Perhaps Mitt Romney played it right when he was meek and contrite in response to The Washington Post’s front-page allegations that he bullied a kid half-a-century ago in high school.
Mr. Romney no doubt feels embarrassed by the charges, even if most of us struggle to understand their relevance or gauge their veracity. But the time is coming for Mr. Romney to get angry, very angry, with what is increasingly, quaintly called “the mainstream media.”
The Post’s decision to play up the story as if it were major news - front page, thousands of drably dull, self-serious words piled high to elevate and justify the one buzzy nugget - is an embarrassment. It was clearly intended to link Mr. Romney to the new progressive cause: fighting anti-homosexual bullying, in the context of President Obama’s “sudden” support for gay marriage. It was naked advocacy gussied up as journalistic due diligence.
It was also a significant error - if you work from the assumption (as I do) that The Post and other mainstream media outlets are determined to do what they can to re-elect Mr. Obama - because they tipped their hand too early.
It’s always dangerous to ascribe singular purpose to a collective entity such as “the media.” Of course, there are individual figures who - despite whatever personal biases they may have - are trying their best to be fair. But as a generalization, the media are so deep in the bunker for Mr. Obama they could ride out a nuclear war without having their Jenga tower fall over.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry’s war-record embellishments and involvement with a radical group that at one time discussed a plot to assassinate U.S. senators who supported the Vietnam War were treated as fixations of the deranged right. Evan Thomas, then of Newsweek, proclaimed what pretty much everyone knew: The press “wants Kerry to win.” That was John Kerry, a man few in Washington like and many consider to be a pompous human toothache.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, is beloved. In 2008, concerns about the man’s past were largely brushed aside, ignored or respun to fit the acceptable storyline.
No doubt some think that if a Republican candidate had a hate-spewing pastor and associated with an admitted former domestic terrorist, the mainstream media would be equally dismissive. After all, who cares about that? I mean, how can that stack up in terms of news value against a 17-year-old hazing a kid at school nearly 50 years ago?
In 2008, the imperative was to clear the field for the first black president. Now that that box has been checked, a new storyline is needed. Enter Newsweek. It features Mr. Obama with a rainbow-colored halo (because conventional halos are so Republican), touting him as “The First Gay President.”
Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, may be a genius. No doubt it has gotten boring saying Mr. Obama’s opponents are racist. Now the press can treat his critics as homophobes, even the ones holding the same position on homosexual “marriage” that Mr. Obama (publicly) held for the last decade - until last week.
The Obama campaign’s rationalization for the president’s decision to drop what most knew was a calculated political lie is that it would “fire up” his base among rich liberal donors and college students. It did that.
But it also fired up his base in the press corps, enabling writers to rekindle their obsession with the “historic” nature of the Obama presidency.
As the London Telegraph blogger Tim Stanley writes, everything the president does is cast as part of history. The president could go “seal-clubbing and much of the media would see it as a new epoch for winter sports. ‘Barack Obama Becomes the First President to Kill Six Seals in Under One Minute,’ the New York Times would proudly report.”
It’s worth noting that there’s little evidence - yet - that Obama’s decision will actually help him with voters, voters who are increasingly less deferential to campaigns from traditional media outlets. (Indeed, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll has Mr. Romney gaining and shows that two-thirds of Americans think Mr. Obama’s homosexual “marriage” announcement was politically motivated.)
Still, it never hurts to have good press. In football, they sometimes refer to the cheerleading and noise from the fans as the “12th man” on the (normally 11-man) team. The media are revving themselves up to be Mr. Obama’s 12th man, and the time is coming for Mr. Romney to call them on it, with passion.