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The News Media’s Low Standards for the High Office

November 9th, 2007 · No Comments

maid rite

Here we are, just about six weeks from the Iowa Caucuses, which both parties have now decided will be on January 3rd. Presidential candidates have ratcheted up their Iowa presence for one last push. The New York Times has designed a lovely online multimedia tool that maps the appearances of the Democratic and Republican candidates. Little circles represent each visit like so many pimples on the continental U.S., and the most speckled places are clearly Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three of the first contests.

Three other areas have a number of dots, too: California, New York, and Washington, D.C. The candidate visits to these places are largely for fundraisers. If there is no other good argument for the current system of primaries, there is at least this: it’s a wonderful form of income redistribution. The candidates raise millions from the outrageously rich in L.A., San Francisco, Washington, and New York, and spend crazily on TV ads, hotels, and staged visits to mingle with “real” people at places like Maid-Rites.

Hillary Clinton was a customer at the Toledo Maid-Rite on Oct. 8, and the visit was the subject of a recent report on National Public Radio. NPR decided to go back to the Maid-Rite and talk with waitress Anita Esterday, a single mom who struggles with two jobs who Clinton began using as a character in stump speeches. The stunner was that Esterday claimed no one in the Clinton campaign left her a tip that day in October. The story became big news on the political blogosphere, but the Clinton campaign responded by saying, yes, they did leave a tip–a $100 tip. On Nov. 8, NPR brought the story’s reporter, David Greene, on to Morning Edition to provide background on the report and to chastise him for not checking Esterday’s claims with Clinton’s campaign.

The Clinton campaign produced a receipt for $157.46 (how you rack up a bill that big at Maid-Rite is almost incomprehensible), and called Esterday to tell her they added the tip to their credit card. But, Esterday said the credit card machine at her Maid-Rite couldn’t process tips on credit cards. Esterday told NPR the Clinton staffer then changed her story: “And she said, ‘Well, then, they left a $100 bill there.’ And I said, ‘Well, it didn’t get divided up amongst us, because I had gotten nothing.'”

Esterday says none of the other waitresses got part of a tip either. Still, we have at least some noteworthy income redistribution — once the NPR story came out, a Clinton staffer dropped by and gave Esterday $20. Problem of single mother with two jobs solved!

It’s at times frustrating to watch the national news media cover the caucus campaigning in Iowa — as if we’re all about ethanol, hogs, and loose-meat sandwiches.

But, I give the people of Iowa credit for turning out and trying to discern between the candidates. The Democratic and Republican candidates are still pretty tight in the polls in Iowa.

If you look at the national polls and news media, though, it’s all Hillary and Rudy. Honestly, we need to know more about these two, but instead coverage has been incredibly sycophantic.

For example, sample this from Joe Klein, the top political reporter for Time magazine. In late September, Clinton introduced her health car plan, long after John Edwards, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, and the other Democrats had staked out their positions.

Klein acknowledged that Clinton’s plan didn’t differ much from her two main competitors, Obama and Edwards. “To be sure, the three Democratic health care plans are very similar,” he said. Despite that fact, Klein invented extra-special criteria for judging their health care plans: body language (or, as Klein also says, “auras and emanations”). I’m not making this up!

“The Obama body language is cautious and conciliatory. He promises a new style of governing to build a bipartisan consensus,” Klein said. “Edwards’ body language is populist and defiant.”

Klein concludes that Clinton’s health care plan is the best because her “body language communicates pragmatism and making life easier for the business community.: I hesitate to think exactly what kind of body language communicates “making life easier for the business community,” so you conjure the image.

Political pundit idiocy, of course, is bipartisan in its reach. This week, the mainstream news media celebrated Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani. CNN, for example, said the endorsement is a big boost to Giuliani’s campaign.

Let’s get this straight: Giuliani, who is running on his 9/11 record, gladly takes the endorsement from Robertson, who back on Sept. 13, 2001 said “I totally concur” to his TV guest Jerry Falwell, who charged that the terrorism was “what we deserve” because of pagans, abortionists, feminists, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way.

Please could someone tell me why the press should uncritically report Giuliani’s acceptance of a wacko’s endorsement as good news?

Photo: Courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=280300668&size=s

Tags: Cable Television · Elections · Journalism · Journalism Ethics