By Peter Hossli
Politicians act like monkeys at the zoo. At least according to US comedian Jon Stewart, 53. Like animals they do as they please, throwing their feces at the zoo’s visitors. That’s why it’s necessary to have critical journalists who keep tabs on them and put them in their place. Stewart maintained, journalists need to be the zookeepers.
In this year’s campaign for the right to take up residence in the White House, politicians are trying to reverse the relationship between monkeys and zookeepers.
Many a candidate gets up only to peg the media as their enemy.
Republican candidates called their own debate in late October a «fiasco» whining and blaming the presenters’ allegedly aggressive questions.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, 44, demands that in the future hosts should divulge whether they would vote Republican. Politician and surgeon Ben Carson, 64, wants to move all the debates to Facebook and only consent to interviews by voters, not journalists.
Cruz lashed out at the media on camera: «The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,» Cruz claimed. «This is not a cage match.» He looked straight at the hosts, reading the questions. «Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?» «Ben Carson, can you do math?» «Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?» «Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?»
He maintained that the questions were designed only to ridicule Republicans in the eyes of the entire nation. «How about talking about the substantive issues?»
The debates are indeed about substance, but the candidates do rather poorly in that respect. And yet, after the debate all people talk about are the hosts. The most important issue was Cruz’s lashing out, his full-on attack against the media. Texas senator Marco Rubio, 44 – the GOP frontrunner – calls the media a «Super PAC for Hillary» – a fundraising organization supporting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, 68. Donald Trump, 69, dismisses the debate as «ridiculous».
The three grumblers are well aware of one thing: It helps Republicans to criticize the media. Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew (1918 – 1996) once described journalists as a «small and un-elected elite». His boss, President Richard Nixon (1913 – 1994), preferred to grant interviews to smaller newspapers. He knew these reporters would be impressed to meet the President and refrain from pointed critical questions.
It was all the more ironic therefore that two reporters, Bob Woodward, 72, and Carl Bernstein, 71, would later bring about Nixon’s downfall by means of journalism. George W. Bush, 69, president from 2001 to 2009, often told journalists to their faces that they did not represent the people.
Leading the polls
Why do presidential candidates batter the media? In the country, which honors the freedom of press like no other? Because it is a way to gain attention and increase their popularity. Each attack helps them gain a few points in the polls. And the polls are the only relevant issue before a single vote is cast in the primaries. «I’ve never seen this much attention paid to polls so early in the campaign,» says statistician Nate Silver, 37, who interprets opinion polls better than anyone else on his website FiveThirtyEight. «Polls influence voters, and voters influence polls.»
And so the politicians shout louder and louder before the primaries. If one of them attracts attention, that leads to search requests on Google and entries on news portals, Silver says. Search requests influence polls more than news in the media – particularly since search requests provoke more media reports, increasing a politician’s celebrity. «If the hype about one person continues, the poll ratings rise,» says Silver. That is why tricked-out billionaire Trump has managed to lead the polls for such a long time. He makes outrageous statements and unrealistic demands – such as the deportation of eleven million illegal Mexican residents; or the registration of every Muslim in the USA. It is how he stays in the media. Once the cycle of hype subsides, Trump will probably disappear.
The year of the outsiders
The media campaign motto so far has been that every candidate brags about being an even bigger outsider – especially the insiders. Ted Cruz – a US senator after all – calls himself the «original outsider». Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former US presidents, claims he is not familiar with the way things work in Washington, D.C. « I can’t think of anyone more of an outsider,» Hillary Clinton said, although she lived in the White House as the First Lady, subsequently served as a senator and wound up becoming Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Hardly anyone understands the way Washington works as well as Clinton does. Her reason for being an outsider: she would be the first woman in the history of the United States who not only lives at the White House but is also in charge. What she is saying is that were she elected, it would be a historic event. Just as it was with Obama – the first black man to become President of a country whose wealth was founded on slavery.
The myth of the outsider goes back to the election year 1828. Back then Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845) played the outsider in the media. Unlike the incumbent, John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848), Jackson did not belong to the political establishment and promptly won the election.
Ever since those days candidates position themselves as far away from politics and power as possible. In 1976, for example, Jimmy Carter, 91, did not run as governor of Georgia but as a former submarine seaman and peanut farmer. His opponent was incumbent Gerald Ford (1913 – 2006). The latter assumed a presidential attitude in the White House’s rose garden during his campaign. Ford lost the race. So did Carter, four years later. When he gave interviews in the White House, eager to portray himself as the President he was defeated by cowboy Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004). The fact that Reagan could ride was more important than whether he was up to the job. In campaign spots Ronald Reagan described his opponent as a lonely man in the White House. In 2000, George W. Bush characterized Vice President Al Gore, 67, as the «ultimate insider», saying: «Voters prefer experience outside Washington D.C.» He did not mention at all that he was the son of a former president.
Candidates always promise to change Washington after winning the election. None have done so to date. Or, as former New York governor Mario Cuomo (1932 – 2015) once said: «You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.»
Before that happens, many try their hand at comedy. Those who can, will attract the media’s attention by appearing on «Saturday Night Live» (SNL). This comedy show mocks the powerful with comedians assuming the roles of presidents and senators and, adopting their manners. Eight ears ago Tina Fey, 45, did a brilliant impersonation of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, 51. Fey was really cheeky in her portrayal of the Alaskan governor, until Palin herself appeared on SNL, jointly with Fey. Here, Palin impishly laughed at herself.
This year, Clinton and Trump tried doing the same. Comedian Kate McKinnon, 31, plays the Democratic candidate Clinton on SNL. In early October 2015, the real Clinton appeared on SNL, playing a barkeeper called Val. Candidate Clinton as played by McKinnon orders a vodka at the bar. The two women have a conversation about life in general, during which the fake Hillary admits she could have supported gay marriage earlier. She then proceeds to fantasize – while the real Hillary is there with her – that she is looking forward to Donald Trump’s candidacy so she can destroy him and «mount his hair in the Oval Office». In the end the fake Clinton says to the real one: «I wish you could be president.» The real Clinton’s reply: «Me too!»
Donald Trump’s appearance on SNL is a flop. On November 7th, he hosted what one TV critic would later call the «worst show of the year». Trump is unable to laugh at himself. The high point of the show is «Seinfeld» creator Larry David, 68. He portrays Clinton’s Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, 74, as a Socialist old coot – totally awesome.