Off Message March 2007

Twinkie Time

The recent dustup between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over remarks by David Geffen was a classic specimen of the wispy stuff of modern campaign coverage.

With 20 months to go before the 2008 presidential election, the candidates have to work hard to keep the campaign interesting and the voters engaged.

Meanwhile, news outlets are in exactly the same predicament: make this race feel fresh every day, or risk losing the readers—the eyeballs, the audience share—that keep the old media barge afloat. Political news has become a wildly competitive business, and to thrive you need a constant flow of content.

It's not easy. Once a candidate has announced for president and made the usual rounds—Iowa, Russert, New Hampshire, Stephanopoulos—the string starts running short. There are only so many ways that a campaign can frame and reframe its message, only so many times that a scribe can slice and dice the same bio, voting record, and stump speech.

So what are these two supposedly antagonistic tribes, the news people and the political people, to do? What comes naturally, of course. They work together, hand in glove, to keep the campaign stories coming. It's not a true conspiracy. There's no secret clubhouse where they gather to plot tomorrow's story line. Nobody ever says, "Hey, gang, let's make up some news!" Both sides just stay alive to the possibilities: potential tempests, dustups, flares, and flaps that are the wispy stuff of modern campaign coverage.

Last week's Clinton-Obama flap was a classic specimen. As you'll recall, Hollywood billionaire David Geffen gave an interview to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd "by a crackling fire" at his Beverly Hills home. Geffen was once a great supporter of the Clintons, but as the column made clear, he has ditched them in favor of the senator from Illinois.

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