Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Media's Molehill Problem

Paul Davis (D-KS)
Yesterday, while perusing the daily political news trying to get some polling tidbits, I came across an article regarding Democratic candidate for governor Paul Davis.  State Rep. Davis, a member of the Kansas State House since 2003, is one of the most promising candidates the Democrats have this year.  He's running ahead of incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback in almost every poll out there right now, and while the race continues to be marginal, the Democrats have every reason to be optimistic despite the deep red nature of the Sunflower State.

The article, though, insinuated that Davis, a married man and an important leader in the state, was caught in a strip club, and before clicking on the link, I thought-well, this is it, this is how Brownback wins a second term.  How could a candidate be so stupid?  After clicking the article, though, I got a completely different perspective of the article.  The strip club that Davis had entered had not been a recent rendezvous, but instead was a sixteen-year-old incident.  Davis was found in the backroom of the club with a woman wearing nothing more than a G-string (which may be a tad bit unsavory, but isn't remotely illegal), was interviewed by the police on an unrelated incident (they were searching the club on suspicions that meth was on the premises, none of which was found with Davis), and went on his merry way.

So let me get this straight-a major scandal (this is what the media and the Republican Party of the state called it) is when a 26-year-old then-unmarried man who doesn't hold political office and won't run for governor until 16 years later gets caught getting a (completely legal) lap dance and is randomly interviewed by the police and then released without any charges or even any complaints that he didn't cooperate?  I expect the Republican Party to take advantage-they're losing their race and this is an opportunity for a Hail Mary pass (though in my opinion it's pretty clear that anyone would find the flimsiness of the charge obvious from the get-go), but the media should know better.  Why is this a major reported story, and one that continues to hound Davis?

The media has developed (particularly in recent years) a serious case of the boy-who-cried-wolf.  Oftentimes there is a complaint about how the 24-hour-news cycle has wasted what could be a terrific opportunity to inform by scandalizing and turning politics into a tabloid-centric business, and this would be a pretty strong example of that.  The media's job isn't just to cover the issues of an election, of course-they have the right to cover the candidates too.  If Davis had done this last year, I'd be a bit more on their side-he was married and a major political player at that time.  But when he was unmarried and out-of-office and in his twenties no less?  What are they going to tell me next?  That he drank under age?  That he tried pot in college?  That he slept with a girl and never called her?  Is this the sort of time and energy we want wasted by media organizations during a slew of major international crises and a midterm election where no issue has become central to the campaigns despite everyone hating Congress?

Mary Burke (D-WI)
It's not always something like sex that the media is attacking candidates idiotically for, it's worth noting.   The entire media circus that followed Mary Burke's recent plagiarism "scandal" in my opinion is even worse, mainly because it's not as obvious that the circus surrounding it is a joke.  Plagiarism is a serious issue, and I was there thinking that John Walsh's scandal had some gravity to it, considering it was in an academic setting and it was recent.  However, Burke's story wasn't remotely the same.  Burke's campaign had hired a consultant (Eric Schnurer) to write her jobs plan.  Schnurer, a longtime Democratic consultant, lifted elements of his own work on other gubernatorial campaigns for Ward Cammack, Jack Markell and John Gregg and used them in Burke's jobs plan.  BuzzFeed reported on this, and the Wisconsin Republican Party pounced, calling Burke's ideas stolen and Burke therefore unfit for the governor's mansion.

Except, of course, the ideas weren't plagiarized in any practical real-world sense.  Schnurer was a consultant offering views that he had written before and that Burke agreed with.  None of the other three Democrats have come out complaining about Burke's use of their ideas-if anything they would probably be thrilled that the ideas that they championed and thought successful for their home states were being used in another campaign.  The author of the ideas cannot complain about his property being stolen, because Schnurer himself wrote all of the pieces.  If Burke believes in these things, the campaigns and original writer are fine with her using these ideas-what is the problem at all?  Why is this even remotely a story?  The job of the media is to dissect whether these plans would be good for Wisconsin's economy, not if they were her original idea.  I can guarantee that I could look at dozens of Republican websites and see the phrases "life begins at conception" and "marriage is between a man and a woman"-did they all plagiarize those pieces?  Politics is not art or a corporate media campaign, and unless candidates are cheating on academic writings or stealing from other campaigns for political speeches, there's no story here.

Even something like Monica Wehby's (R-OR) scandal seems to be pretty small potatoes, though not quite as obviously as Burke's.  Wehby's campaign allegedly had copied sections of a few different websites, including Sen. Rob Portman's and a section of American Crossroads' survey about the Affordable Care Act.  Admittedly Wehby's campaign isn't in a similar situation to Burke's where the same author wrote both pieces, but it's not like Portman or American Crossroads remotely care that Wehby is borrowing their ideas, or that they suddenly think people should support Sen. Jeff Merkley now in his race against Wehby.  Wehby's campaign should have been able to simply credit those two groups as the original authors, kept the plans (proving that she's actively seeking out ideas that she agrees with, something we all want from our public leaders), and moved on, end of story.  The fact that the media continues to attack, nitpick, and not focus on larger differences between candidates for major public office is, quite frankly, pathetic, and we should all demand better from them.  And we should chastise either party that makes hay out of such small and silly little incidents when there are serious issues that need to be addressed across the country.

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