E.J. Dionne is rightly contemptuous of the commentariat's chief fascination this month: "[M]uch of the punditry focuses on how mean and nasty this campaign is," but "those who bemoan the rock-’em-sock-’em campaign should stop wringing their hands and get about the business of calling out falsehoods and identifying misleading assertions."
That's a capital recommendation. If only it were possible. Of course it would be possible, if it weren't impossible.
And that, pretty much, is the summary ruling on Dionne's request: fat chance.
Why? Because political nastiness offers contemporary media two irresistible benefits. One is traditional and rooted in human nature: nastiness is sexy and sensational, it sells papers and increases ratings and inflates page views. The second benefit is also rooted in human nature, but is more recent in popular development: nastiness provides unlimited opportunities for lazy, cowardly journalists and pundits to note that "both sides" sin equally in the eyes of the political gods.
Both the practice of "both sides-ism" and the distressed observation of it have become, of course, rather trite. One can't swing a dead calico without hitting somebody bemoaning the press's unjust equilibrium of blame. So be it. Seldom noted, however, is the real national harm that the original sin of both-ism has caused of late.
When Barack Obama assumed the Oval Office he was, I think, genuinely hopeful--just as he had campaigned--that Republicans would play some reasonable ball. They had been crushed electorally, their political program was disgraced, their troops were disorganized and scattered, their recent reign decidedly over. Obama might have been able to bludgeon them; that, however, was not only not Obama's style, it was an ill-advised approach to any permanent legislative progress.
Republicans huddled and strategized. Would they be reasonable? Cooperative? Would they concede the electorate's choice? The answer came thundering down soon enough: No way. They would obstruct and delay and bully and demagogue and ...
You know the story. But here's the point. Rather than being singularly horrified by the GOP's having opted for contemptibility over cooperation, the media began reporting on President Obama's singular failure to bring peace and brotherhood to Washington. Obama was manifestly an affable pol who persisted in cooperation's pursuit, hence the press was as yet prevented from playing the "both sides are being nasty" card. The press could, though--at least until a nastiness parity became a plausible narrative--perform the critical balancing act of reporting on the GOP's nastiness and Obama's tragic failure.
And had Obama and allies turned "nasty" (a profoundly relative term) earlier? Well, there you go: the nastiness-parity narrative, ready in the wings.
So, E.J., I think you're asking too much. Any press corps and punditry that could miss the essential story of 2009-2011--that the GOP is a national tumor, which no one man can resect--isn't going to suddenly get things right in 2012.