When Hillary Clinton made a funny eye gesture and repeated a question from someone in an Iowa audience this weekend, the media jumped all over it, and her. She later complained, ""You guys keep telling me, 'Lighten up, be funny,'" yet when she does, they attack her. (Howard Kurtz' account in the Washington Post is here.) She is absolutely right about that. The media can't allow politicians to kid, to tease, and to speak with spontaneity. All jokes must be rehearsed and examined for problems by advisors, before they can be tried out. Reporters will not allow any little mistake or secondary meaning.
These are the same reporters who complain that celebrity politicos like Sen. Clinton don't make themselves available to the media except in set-piece conversations where they are very much on their guard--while pretending (as they must) to be at ease. As the old Hollywood adage about acting goes, "Just be natural. When you can fake that, you're a pro."
Already John McCain, who made his reputation with the media by his informality and accessibility back in the 2000 presidential primaries, is finding that he has to watch himself more these days. Reporters loved his maverick role then; he was the in-house Republican critic. Now he is backing President Bush on Iraq (most of the time), so they don't like him any more and will be looking for opportunities to find a verbal misstep, any little quip that can be twisted or taken out of context. You, the reader, can watch for it; it will come. If some trigger-happy interest group's leader can be found to denounce him and claim the joke "wasn't funny" and was in fact an "insult" to somebody somewhere, then the media have a new "gotcha!" trophy. The off-hand quip will be paraded as a supposed insight into the true character of the man, etc., etc.
The reason we cannot allow politicians to let their hair down and be amusing in front of reporters is the same reason that we have packaged discussion on serious issues, instead of sincere rumination. Politicians know that whatever they say can be subjected to invidious interpretation by rivals and by the accommodating media. Some marginal observation suddenly becomes tomorrow's headline. Again, the false assumption of the news is that the subject on the politician's mind is not the important one. It isn't even his true view. Rather some slip of the tongue--or something that can be construed as a slip--reveals his real purpose.
This is nonsense. Ask yourself whether you could be fairly judged by your off-hand quips, comments or thoughts.
Ronald Reagan was an amusing raconteur and his stories usually had a bite. But by the time he was running for president for real in 1980 his managers had to keep him away from informal situations. The same with George W. Bush. Ditto former Vice President Mondale--a wit much appreciated in his Senate years--and even former V.P. Al Gore, who in private is not at all the stuffed shirt of his political image. Hillary of course, has been totally swathed in a kind of publicity burkha ever since she was First Lady.
It isn't just the candidates and office holders that are given an inappropriate examination that usually misses the truths in plain sight in favor of the supposed illumination provided by a gaffe or side-comment. In the realm of serious ideas, we are not learning real news from the media much of the time, but instead seem to be following a script developed by editors and mouthed by anchormen and columnists. For several years, the script has been that the war on terror is really about whether the US was right to go into Iraq and whether our presence there is not perhaps the cause of terrorists' activities. This script is spelled out as the likely explanation in a number of dispatches that focus on Iraqis' weirdness (message: we should not be there) and the myriad problems in the war (there were no problems in the American Revolution, the Civil War or World War II, of course). We learn at length about the failure of our friends, the Israelis, to live up to the highest possible standards of civilized warfare (while their opponents are treated merely as a force of nature). Worst, there is very little news about the development of terrorists in places where no one could possibly blame the US (e.g., Bangladesh, as Yehudit Barsky reports here today). We don't learn about such stories because they seem to dispute the script that the US is not just trying to stop the advance of terrorism, but is somehow, as a result, the cause of it. To the media, the US is guilty of thinking too highly of its goals. But to the media, if something goes on that doesn't directly involve the US (much African news, for another example), then it isn't even important! Who's the real "ethno-centrist"?
There are plenty of stories about the global nature of the terror threat waiting to be written. Plenty of people in the know would talk with a reporter whom they didn't suspect of trying to expose the official for some misconduct (think Libby indictment). I believe that such stories are downplayed because they would tend to validate a very different script than that favored by the cynical media.
In short, studied humorlessness and cynicism are part of a mindset that sees the media's main job as policing the political class, and doing so as adversaries. Finding fault with elected officials especially is more significant a purpose than letting the public know what those officials actually think and what actually is facing America.
The above is a generalization. There are exceptions. Certain politicians not only are allowed to be informal, they are lionized (as Sen. McCain was in 2000 and Sen. Obama is today). Of course, that is precisely because they fit the media script of the moment. There are certain exceptional and serious reporters, too, who try to cover the real news. Since, as a result, they are badgered and second-guessed by others in their profession and rarely get the professional awards and recognition, they deserve especial gratitude from the public.
So, like I said, I am making a generalization that I think has validity. Please, Mr. Reporter, please don't jump on something I just wrote and distort it. Please. Please!