Friday, June 1, 2007

Does the Media Hate John Edwards?

Yeah, it seems like an odd enough question. But watching the news in the past few months, it's been on my mind. So when media critic Jeff Cohen, who gave us the inside scoop on corporate journalism in his book Cable News Confidential, asked the same thing in a recent article, it was a relief to know it wasn't just me--and I was in good company. Ever since Senator John Edwards announced his intent to run for the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, it seems he can't catch a break--at least in the eyes of the mainstream press. I personally haven't chosen anyone to back in this political season's *ridiculously* early horse race, so this isn't an endorsement of anyone. But while attacks on all the Democratic nominees seems especially high and full of fluff (Hillary Clinton's "likability" factor or fabricated controversies over Barak Obama's "blackness"), it seems as if John Edwards can't do anything to satisfy the mainstream media. When he's not almost shut out from the race by those in awe of celebrity status politicians, the news media seems to be only concerned with his haircut, speaking engagement fees and other matters far divorced from important issues. So again I ask, does the media hate John Edwards? And if so--why?

Edwards problems began the day he announced his candidacy. Unlike the much covered debuts of Hillary and Obama, it received little press in comparison. And it wasn't as if Edwards announcement didn't serve up a heck of a photo-op. He made his announcement at ground-zero of the newfound (and as easily forgotten) symbol of American disparity when it comes to wealth, class and race--the still flood-ravaged Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans that the debacle following Hurricane Katrina made famous to the world. There, surrounded by volunteer students, dressed in blue jeans, and taking part in a clean up, Edwards engaged America in a frank discussion of poverty, his stance against any escalation of the Iraq War and plans for future policies. Yet this did little to get him further press coverage--that was, until he got a haircut.

Politico blog first broke the news on April 16, noting that Edwards "spent $400 on February 20, and another $400 on March 7, at a top Beverly Hills men's stylist, Torrenueva Hair Designs." Internet right wing gossip machine Matt Drudge would link it as: "REPORT: John Edwards' $400 haircut..." The Los Angeles Times picked it up by April 17 with, "Two $400 stylings may cost John Edwards' campaign in shear mockery." And it went downhill from there. From mainstream television news, to the usual culprits like FOX, to local and national print papers, the Edwards haircut story was everywhere. Stories and editorials, like Maureen Dowd's dig that he would be the "metrosexual in chief," derided Edwards masculinity and attempted to twist the "$400 haircut" into an important factor in presidential politics.

As Eric Boehlert at Media Matters pointed out, this news obsession ignored anything of substance said or done by Edwards, in favor of discussions of overpriced haircuts:

Fact: According to, CNN aired more references to John Edwards' haircut than it did to Edwards' reaction to the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the ban on so-called partial birth abortions.
More than a month later the media hounds were ready to pounce again, after a May 21 entry to the San Francisco Chronicle's Politics Blog showed Edwards had received $55,000 for a speaking fee at UC-Davis. A week after that he would be attacked for having worked at a hedge fund.

Yet all these stories hardly seem worth the press, once anyone bothers to look into them further. Edwards $400 haircut may seem absurd--but so do the several thousand dollar suits worn by George Bush. And at the least, he decided to reimburse his campaign for them. The $55,000 speaking fee might seem pricey--but is put into context when you realize GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Guiliani was paid $100,000 for a speech at Oklahoma State University in 2006 (he would charge another $47,000 for use of a private jet). The fact that the cost of Edwards speech at UC-Davis was offset by sponsorship and ticket sales (which would make up the bulk of his fee) also goes unacknowledged by the press. When Edwards was asked if he had to join a hedge fund to learn about financial markets, he replied rather matter-of-factly, "How else would I have done it?" Even I, a staunch critic of neoclassical economic policy understands that answer, and realizes this is a non-story. As for the other charges of financial excess, Edwards is certainly no more of an offender than anyone else. So what is really going on here? Why this pile on specifically on Edwards, and no one else?

The answer has to do with what Edwards claims to stand for: the poor. Something about his backdrop of Katrina has put a bug up the collective rectum of the mainstream press. In their attacks on Edwards they seem to be saying,"how dare this guy remind us of poverty!" This is a common theme in America, where sight of the poor, as a reminder of inequality, normally annoys people--who in turn blame the poor for being seen or heard and forcing anyone to confront the matter. For Edwards, a rich guy who wants to talk about poverty, the media seems to find this unbearable. It is the one constant thread running through the words of the critics. They call Edwards' poverty talk a "scam"; he's called a "hypocrite"; he is attacked relentlessly.

Is the media really that concerned about Edward's alleged "hypocrisy," or do they just have such contempt for the common people and the poor, that they feel the need to lash out at anyone who dares to speak up for them?

Jeff Cohen alludes to as much in his article, Are Media Out to Get John Edwards?:

I'm growing quite suspicious about the media barrage against Edwards, who got his wealth as a trial lawyer suing hospitals and corporations. Among "top-tier" presidential candidates, Edwards is alone in convincingly criticizing corporate-drafted trade treaties and talking about workers' rights and the poor and higher taxes on the rich. He's the candidate who set up a university research center on poverty. Of the front-runners in presidential polls, he's pushing the hardest to withdraw from Iraq, and pushing the hardest on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to follow suit. Given a national media elite that worships "free trade" and disparages Democrats for catering to "extremists" like on Iraq withdrawal, the media's rather obsessive focus on Edwards' alleged hypocrisy should not surprise us.
So this then is Edwards great sin, for which the media has seen fit to crucify him. Given the fact that they ignore stories on poverty altogether, it's not that the punditocracy want Edwards to be poor in order to talk about the issue--it's more likely they'd rather not have him talk about it all.

Well it seems that despite their best attempts at ignoring him or smearing him, these tactics haven't had the same effect as on past media attacks on Democratic candidates--most notably Al Gore and John Kerry. He is striking a chord with unions, getting a boost from those concerned about poverty and his ability to admit his wrongs over the Iraq war vote.

As Bloomberg news noted this week:

For now, there's little visible impact on his standing. A survey conducted May 12-16 by the Des Moines Register showed Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, leading the Democratic pack with 29 percent support, a statistically significant edge over Illinois Senator Barack Obama, 45, who received 23 percent. New York Senator Hillary Clinton, 59, was backed by 21 percent in the survey of 400 likely Democratic caucus-goers, which had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

What this may show is that the petty snipes of the mainstream media and their neglect of the poor, are little match for actual discussion and plans that focus on the issue of wealth disparity itself--which, for all his faults, John Edwards at the least chooses to address.


Zia said...

Good for people to know.

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