Fatal Attraction was the swan song of the “woman scorned” movies. Much of the 20th century was spent telling the story in film and fiction of white, middle-class men confronted with the stress of romancing women not their wives and dealing with the aftermath of affairs. From Graham Greene to John Updike, these chronicles of privilege took up a lot of space.
When I encounter complaints from Chris Cilizza and the White House Correspondents Association, I can’t help think of the relationship between the press and politicians. Monetarily speaking, the press has been struggling with its own relevance for years, but the 2016 presidential campaign is the first time the press has had to face its declining relevance in the political arena. And they’re not happy about it.
For the second half of the twentieth century, the press call the shots. Once television took hold, television news and debates and advertising were crucial for a campaign. The press did important work exposing Joe McCarthy’s twisted campaign, holding up a mirror to American racism and empowering the Civil Rights movement, exposing the Vietnam War, and Watergate. As the century came to an end, the press became less of a medium and more of a lens that too often distorted reality. The Clintons lived through this era. Al Gore and John Kerry later faced similar distortions. Candidates, however, had to live with the coverage they received. The media could be manipulated, and it became paramount to learn how to manipulate it. The media, for its part, enjoyed setting the rules. They didn’t mind being manipulated if they could also manipulate. Campaign coverage shifted had less and less to do with issues and more and more to deal with how well candidates played the media game. Swift Boat accusations were lies, but the issue was not the truth, but how well John Kerry dealt with the accusations. In debates, the focus was on how well the candidates performed, not whether their answers were substantive or truthful. The media seems to have been happy with this set up. They set the stage for candidate performances, and then turned around to be the political theatre critics. They didn’t have to worry about offending candidates with uncomfortable questions about their mistruths. Not if they appeared “presidential” or like someone you’d like to have a beer with.
Things have begun to change in the last 10 years. The press has begun fact-checking candidate and politician statements. The process and product aren’t always perfect, but they have begun to focus on facts, rather than performance. To his credit, ABC’s Jake Tapper aggressively challenged Trump about his accusations that a federal judge’s Mexican heritage was the cause of bias against the candidate. And the media has even begun to look into and step up its own fact-checking. These are welcome developments. Real-time fact checking is now happening. The ability to catch a candidate in mid-lie is technically possible, and the media is actually starting to do it. This is progress.
These developments make the complaints of the White House Press Corps Association look ridiculous:
“The White House Correspondents’ Association defends the First Amendment in the context of the presidency, and, as such, speaks up when a presumptive nominee from either party falls short. Our op-ed laid out legitimate and different concerns that we have about each candidate with regard to the press. We did not render a verdict on which candidate poses more of a problem; people can draw their own conclusions about that.
The First Amendment guarantees the press’s freedom, not its convenience. Press conferences are, as several BMGer’s have pointed out, a circus, with much more to do with political dramaturgy than producing information for an audience. President Clinton will, no doubt, hold press conferences, but she doesn’t need the practice. She will owe American citizens clear, open, honest communication. She won’t owe the press anything. Reporters and the White House Press Corps Association don’t have to like. They don’t have to stay quiet about it (that’s where the First Amendment comes in), but they better get used to it. The role of the media is changing whether they like it or not. And it might just be changing for the better.