National Opinions

When presidential candidates look dumb, they blame the press

WASHINGTON -- Blaming the media is a time-tested tonic for troubled politicians, but it's gotten downright absurd among the candidates in the 2008 presidential election.

Why did Chelsea Clinton attend an exclusive private school during the Clinton administration? It was the media's fault.

What about Mitt Romney's strange treatment of the family dog? No, the media got it wrong.

Barack Obama frolicking in the surf? There they go again. The media are obsessed with his bod, not his giant Ivy League brain.

The media are, of course, imperfect in countless ways. Controversy erupted recently after a fashion critic analyzed Hillary Clinton's display of a little cleavage. Coverage of presidential campaigns often focuses too much on the horse race, theatrics and meaningless opinion polls at the expense of differences on policy.

Nevertheless, the recent shoot-the-messenger salvos from this year's candidates say more about the complaining politicians than they do about the state of American journalism.

Chelsea Clinton didn't forgo public school simply because, as her mother said in a recent debate, "I was advised -- and it was, unfortunately, good advice -- that if she were to go to a public school, the press would never leave her alone."

Never mind the internal inconsistency (how does Hillary Clinton know it was "unfortunately, good advice," since Chelsea didn't go to a public school?). Never mind that the press honored the Clintons' pleas to leave Chelsea alone during her years in the White House.

Here's another part of the truth that just may have influenced the Clintons' choice of schools: Washington's public school system is poor. But a Democrat who's wooing powerful teachers' unions can't say that. Plus, Democrats -- the self-styled candidates of working-class America -- are sensitive to charges of hypocrisy and elitism.

So: Blame the media.

Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, endured bad press after The Boston Globe revealed that, on a family trip years ago, Romney had tied the dog's carrier to the roof of the family car -- with the dog inside. The story caused a furor, especially among animal-rights activists.

Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, wrote acidly on the campaign blog: "Surprise, surprise, the media didn't get the dog story right.

Our dog Seamus rode in an ENCLOSED kennel, not in the open air. And he loved it."

Surprise, surprise: The Globe's story was right, and it came from one of Romney's sons.

The problem for the Romney campaign wasn't an incorrect or unfair story, but one that reinforced the perception of the ultra-smooth Romney as some robo-pol built in a lab by a team of scientists who went a tad too far. So the article had to be knocked down, regardless of its truthfulness.

It was a similar story when People magazine ran a "Beach Babe" photo of Obama. That fed the perception that the young Illinois senator is more style than substance. "You've been reporting how I look in a swimsuit," Obama truculently -- and falsely -- castigated political reporters, whom he apparently mistook for People correspondents.

The candidate-as-victim motif hit a new low recently when Democrat John Edwards unloaded on the coverage of his campaign: "They want to shut me up! That's what this is about. ... Let's talk about this silly, frivolous, nothing stuff so that America won't pay attention!"

Maybe the media will stop reporting "silly, frivolous" stories as soon as candidates stop doing "silly, frivolous" things. Like flying a hairdresser around the country for $400 trims.