Tuned In

The Cards We're Dealt

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This morning on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were lamenting what a shame it would be if accusations over playing the race card and the gender card drowned out the issues in the presidential campaign. That’s a big concern over at MSNBC, so big that the network devoted most of its morning to the claims and counterclaims. So many cards were accused of being played, I thought I was watching the World Series of Poker.

I’m picking on MSNBC because I happened to be watching them this morning; obviously, they’re hardly alone. The high-minded thing to say would be that the media should ignore this altogether and focus on more important issues. The fact is, though, that it would be news if a campaign were having surrogates make racially charged statements at the opposition, or if a campaign were deliberately inflating statements by the other side into prejudiced statements.

If. But it would be nice for the political press to remember how big those ifs are and allocate their airtime and news holes accordingly. That’s dreaming, I suppose. And I suppose, given that this kind of controversy is crack for the news media, and given that a woman and a black man are contending for a nomination, it was silly to think this wouldn’t happen eventually. Well, it has metastasized now. (In the meantime, a close Republican race–bringing attention to my home state of Michigan–is getting short shrift.)

The optimistic take is that this is the moment where the media, the spin doctors, the surrogates–all of them with their Offense-o-Meters dialed to 11–get it out of their system, that the story gets so overplayed that any later attempt to bring it up in the campaign will raise the embarrassing memory of how nuts we went back in January. Ben Smith at Politico, for instance, writes about how some people have begun to claim a Hillary Clinton remark about “spadework” was racist–”some people” including Rush Limbaugh, who, of course, only wants the best for any eventual Democratic nominee. Maybe we just need to sweat this out like a fever brought to crisis.

Dreaming again, I imagine. Given how the media is held hostage to news pegs, next Monday’s observation of MLK Day is bound to keep the story at least somewhat alive a week from today. (I wish that were a joke.) And Black History Month is just around the corner. (Wish that were a joke as well.) March, summer, the general election: there will always be reasons.

As long as we’re dreaming, let’s hope that we at least see some subtlety in the coverage of the controversy, if we’re going to have to have it. As I wrote about the Hillary choking-up incident, the media tends to dualize controversies too much: the truth must be either one thing or its opposite. Hillary must have been either wholly genuine or wholly calculated. A campaign’s acts must be either meticulously planned and scripted, or they must be coincidental and innocent. Here, a statement must either be racist (or sexist) or unobjectionable.

It’s the hate-crime approach to political discourse: the focus becomes all about divining the intent of the speaker, rather than the injuriousness of the act. It’s possible, for instance, that a remark could be not bigoted but simply sleazy. (Not to try to referee this particular one, but the fact that the African American media executive Bob Johnson has been called part of a pattern of racist surrogate remarks should make us conscious that this is not so, well, black and white as the media inevitably paint it.)

However this episode plays out, it’s getting depressing. There are actual political problems out there, after all. But the coverage of this campaign is starting to look like 1988: lurching from one hot button to another, from flag factory to tank ride to Willie Horton. That’s one bridge back to the 20th century I was hoping we could bypass.