In this week's edition of National Journal, political writer Carl Cannon is the most recent observer to wonder publicly where the line is between Relevant and Prurient. He writes:
[The 2008 race] is a wide-open field with some 20 announced and unannounced candidates, a group replete with enough messy divorces, troubled marriages, second (and third) marriages, estranged children, cancer survivors, head cases, and binge dieters to satisfy any soap opera …The gaggle of 2008 candidates will be acting out their various pathologies in a technological environment more suited for entertainment than for serious policy discussion. YouTube, the blogs, and an unfettered cable culture did not exist in 1988 and 1992, the years that the privacy barriers came tumbling down. They do now.True, there used to be a line between "reportable" and "keep this out of the papers," but in recent years it's gotten rubbed out. Making things even more nebulous is the fact that each occasion creates a political Rorschach test. If you're a fan of Mitt Romney, than you think that Mike Wallace was unprofessional when he asked if there had been any premarital sex before Mitt and his wife tied the knot – but if you're an Obama fan, you may not have found it inappropriate. Likewise, Bill Richardson's supporters aren't fans of the Albequerque reporter who asked him if he had "a bimbo problem."
The upshot is a combustible mix that is prompting political observers to wonder whether the process will dissuade good people from even bothering with politics -- or whether that has already happened.
The problem with Cannon's analysis – I mean, aside from using "The Fountainhead" to make a point – is that we're living in a new reality. And no amount of "Remember JFK's Secret Trysts?" or "We Didn't Show FDR's Wheelchair!" comments are going to help us hit the reality rewind. As a nostalgic media mind, I like living in the old days as much as anyone, but they're gone like the black & white of "Pleasantville." (The Reese Witherspoon Transition/Moment of Colorization is up for debate: Was it Gary Hart and Monkey Business? Clinton and Gennifer Flowers?)
There used to be a "below the belt" in political journalism, but that was when boxing was a national sport. It's 2007 now and we're living in Ultimate Fighting America – a culture where there's just "hit" and "clutch" and "grab" and "bite." You 'hit' with the mainstream media; if that won't work, you 'clutch' through some political agitators on one side – Swift Boat – or the other – MoveOn. You 'grab' through some damaging footage on YouTube and lastly you 'bite' through blogging, anonymously or otherwise.
The media now covers politicians the same way they cover Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears: over-the-top, no-holds-barred, the nastier the better. We can recollect and romanticize the past – take a deck chair next to Gatsby and stare at the green light, if you will – but we also need to devote time and energy to adapting to this new reality. Politicians, strategists and reporters need to evolve with the times. There's no easy way to say this to candidates and their campaign staffs but to say it: Put down your dog-eared copies of "The Boys on the Bus" and make The Smoking Gun your homepage. Media Darwinism is cruel.