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The Guardian/UK

Blowhards and Windbags

The media's myopic obsession with campaign narratives over events of real significance does a disservice to the public

Eric Alterman

I read an item in ABC News' The Note yesterday that almost perfectly encapsulates the myopia that currently drives our national political coverage, making it, in many ways worse than useless. Take a look:

As expected, Obama picked up the endorsement of the culinary union in Nevada, the biggest organized labor "get" in the state, ABC's Teddy Davis and Sunlen Miller report. Obama grabs some muscle, but Clinton heads to Nevada on Thursday with the campaign narrative gusting at her back. "Her victory left her resurgent heading into the Nevada caucus," J Patrick Coolican writes in the Las Vegas Sun. "Clinton is now the protagonist in a new national narrative. Although it's not clear why so many New Hampshire voters turned to Clinton, obliterating Obama's double-digit lead in the polls, what is known is that in the final 48 hours, she revealed new emotion and fire and openness to the press and public. She also created a contrast, accurate or not, with Obama: He's a talker, I'm a doer.

OK, now think about it. In the first section we learn that a union representing tens of thousands of workers and willing to put real muscle behind getting out the vote on behalf of its candidate has chosen put those resources behind Barack Obama. I, for one, would be interested in learning how the union leaders made that decision, by what criteria they decided that an Obama presidency would be superior to a Hillary Clinton or John Edwards presidency from the standpoint of culinary workers and their concerns.

But leave that aside for a moment. The endorsement is something real at least, with real consequences for real people. Now continue reading. Clinton, we are instructed, may not enjoy the union's "muscle" on her behalf, but she arrives in Nevada "with the campaign narrative gusting at her back". In the first place, let me be the first to say "oy vey" with regard to that mixed metaphor. In the second, we know what unions do in elections; they turn out voters. What do gusting campaign narratives do? Not much, besides excite campaign reporters and pundits to blow a lot of hot air as far as I can tell.

If you read on in the item, you'll see that the Sun's Coolican does not have any better idea of why Clinton won New Hampshire than anyone else. And since nobody predicted it, nobody can really claim to understand it. And, if you think back to yesterday, you may recall that this gusting metaphor really did not move much of anything. Yesterday, on the Democratic side, was all about John Kerry's decision to endorse Obama - another media event that I doubt will influence the votes of any actual voters. I recall reading the AP's report of Kerry's endorsement before I read The Note, and so this whirling tornado of a campaign narrative was actually obsolete even before it had a chance to get out of bed and put its work boots on before going to one of the blackjack tables and bet the house.

Seriously, let's cut the crap. Cover the candidates' stands on the issues, please, so voters can make sensible decisions. This obsession with the horserace is only making everyone doing it look like a horse's ass. Literally.

Eric Alterman is a Nation columnist, professor of English at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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