Chris Matthews was steamed.
As John McCain's manufactured "lipstick on a pig" story was taking flight last week, Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, kicked off the hour by teeing up the story. In a note to viewers that telegraphed his disdain for the lipstick controversy, he announced that during the show, he'd share his own thoughts "about how, with a troubled economy, crumbling bridges, rail and roads, a failing educational system, a war that is now going on for five years, and an uncertain American economic future, we're sitting here talking about lipstick."
Later, he complained the story was "an insult to the intelligence of our democracy."
Did you hear the media are mad? According to Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post, the press is angry at McCain for his patently untrue lipstick attack ("It's false. It's ridiculous"), and they're seething over how Sarah Palin keeps telling her demonstrably false Bridge to Nowhere tale even after members of the media pointed out her stump-speech applause line was a lie. (A "whopper.")
During the past week, virtually every major news outlet has produced welcomed, hard-edged fact-checking pieces about how the Republican ticket goes far beyond bending the truth and just plain snaps it out on the campaign trail.
In the past, that kind of truth-telling would have embarrassed campaigns and likely caused a dramatic change in the rhetoric. But what do McCain and Palin do in response? They pretty much ignore the press and its critiques.
Writing on The New Republic's website, Eve Fairbanks spelled out the conundrum, capturing the dumbfounded realization that spread through the press corps. It's like that scene in a movie when the superhero realizes his unique power (for the press, it's collective indignation) has suddenly been rendered useless:
Reporters demolished the claim that the Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, and yet the McCain campaign insolently still uses it. Writers dismantled the McCain campaign's untrue assertion that Barack Obama compared Sarah Palin to a pig yesterday, and yet the campaign put out an audacious ad featuring the ridiculous allegation, presumably on the assumption that Real Americans don't care what the elite press says anyway.
Instead of recoiling, the Republican ticket seems to have adopted a post-press approach to campaigning in which the candidates simply don't care what the press does or says about their honesty. More to the point, the candidates don't think it will matter on Election Day.
They may be right. And that's the media's fault. They've reported their way right into the margins. Submerged in trivia and tactics for the past 18 months, the press, I think, has damaged its ability -- its authority -- to referee the campaign.
Proof? Let's go back to the pissed-off Matthews for a perfect example. Raise your hand if, in the past six months, you've seen an entire episode of Hardball devoted to discussing our "troubled economy," the sad state of America's transportation infrastructure, the failings of our educational system, the never-ending war in Iraq, or the "uncertain American economic future."
Matthews claimed those are the key issues that face our country and, by implication, are what are important to this campaign. Yet Matthews hosts a cable news program that pretty much refuses to discuss those issues.
Remember, Matthews is part of the same Beltway press crowd that told news consumers Hillary Clinton's laugh was extremely important and needed to be analyzed for clues about her true character, that John Edwards' haircuts raised serious doubts about the man's candidacy, and that Barack Obama's bowling score spelled trouble on the campaign trail.
And it wasn't that long ago that the campaign press stressed how important it was that John Kerry windsurfed and that Al Gore spent time as a politician's kid growing up in a Washington, D.C., hotel. These were issues of paramount concern for the media.
I think when journalists wallow in that nonsense for so long and pretend it's newsworthy and important, the coverage of a truly important story (e.g. what the media have now identified as the Republican candidate for president trying to lie his way into the White House) comes across as just another trivial pursuit. For news consumers, it comes across as just more forced cable chatter because there's no seriousness left in the entire endeavor.