Earlier this month, vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan was doing an interview with the local ABC affiliate in Flint, Mich., when the subject turned to reducing gun violence in America. After Ryan answered, the interviewer asked a follow-up question relating to tax cuts. Ryan, visibly annoyed, responded, "That was kind of strange, you trying to stuff words into people's mouths," as one of his entourage covered the camera with a notebook.
The clip was picked up by Buzzfeed.com, and has been held up, depending on your political leanings, as either an example of liberal activism infiltrating ostensibly straight news or a thin-skinned candidate attempting to bully reporters. What very few outlets have discussed is Ryan's initial response to the question, in which he rambled about how gun violence could be reduced if people in "the inner city" were taught how to function in a "civilized society."
Considering there were two high-profile mass shootings during the summer, both of which were committed in the suburbs by white males, for Ryan to immediately go that way with his answer seems kind of creepy and borderline racist, but when an interview affords the media an opportunity to make the story about a politician acting like a diva, nothing else in the story matters.
A somewhat similar incident occurred after President Barack Obama announced a change in federal immigration policy, under which certain underage undocumented immigrants wouldn't be subject to deportation. At a news briefing, during which Obama didn't take questions, Neil Munro, a correspondent for Tucker Carlson's awful blog-type-thing the Daily Caller, began yelling accusatory questions at Obama before he finished speaking, visibly annoying the president. Again, depending on whom you talked to, this incident illustrated the depravity of either the questioner or the questioned.
Most people agreed that Munro violated protocol — of course it's OK to ask tough questions of the president, his detractors argued — but you do it at the right time and the right place. I can't help but notice, however, that questions on truly tough, undercovered issues, such as drone strikes or the treatment of accused Army whistleblower Bradley Manning, are rarely asked of the president or the entire executive branch, in any context.
And herein lies the problem: Our free press, supposedly the beacon of a free society, has made its primary beat drama and gaffes rather than fact checking and reporting of the news. Take the first presidential debate. There have been numerous fact checks since the debate, with several ascertaining that, despite his strong performance, Mitt Romney made 27 separate untrue statements during the course of the debate.
You'd think this kind of thing would be all over the news, but political media in America don't find it entertaining to fact check Romney. They find it entertaining to present examples of him being doltish and out-of-touch, much like their treatment of former Vice President Al Gore or Sen. John Kerry. Last week, in the second debate, moderator Candy Crowley checked a claim Romney made about Obama's response to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, leading media — and not just conservatives — to act as though Crowley as a member of media was out of line in pointing out a falsehood.
This is why the media had so much more fun with Romney's summer tour of Europe, which really had nothing to do with policy but featured him doing goofy things such as criticizing London's preparedness for the Olympics. At one point, during a stop in Poland, a reporter even yelled, "What about your gaffes?" — a question Salon's Alex Pareene accurately described as "a perfect beautiful little 2012 campaign Zen koan that should be buried in a time capsule that is never ever dug up."
It's become fairly lazy and clichéd to insist that something is all about ratings, page views and paper sales, and it's becoming similarly old hat to complain that media do a bad job of fact checking politicians on both sides. That said, I don't think it's unfair to ask that the media be as committed to reporting on things that matter as it is talking about whether Paul Ryan really ran that marathon, or what Joe Biden said into a hot mic. Sometimes it seems like political reporting has become less about the facts and more about tallying up stupid mistakes and declaring whoever made the fewest the winner.
Contrary to popular myth, the mainstream political media's allegiance isn't to liberalism but to a few easy-to-remember preset narratives — Obama is too professorial, Romney too rich, Ryan a wonk, etc. — and finding stories to support that narrative. It might deprive us of nuance, but when your goal is to make boring old politics easy to digest, nuance is a liability. S
Zack Budryk is a freelance writer living in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.