of, say, Bill Clinton. At moments they seem shy or standoffish -- but when they relax, they warm up and open up.

In other words, they're complex -- not unusually complex, but complex like lots and lots of ordinary people.

The press absolutely cannot fathom this.

And that's where right-wing spinners step in. They turn Kerry into a humorless snob and Hillary into a power-mad she-demon and Gore into a neurotic propellerhead -- and non-conservative reporters, absolutely flummoxed by a personality that isn't linear and easy to follow, like Bill Clinton's, reach desperately for the right-wing's decoding of these mysterious beings.

Our side doesn't offer similar spin -- and we're passing up a golden opportunity, because George W. Bush is far more complicated than his image. He's neither a simpleton nor an uncomplicated All-American boy -- he's hale and hearty and he's mean, snappish, and vindictive. This matters because the campaign he's running ("vote for me because I stay the course") depends on the perception that there isn't a dark side to "staying the course" -- the dark side of, say, a driver with road rage who's too stubborn to back down, utterly unwilling to "look weak."

Not that the press would never buy such a depiction of Bush. He's from Texas! He clears brush! He says "Smoke him out!" No gray areas there!

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