That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Given the manifold splendors of human society, there’s always a way for things to get worse. And they usually do, whether it’s Abercrombie & Fitch marketing thongs to tween girls or Jane Fonda dropping the “c” bomb on the Today show (discussing the Vagina Monologues, but still). So when CNN’s Kyra Phillips joked about making a “reverse Oreo” with her colleagues Gerri Willis (white) and Don Lemon (black), you could credibly argue that she was just surfing the Zeitgeist.
The texture of today’s media landscape is also part of the problem. We are, after all, witnessing the twilight of the media gods, in which the New YorkTimeses and CBS Newses of the world have to scratch and claw to pull us away from Gawker, Sean Hannity, and countless other news-ish entities that are frequently more entertaining (in a junk-food-for-the-brain kind of way) than their old-media rivals. So how does, say, Time magazine cope with this new reality? It hires Ana Marie Cox — who, as the original Wonkette, made extensive use of the term “assfucking” — as a columnist and blogger. And it taps Halperin — who, as the editor of ABC News’s political tip sheet The Note, brought a snarky new-media sensibility to an old-media company — as its senior political analyst. And Obama’s alleged pussy-dom (pussy-hood?) becomes a subject of discussion.
“A lot of this has to do with the breakdown of the walls between commentary and reporting,” argues Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the Washington, DC–based Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a former Phoenix colleague. “The Note thrived on attitude, and insiders liked it because they felt like they were getting a voice from ABC News that the normal public never got. David Shuster is on MSNBC, where they have a range of talk shows with a nonexistent line between reporting and opining — including Olbermann, who’s become what liberals see as an antidote to Bill O’Reilly. It seems to me that it’s a function of the increasing hybridization of journalism, and that it’s been exacerbated by cable talk shows more than anything else.”
There is, however, one more factor worth noting, and that’s the politicians themselves. Like ugly campaigning, bad behavior by our chosen leaders is nothing new. John F. Kennedy philandered; Richard Nixon taped his vulgar paranoiac fantasies; Lyndon B. Johnson forced people to meet with him while he sat on the toilet.
Today, though, the media covers this material instead of looking the other way — but the politicians either can’t or won’t adjust. So it is that, as time passes, we learn just how ugly the individuals who run our country can be — whether it’s Bill Clinton diddling Monica Lewinsky, or John McCain joking in 1998 that then-18-year-old Chelsea Clinton is ugly because her father was Janet Reno, or Dick Cheney calling the Times’ Adam Clymer a “major-league asshole.” And really: with our politicians acting like a bunch of crude, narcissistic adolescents, is it any surprise that our political commentary is following suit?
Understandable though it may be, it’s also regrettable. There are some important issues to discuss before the ’08 campaign wraps up — Iraq, global warming, imminent economic disaster, that kind of thing. But the more the press traffics in political juvenilia, the harder such discussion becomes. In addition to distracting from the stuff that matters, these self-inflicted embarrassments further diminish us in the eyes of an already-skeptical public.