Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In the Tank for Obama?

I haven't watched Saturday Night Live in years. Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those middle-aged snobs who insist the program hasn't been funny since John Belushi was thin enough—and alive enough—to fit into his bumble bee costume. I kept up well into the early 1990s. After that, though, the popular culture begins to pass you by, the guest stars are often people you've never heard of, and the bands make you lunge for the mute button. I'm sure it's still funnier than, say, Mad TV (the producers of which must have had naked pictures of some TV executive cavorting with a zebra, that's all I'm going to say), but it's someone else's funny now.

The past couple of days, however, have brought snippets of SNL back into my living room, courtesy of the 24 hour cable news channels. The overlap between the audiences of Saturday Night Live and Hardball with Chris Matthews is approximately zero (think: Clearasil vs. Viagra), but the newscasters and pundits, who have never experienced cool in their lives, seem to get a real kick out of being ridiculed by hipsters. So two news-oriented SNL segments received significant airtime on Sunday and Monday.

The first featured Mike Huckabee, bringing his theocratic campaign right into Lucifer's hometown of New York City. His hopeless campaign no longer drawing much attention from the authentic news shows, Huckabee appeared with fake anchor Tina Fey to poke fun at himself for carrying on a hopeless quest for the presidency. I think the point was to show what a great sense of humor the former Arkansas governor has, especially for a man who aims to reduce non-fundamentalists to second-class citizenship. Ha ha ha!

The other SNL skit caricatured a Democratic presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The gag was very simple: every time Obama would provide an answer, the panel of reporters would register their strong approval, the woman swooning and the men offering up verbal high-fives. Hillary, on the other hand, was treated as a third wheel, ignored and cut off in mid-sentence. The point was, of course, unmistakable: the American political media had, as one journalist put it, gone into the tank for Senator Obama.

This conclusion was, to nobody's surprise, vigorously disputed by the navel-gazers on the news networks. If Bill and Hillary think the media have played favorites this time around, well, that's just another example of an inept campaign attempting to kill the messenger. Anyway, both the left and right think we're biased, they said, so obviously we're doing something right! (And that, by the way, has to be the dumbest self-defense ever concocted. Can you imagine any other business where the proprietors would consider it a virtue that both halves of their customer base hold them in contempt?)

Nevertheless, it sometimes takes comedians to deliver truths that cannot be spoken by anyone else. The debate skit simply wouldn't have been funny unless viewers sympathized, at least a little, with the underlying message. Judging from the laughter of the studio audience (as well as the unforced guffaws from some of the reporters watching the rebroadcast), SNL had hit paydirt.

The evidence of media bias, of course, is elusive and easy to cherry pick. The right wing has become expert at this, railing against liberal bias whenever some reporter deigns to point out an inconsistency—or worse—in media coverage of the current pathologically dishonest administration. Just as truth is a defense against libel, so, too, is it an effective rebuttal to allegations of unfairness. There were, after all, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Osama bin Laden is, in fact, still alive. The housing market would still be collapsing today even if nobody chose to ruffle Mr. Bush's feathers by announcing it.

The burden, therefore, is always on those who want to claim media bias rather than simple aggressive reporting. On that basis, I am unwilling to conclude that the media, as a whole, favor Obama over Clinton in their reporting. I am not even certain that most of them would make that choice in casting their own ballots. Regardless, there are certainly vignettes and other factors that may be considered evidence in support of the claim that the Democratic race has not featured an even playing field.

We may begin, appropriately enough, the day before Halloween, four months ago, when Senator Clinton's campaign was first beset by the goblins and ghoulies. At the time, Clinton, far ahead in the polls, mishandled a tricky question about whether or not she supported a plan by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses. She was caught unprepared, danced around the issue, and got called on it by several of her rivals. It was a minor mistake, the sort Ronald Reagan used to make with alarming frequency.

But the news media treated this second-rate gaffe as though Clinton had recommended legalizing heroin. Even today, if you enter the following into Google: "Hillary Clinton" "drivers licenses" "illegal" "November", you are rewarded with over 52,000 hits. It was through that narrow opening that Barack Obama finally began to gain ground on Clinton. If, as seems increasingly likely, Senator Clinton's campaign goes down in flames, much of her failure can be traced to her comments on the Spitzer plan (which wasn't even a presidential matter) and the media's decision to pounce on her response like a fumbled football.

There is more, of course. In particular, journalists' unending and often unfavorable fascination with Bill Clinton has worked manifestly to his wife's disadvantage. For many of the more sexist commentators, this successful attorney, adviser, and United States Senator has been reduced, in her own run for the White House, as simply one of "the Clintons", and the understudy at that. No reporter would have made the sort of comments about race that Hillary Clinton has faced because of her gender. Nobody accused Mitt Romney of "pimping out" his five sons. And let's not forget Chris Matthews' immortal words, for which he apologized but was otherwise excused:

"[T]he reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be senator from New York. We keep forgetting it. She didn't win there on her merit."

Nobody is suggesting that Barack Obama should be subject to the same sort of innuendo and prejudice at the hands of the working press. But if the argument is that Hillary received special scrutiny because she was the frontrunner, where are the media now? Obama has led the Democratic pack for at least a couple of weeks now, if not longer, and he continues to enjoy the kid glove treatment. We know it; the candidates know it; and the comics at Saturday Night Live know it.

Whether guided by their antipathy toward "the Clintons", their fears of being blamed for derailing the first viable African American candidacy, or something else, it is hard to argue that the press has been even-handed in 2008. The New York Times, perhaps for legitimate reasons, sat on its explosive John McCain story until after his nomination was a done deal. Let's hope the media don't decide to do their due diligence on Barack Obama only after it's too late for the Democrats to give Hillary Clinton a second look.

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