In the context of politics “The Silly Season” is generally considered to be that period of presidential campaigns from early summer until October of the election year when news is at a premium and journalists are looking for anything to titillate readers and viewers.
Unfortunately for the American public, “The Silly Season” in presidential politics now seems to be year-round and around-the-clock. There is no break from the fluff and stuff that passes for news about the candidates these days.
The silliness that takes up so much newsprint, air time and space on our computers is a result of several different journalistic phenomena which are worth mentioning at this point in the presidential political process as we approach the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February and the southeastern states’ primaries March.
Remember Mitt Romney’s dog-on-the-roof-of-a-car contretemps during the 2012 campaign?
Or his “women-in-a-binder” comment that give rise to the totally bogus “war on women” charge?
Or the ongoing Barack Obama birther issue pushed and prodded by Donald Trump?
All were meaningless forays into the insubstantial and had no real bearing on the candidates and their visions for the nation.
Already this 2016 campaign season — which I think started about the time Obama won re-election in November 2012 — we have been treated to any number of stories that only defer and deflect from the real issues that should be of concern to any thinking voter.
These days, though, I am not so sure how many voters actually think for themselves. So many people seem to have hardened their positions based more on what the schizophrenic media are saying than on their own research that any deviance from those positions is impossible to even consider.
If Trump or Ted Cruz said it, it must be gospel because they are God-fearing, flag-waving conservatives who have the best interests of the country at heart, right?
If Hillary Clinton said it, it must be gospel because she’s got a “D” by her name and Democrats have only the best interests of the poor and downtrodden and the middle class, and everybody but the 1 percent at heart, don’t they?
As a result we are treated to stories such as one that appeared in The New York Times last summer questioning the financial acumen of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and castigating him for the purchase of an $80,000 “luxury speedboat.”
That “luxury speedboat” turned out to be a 24-foot fishing boat quite common in Florida waters. Obviously the reporters who wrote the story and their editors either knew nothing about boats or intentionally tried to mislead the readers about Rubio.
There was also a more recent story from The Washington Post about how Rubio tried to help his brother-in-law, a convicted cocaine trafficker who had served his time, get a real estate license. The story made it seem as if there was something underhanded or shady about the effort. But the takeaway from the story is that it’s fine for ex-cons to be rehabilitated and seek gainful employment, as long as you’re not the relative of a Republican presidential candidate.
More recently we have the media’s fixation on Trump’s continuation of the birther issue, this time directed at Cruz, his closest rival in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Trump is arguing that Cruz may not be eligible to be president because he was born of an American mother who was living in Canada at the time of his birth. Any number of legal and constitutional scholars have weighed in on this and pointed out how much nonsense it is.
But “nonsense” may be Trump’s middle name.
In case you’re wondering, “deceitful” is Clinton’s middle name.
Then there is the “New York values” comment uttered by Cruz during the most recent Republican debate. It was quite clear to anyone with any common sense that he was referring to the left-leaning social and economic policies that have dominated the politics of that state and New York City for so long.
Yet the “I’m a victim! I’m a victim!” crowd has turned to the more-than-willing media to make it — take your pick — anti-Northern, anti-9/11 recovery or anti-Semitic.
All these non-issues are taking so much time from more substantial topics that the Republicans should be discussing — all with the assistance of a complicit media — that the GOP candidates seem to have formed up a circular firing squad and are just blasting away at each other during the debates.
Last candidate standing wins; the American public loses.
The Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be taking great pains to hide their debates behind football games and awards shows. Are they that ashamed of their candidates and whatever passes for their issues?
There are several reasons why the media flock to the fluff instead of insisting on and focusing on more substantial topics during presidential campaigns.
First and foremost is the herd mentality. There is a quote about the media that is sometimes attributed to the late Democrat Sen. George McGovern, a former presidential candidate in the 1960s. But the quote actually comes from Danny Schechter, an investigative reporter who, in the introduction for the book “Censored 1998: The News that Didn’t Make the News—The Year’s Top 25 Censored Stories” wrote: “Like blackbirds in flight, the sky darkens with packs of reporters moving in swarms at the same speed and in predictable trajectory. When one lands, they all land. When one leaves, they all leave.”
It is not unlike the herd of dairy cattle I saw daily in the field next to my home where I grew up in Pennsylvania. There was a bell cow that led the herd out to graze in the morning and back to the barn at night. For the media, the bell cows are The New York Times and The Washington Post. They lead the reporter herd from story to story, no matter how sparse the grazing.
The other problem is that most reporters these days are generalists, not specialists. They are the general practitioners of the journalism world, able to look at a wide variety of stories and topics as long as they don’t delve too deeply into the particulars of anything.
Much of that is the result of many of them having little real-world experience before they jump into journalism. Their stories, as the old saying goes, are usually a mile wide and an inch deep.
And with reporters expected to do everything from posting on Twitter and Facebook to providing video, audio and constantly updating stories online, there is no real opportunity to delve deeply into subjects such as the economy, national security, immigration and health care that unfortunately will have far more impact on the American people than where Cruz was born or what he meant by “New York values.”
As I watch the ongoing presidential campaign and the manner it is being covered, it has become increasingly difficult to admit publicly that I spent 40 years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor.
Thankfully, I brushed up against politics only rarely while working as a journalist, but when I did I felt I needed a thorough steam cleaning afterward.
“The Silly Season” is upon us, whether we like it or not, so gird yourselves accordingly.
Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He is a regular commentator and lives in Northeast Georgia.