Hey Voters: The Kill List Is What Matters

But reporters -- and political partisans -- focus on Romney's wealth and Obama's youthful pot smoking.

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The GOP is upset by early coverage in the 2012 campaign, Politico's Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen report. "On the front page of its Sunday edition, the New York Times gave a big spread to Ann Romney spending lots of time and tons of money on an exotic genre of horse-riding. The clear implication: The Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady," they write, while the Times buried a story about President Obama's youthful pot smoking. And then there was that Washington Post piece about Mitt Romney possibly bullying a classmate in high school. The whole Politico story is about the perception that journalists at places like the Times and the Post report and publish critical stories about Romney, but deliberately go easy on the president because they like him and want him to be reelected.

For now, I want to hold off on an overall assessment of Election 2012 coverage. It may well be that Romney is getting shabbier treatment. As yet, I just haven't done a sufficiently comprehensive review to render that judgment. What I find fascinating, however, are the sorts of stories that always get mentioned in conservative complaints and journalistic trend stories about rough treatment -- and the kind that go unmentioned.

Even as the Times ran that piece on Ann Romney's horseback riding -- one that almost surely won't affect the presidential race -- they also published a major story on the Obama Administration's process for adding people to a secret kill list that it keeps. Its revelations are major.

So on one hand, the Times reports that:
  • Ann Romney participates in a fancy rich-people sport.
  • The Romneys are super rich.
  • They hang out with other ridiculously rich people.
And on the other hand, the Times reports that:
  • President Obama has presided over the deaths of countless innocents.
  • He has violated numerous campaign promises.
  • Some senior officials think Obama's drone policy creates more terrorists than it is kills.
  • Obama's cynical interpretation of "due process" guts the whole concept.
  • His political adviser sits in on the meetings where they make the kill list.
So to sum up, one candidate is portrayed, accurately, as being extremely rich, with a wife who has rich-person leisure-time pursuits; and the other candidate is portrayed, accurately, as someone whose secretive policies have wrought dead children, broken promises, violated due process rights, and possibly created more terrorists. And our political culture in the United States is so blinkered that the story about the rich candidate whose wife rides horses is regarded, by conservatives and savvy Politico journalists, as the one that is noteworthy for being negative; whereas the story about the Orwellian turn in the White House doesn't even merit mention.

It isn't even raised as an example when "vetting Obama" is discussed. It counts less than a front-page story about Obama's youthful pot smoking would when it comes to proving that the media is willing to be tough on the president. In fact, there is widespread speculation that the Obama Administration actively cooperated with the story because it wanted details to emerge that made the president seem tough and his kill policies well thought out. And that may be what happened!

There are a few points worth making.
  1. Although conservatives, to their discredit, don't find anything wrong with Obama's power grabs, there are reporters and editors at the Times who indisputably do. They invest substantial resources to cover Obama's executive power excesses precisely because of a value judgment that what he's doing should be exposed. He should be vetted. The public ought to know. To say that no mainstream media reporters are willing to vet Obama is to miss that some regard the things they're reporting as far more damning that some youthful marijuana use. 
  2. And they're right about what matters! The "vetting" that conservatives seem to want is often trivial nonsense.   
  3. Terrifyingly, much of the public and the press does actually care more about fancy horseback riding and teen pot use than secretive protocol for unchecked killing and legal precedents that radically erode civil liberties. In other words, an asymmetry in stories about trivial nonsense could theoretically advantage one candidate over another, depressing as that is.  
In related news, when Obama orders a drone strike that kills eight civilians -- which is to say, his order results in both dead innocents and terrorist recruiting material -- the mistake hardly makes news, and certainly isn't held against him; whereas if, during roughly the same period of time, he makes a verbal gaffe that offends people in Poland, David Frum ends his column about the matter with the single word, "Shame." In the War on Terror, America is losing its moral perspective.