First off—there is no such thing as "the media." The people and entities who shape our political coverage represent a fractured, disaggregated, chaotic mass of divergent agendas and interests. While they often display pack behavior, they do not operate as a coordinated monolith. But that doesn't mean they're being fair to Mitt Romney. They're not.
The New York Times' David Carr argues today that the "media bias" canard being trotted out by the Romney campaign is less relevant and accurate than ever: "Many Republicans see bias lurking in every live shot, but the growing hegemony of conservative voices makes manufacturing a partisan conspiracy a practical impossibility." This is true as far as it goes. Many of the reporters, producers, and editors managing coverage of the political campaign may be culturally or politically liberal, but their first allegiance isn't to the Revolution. It's to the Story. And the Story So Far of this campaign is that Romney is a hapless, robotic, buffoon who insists on repeatedly detonating his campaign in an escalating series of Inspector Clouseau disasters.
The press is doing to Romney the same thing it did to John Kerry, and to Al Gore before him: Covering him as a loser. A weird loser. A distant loser, who is "uncomfortable in his own skin" and "failing to connect" with "regular voters." The contempt and pity for him as a candidate is almost palpable, and each moment in the campaign is distorted imperceptibly, as if by magnetism, to reinforce the Romney caricature. This is how we got a flurry of stories, for instance, about how Romney doesn't know why airplane windows don't roll down. They were based on remarks Romney made after his wife's plane experienced an on-board fire: "When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no - and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem."
There are two interpretations of that statement. One is that it was a little off-hand nonsensical joke unworthy of further comment. The other is that Romney is really weird and doesn't understand fundamental truths about aviation. To anyone reading or listening with a reasonable sense of detachment, it was quite obviously the former. But to too many reporters and producers—including people, like the Atlantic's James Fallows, who ought to know better—it became more fodder for the "Romney keeps screwing up" narrative. The Telegraph's lede for its story on the matter says all you really need to know: "Mr. Romney, who has a track record of verbal gaffes...."
Likewise, when Romney tried to get a crowd at a rally in Ohio add his running mate's name to a chant they had started—"Romney! Ryan!" instead of "Romney! Romney!"—even nominal Republican Joe Scarborough stubbornly misinterpreted it as a hamfisted attempt to change the chant from Ryan's name to his own. This is not because Joe Scarborough supports the candidacy of Barack Obama. It is because he supports the primacy of the Romney-is-a-Loser narrative, and wanted to hold up another shining example of that loser-dom for the rest of the political press to giggle at. Which they did, even though it was obviously based on a falsehood to anyone who took time to listen to the audio.
My favorite example of Romney's transformation into a Kerry figure is in this New York Times report from Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, on the myriad challenges facing the candidate leading up to this week's debates. It ends with this exchange, from a pool reporter following the Romney campaign:
As Mr. Romney headed to an evening fund-raiser in West Palm Beach, Fla., a reporter asked if he would be campaigning more extensively.
"Ha, ha. We're in the stretch, aren't we?" Mr. Romney said before promptly changing the subject and pointing to the sky. "Look at those clouds. It's beautiful. Look at those things."
The line quickly became a gag—a pitiful loser ineffectually trying to distract a reporter from the question at hand by pointing at clouds. It perfectly summed up Romney's desperate cluelessness, and had the added bonus of featuring his stilted fake laugh—"ha, ha." (That laugh, by the way, has been repeatedly transcribed in news reports for no reason other than to make Romney seem wooden. Imagine if Obama's every "heh" or "uuuhh" made it into his quotes.) It also had nothing to do with anything. It's only value was as a gratuitous little grace note making Romney seem weird for the perfectly routine political maneuver of dodging a question.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love gratuitous little grace notes. And I loathe Mitt Romney. I want to see him defeated, and revel in mocking him for the empty plutocrat that he is. He is abundantly to blame for the caricature that has developed—he is the author of his own foolish words, and his refusal to lay out specific policies in the past two weeks has invited the feeding frenzy for anecdotes and vignettes that make him look bad. But John Kerry deserved better when he was relentlessly reduced to a wind-surfing, pussy-whipped flip-flopper by a vicious campaign press in 2004. And Al Gore deserved better when he was painted as a sighing, disingenuous, wannabe alpha male four years before that.
Those avatars, like Romney's, had elements of truth, of course. And they were fervently fomented by the Rove machine. But too many of the producers and reporters who covered those campaigns ultimately made no serious attempt to slice through easily established narrative to focus on the issues at stake. The 2000 and 2004 races were reduced to personality clashes—Bush the down-home, garrulous Christian versus Gore the professorial nob, and Bush the cowboy versus Kerry the Gaul. The 2008 race between McCain and Obama was a veritable policy forum by comparison. So far, 2012 is once again reverting to a cool-kid-versus-the-stiff template. And Romney is not the cool kid.
As we approach the debates, some are speculating that we've bottomed out on the Romney-is-weird narrative, and that the media's inherent desire for conflict will motivate them to resurrect Romney in an attempt to make it a race again. I'm dubious. It's hard to get out of the weirdo box. While the need for conflict is real, the tribal urge to kick the loser back down is extremely powerful. Kerry and Gore were never able to shake it off, and while those races went up and down in the polls, their portrayals were frustratingly constant. Can you imagine Romney—the one you see in political coverage—being portrayed as an emerging hero after the last two weeks? I can't.
So even if, as Jennifer Granholm is predicting, the punditocracy declares Romney the winner of the first debate, it won't be long before he says or does something that, if angled just so, feeds into loser narrative. And it won't be long before the political press stops resisting the urge to angle it just so, and everyone will be laughing at him again on Twitter. Stupid Romney, looking at clouds. Loser.
[Photos via Getty.]