We’re just about to catch the season finale of what Jezebel has dubbed “America’s current favorite reality show,” also known as the 2008 Presidential Race. Over the past two years we’ve witnessed campaign implosion, soaring rhetoric, clunky diatribes, and a bonus emotional moment courtesy of Senator Hillary Clinton. This season, domestic terrorists and America-hating preachers were given larger roles than those specified by their original cameos due to popular GOP demand, and two women tried to overcome essentialist anti-feminism. Or maybe that was just one woman. This season has totes been like a cross between Desperate Housewives and Law and Order, flavored with a dash of Survivor!!!
This election and the mainstream media have sated themselves with each other, and we pull fervently on the feeding tube. We rely on this lascivious relationship to define for us “important issues,” and to package candidates and their relations in microwave-ready adjectives that are just as empty as they are overused. Campaign managers and newscasters argue over who is more “American.” Barack Obama has been branded an “elitist;” Sarah Palin a “hockey mom.” Out of the two party tickets, Obama and Palin seem to be garnering the most attention from the media. It seems odd that McCain’s September campaign ads condemned Obama as a celebrity when Palin fits that categorization just as easily today. Biden and McCain, though awarded their fair share of coverage, have receded from the spotlight, returning only if one of them has “misspoken.” Why the overarching Obama/Palin coverage? The historical nature of this election in terms of race and gender is certainly a contributing factor, though the media stopped registering amazement long ago. “It’s okay to laugh at him,” Jon Stewart reassured his tense audience after making a harmless Obama joke. Afraid of being labeled sexist—or worse, racist—the media has attempted to steer clear of any such implications, limiting their coverage to what really matters: the issues. Or so they claim.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh complains of what he deems an unfair label of racism placed on some of his remarks, yet View co-host and McCain campaigner Elizabeth Hassleback blames “the sexist liberal media” for taking cheap shots at the cost of Palin’s wardrobe. Race and gender are of course touchy subjects (Biden’s description of Obama as “clean and articulate” hit multiple nerves), and the semiotic war rages on as the Republican party attempts to stake a claim on feminism, a discourse that many liberals see as their own.
Overriding this semiotic struggle are the real mavericks: Obama, Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and Palin’s ESL coaches. With her show 30 Rock still stuck with relatively low ratings, Ms. Fey has reestablished herself on Saturday Night Live (SNL) as a lovably goofy sharp shootin’ down home folksy kinda gal who looks and sounds suspiciously like McCain’s vice presidential pick. And though their influence on the 2004 election was more marked, Stewart, Colbert, and their ilk are definitely in to expose, impose, and re-dispose media coverage and candidate sound bites in their delightfully postmodern fashion. With more than twenty percent of young adults getting their news solely from these programs, what role is the mainstream press playing in all this? Does it even matter?
Considering that Stewart wouldn’t have a show without some of the laughably biased networks out there, yes. It is thanks in part to Fox and MSNBC that we have our scandals, triumphs, and D-list celebs. The conservative networks gave us our Jeremiah Wrights, our Bill Ayers, and our Rashid Khalidis; the liberals reveled in Troopergate and Wardrobegate. The McCain anti-Obama diatribe shifted from celebrity to socialist to one who “palls around with terrorists.” The potentially legitimate points one can conceive of from these attacks are the socialist accusations (a very scary word for a fiscally liberal administration) and, um, everything about Sarah Palin. We’ve all heard how she fired someone who wouldn’t fire her sister’s ex-husband (Troopergate), or something like that, and how she’s under investigation for corruption in office back in Alaska, and how she spent $150,000 on clothes (Wardrobegate) which was really the RNC’s fault and did nothing for her small-town image and she’s going to donate it all to charity anyway. Once the GOP landed Palin they couldn’t complain any more about Obama’s lack of experience, so they focused instead on connecting him to unsavory types. Obama has since condemned Wright’s “God damn America” remarks, and frankly, the McCain administration is grasping at thin air with the Ayers and Khalidi accusations. Bill Ayers was a member of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground, but he is now a respected professor who contributes regularly to the field of inner city education improvement. His violent past (resulting only in the deaths of his own coworkers) would be more of a real issue if Obama knew him outside the context of a charity board meeting and several subsequent casual encounters. Rashid Khalidi is an Arab who criticizes some Israeli policies, so he must be evil. The media presents these little anecdotes to us daily, in recurring segments perfect for lunch breaks. And the best part? We aren’t always sure where the bias is coming from. Important issues might arrive cut and dried from press releases, they might fly through a whirlwind of spin doctors and newsroom headsets, and they might not mean shit. Palin will continue to hold sway over us as a red-suited self-described intellectual (ask People Magazine) who “walks the walk” even if she can’t quite “talk the talk.” Obama will keep triggering our emotions with those ivory tower speeches of his. These are the images the media created for them. These are the images we can’t get out of our heads, even when we get to the voting booths.
Next week, on Project Democracy…