Presidential race imitating news

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” has been an operative axiom since Oscar Wilde quipped it more than a century ago. But its central premise – that the direction of influence between reality and expression of reality is reasonably argued – has probably never been more applicable to the relationship between politics and news than it is now.

The New York Times’ public editor, Daniel Okrent, whose post was created in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal that shook up the paper’s masthead, and whose duty as the “reader’s representative” is to respond objectively to readers’ perceptions of unfair journalism, admitted this weekend to a tide of unbalanced reporting, regarding a certain “angry” and “unelectable” Democratic candidate for president.

The Times’ pattern of negative articles regarding Howard Dean began in early December, according to Okrent, with an article referring to the candidate’s “trademark smirk”. Wasn’t a candidate with a “trademark smirk” on the other side of the aisle recently so “electable” as to actually be elected – caveat Florida?

Similarly, partisan headlines followed, if not so because of pieces like: “Yes, Howard Dean Can Be Toppled and How,” “Tide of Second Thoughts Rises Among Democrats,” a particularly weak article, and “Vermont Auditors Faulted Dean Aide on Contract in ’92,” an article that hunkered down on the front page, but one the Times’ executive editor later admitted was overplayed. Minneapolis’ “paper of record,” the Star Tribune, might have been less scornful, not because its press is inherently more balanced, but because of a tendency to publish more favorable articles on all the candidates and more syndicated articles from The Associated Press, known for a relatively unbiased, if bland, style of journalism.

What’s most disturbing about this pattern of negative articles is not that they represent a string of unbalanced reporting. We’ve grown to expect that from our erstwhile “fair and balanced” media – even from the vaunted Times. No, what’s most disturbing is that the rising tide of cynical journalism these last crucial weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus might have sharpened Wilde’s “life imitates art” saw.

What was once a two-man race in Iowa between the above-mentioned Democratic smirkster Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has been won by a candidate more “electable” than either, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. And in New Hampshire – considered in early December almost a lock for Dean – other candidates, namely Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, are receiving mounting interest from potential voters.

Some conservative columnists have suggested it is not the spiteful media coverage that has undercut Dean’s campaign, and not even a perceived “unelectability,” but rather “unlikeability.”

But, could it be that unfair coverage by the Times and others has given political recoil to many who might otherwise have voted for the self-proclaimed “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” a mark taken, albeit without credit, from Minnesota’s own late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone?

Is life at the Democratic caucuses and primaries now imitating news?

Results from the caucuses in Iowa earlier this week and Wednesday’s New Hampshire primary might be reported as news, and those numbers might in turn influence voters to select a certain Democratic candidate in their own state’s primary – Minnesota’s is March 2 – but this is a pest that cannot be eradicated.

I would rather witness life imitating, well, life. Let’s not let life imitate news.

Abram H. Burgher is a medical student. Send comments to [email protected]