Allow me to don both my "media critic" and "political analyst" hats for a moment and vent a bit about what I fear is destined to become a press trend which will soon leave America longing for Natalee Holloway updates. Yes, even though we're three (count 'em, three) years away from the next presidential election, it seems we're well into "consideration" season.
I can honestly tell you I was shocked today to see a story on CBSNews.com headlined, "McCain Eyes '08 White House Run." Shocked not from the revelation but from the fact someone actually thought it to be "news." I don't blame the Web site and I don't blame the New York Daily News scribe who originally reported it or the AP writer who picked it up. I blame an overall media culture steeped in hype and a paint-by-the-numbers approach to political coverage.
This just in: John McCain is considering a presidential bid -- in other news, smoking still considered bad for your health. I seriously doubt there are many people who even remotely pay attention to politics who couldn't have reported that tidbit. Next someone's going to tell me that Hillary Clinton might run for the White House too! LOL, you can't make this stuff up!
Unfortunately, it's not all that funny after awhile. Take the two pieces of "news" in the story – a) McCain is "seriously" thinking about running for president and, b) he isn't interested in being anybody's vice presidential nomination. Um, OK, what exactly is news there? He's said for months that he's thinking about running for president and will wait until after the 2006 elections to decided (at least publicly).
Maybe it was the humorous way he addressed the VP question, saying, "I spent all those years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, kept in the dark, fed scraps, why the hell would I want to do that all over again?" Maybe that was worth running the story? But alas, it's a line he's used for a long time, dating back at least to the last presidential election. Here's what he said on NBC's "Late Night" in May of 2004 when he was being discussed as a possible running mate for John Kerry -- "I spent several years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, in the dark, fed with scraps. Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president of the United States?"
The next presidential election is likely to be one of the wildest and most crowded races we've ever seen. By my count, there are at least 10 U.S. Senators who have viable candidacies -- and that doesn't even include all those who have at least been mentioned (sorry Senator Coleman). Add in half-a-dozen governors, a hero mayor, some former generals, a couple crusading Congressmen and you've got a field that needs a scorecard.
Given that, are we really going to have to sit through two more years of constant repetition? McCain is "considering," Clinton is "planning," Allen is "preparing," Biden is "exploring." By the time I've read those headlines for the thirtieth time, it's going to make even a political junkie like me tune out.
Of course not all the potential candidates will get the breathless treatment. Congressman Tom Tancredo will be lucky to get a mention in the Des Moines Register when he visits the newsroom most of the time, let alone national attention (although he did get a George Will column this weekend). But those with already sky-high profiles -- McCain, Clinton, John Kerry, Rudy Giuliani -- are candidates for the New York Times front-page when they clear their throats.
Of course, this season will be followed by "announcement" season, when all the big-name candidates get four or five chances to officially "announce" their candidacies. They'll get an "exploratory committee" announcement, a "Sunday show" announcement, a "home-town" announcement and a "formal announcement" -- with maybe one or two more slipped in there somewhere.
The media's hyper-focus on process stories has long been a weakness of political coverage. Polls and strategy are no substitute for issues. Of course it's the game the political pros play, and the one they would like covered since it takes the emphasis off of those pesky "issues" they'd rather not have to talk about -- Social Security, immigration, spending and health care to name but a few.
The press has no obligation to cover it that way, yet more often than not, they do just that. It's one reason why a good chunk of the public tunes the political discussion out. And if today's McCain story is any indication, the press is off and running in the same old direction -- or maybe we can hope they're just "considering."
Editor's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly credited McCain's May, 2004 quote to the "Tonight Show."