Mitt Romney, Al Gore, and the media’s conventional wisdom

Excellent post by Jon Chait taking down Dana Milbank’s column about Mitt Romney’s “Al Gore problem.”  Romney and Gore’s problems, both stemmed from a campaign media that is the functional equivalent of the cool kids in 8th grade.  The media develops a “conventional wisdom” for pretty much every candidate, some of it based on decent reasons, others based on lazy journalism and dime-story psycho-analysis. The end result, though, is once this CW develops, it becomes a pervasive short-hand impossible for the victimized candidate to avoid.  Dana Milbank can be a good journalist when he tries, but he’s pretty much the exemplar of the cool kid who defines the conventional wisdom.  Classic (quasi-fictional) example from 2000: if GWB told you something would cost $1 billion despite the CBO estimate of $500 million, the press would infer he was too dumb to know the difference.  If Gore did the same thing, it would be because he was a lying exaggerator. Anyway, here’s Chait on Milbank and Romney:

Dana Milbank compares Mitt Romney to Al Gore:

Romney has what might be called an Al Gore problem: Even if he’s being genuine, he seems ersatz. He assumed a professorial air by delivering a 25-page PowerPoint presentation in an amphitheater lecture hall – but the university issued a statement saying it had nothing to do with the event, for which the sponsoring college Republicans failed to fill all seats. His very appearance – a suit worn without a necktie – shouted equivocation. His hair was so slick that only a few strands defied the product.

This is a perfect demonstration of an Al Gore problem, but I’d define the problem differently. An Al Gore problem is what happens when the media forms an impression of your character and decides to cram every irrelevant detail of your appearance and behavior into that frame, regardless of whether or not it means anything. Thus Romney’s hair and lack of tie are now evidence of a character flaw, as is his decision to give a detailed policy lecture in a university town without being officially sponsored by a University. An Al Gore problem results in the media ganging up on a candidate like cool kids mocking a geek, with literally everything he’s doing serving as more evidence for the predetermined narrative.

I’m glad that reporters are paying attention to the Al Gore problem. But I wish reporters would understand what the problem is — namely, a media pathology.  [emphasis mine]

I’m no big fan of Mitt Romney– he does seem to take his pandering to an absurd degree, even for a contemporary Republican politician, but his biggest problem know (other than the health care albatross– a future post), is that the media has decided he’s an inauthentic loser, and thus everything he does will be reported through that lens.  (Drum also does a nice riff of of Chait’s post).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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