What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

If you're interested in sharpening your media criticism skills, you could do worse than running for president.

Consider Barack Obama. On Friday, in an interview with the New York Times, Obama neatly summed up the prevailing press narrative about his campaign.

"A month ago, I was an idiot," he said, according to a story published Sunday. "This month, I'm a genius."

The implication is that the chattering classes have reversed their opinion about Obama even though the candidate himself hasn't much changed. And while his statement may be something of an exaggeration, there's clearly some truth in it. Has Obama really become a better candidate after spending much of the campaign as a bumbler? Or does the press corps now see him that way simply because he has moved up in the polls?

The Times suggests that the press corps' change of heart is justified:

The campaign of Mr. Obama, which slogged uncertainly through a period in the late summer and fall, alarming contributors who feared that he might have missed his moment, is now brimming with confidence as he delivers a closing argument to Iowa voters. His speeches are noticeably crisper, his poise is more consistent and many supporters say they no longer must rely upon a leap of faith to envision him winning the nomination.
Perhaps – although Mr. Obama himself might beg to differ. When it comes to something as messy and difficult to measure as the performance of a presidential candidate, it's difficult to determine to what degree the media follow reality, and to what degree they creates their own. Many of the same commentators crowing about Obama's ascent are the same ones who told us Hillary Clinton was the "inevitable" democratic nominee. Now it seems she was only inevitable until she wasn't.

We don't yet know to what degree the press corps-driven conventional wisdom about the various candidates will hold up. Will Rudy Giuliani's social liberalism bring him down? Will Mitt Romney's religion? While these are certainly areas worth exploring, political journalists often invest too heavily in them. When Romney gave his big religion speech on Dec. 6th, it was cast by the media as an effort to convince conservative Christians that his Mormonism isn't a reason not to vote for him. But just as importance an audience was the political pundits whom the Romney campaign hopes will stop casting their candidate as untenable because of his faith.

That ain't likely: It's a lot more fun to talk about the potentially polarizing role of religion, after all, than it is to dive into the minutia of the candidates' positions. Even the most self-righteous critics of mainstream media might have trouble explaining the difference between the candidates' health care policies, despite the fact that the details of those policies can be easily found on the candidates' Web sites. It takes work and discipline to really understand these differences, and more often than not both journalists and media consumers seem happier to embrace exaggeration and narrative instead.

So, um...: Who wants to talk mandates?