Out on a Limb: Media inquisition

Where can I sign up for the perky inquisition workshop?

That was one of my first thoughts as I watched Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards and wife Elizabeth being stretched on the rack by Katie Couric of "60 Minutes" last week.

A few days earlier, the couple said doctors had diagnosed Elizabeth with a relapse of cancer, incurable but livable for the foreseeable future. They also decided not to abandon the campaign.

Couric asked variations of the same lengthy question time and again: "Aren't you John Edwards playing this for maximum political advantage and aren't you Elizabeth enabling him by sacrificing yourself and your family?"

The context was equally manipulative for both parties. The Edwardses wanted to have their say, and Couric wanted the big interview to ask the tough questions to establish her bona fides as a credible, tough journalist which, to be fair, she's never been.

Couric kept referring to a seemingly powerful chorus of skeptics and critics that she felt compelled to channel. This chorus - which included blowhard Rush Limbaugh - wanted to nail the couple for being (1) in denial about the peril of her condition and (2) for being craven political sandbaggers.

Was there an outbreak of normal citizens outraged that she wouldn't stay home with their two young children and take care of herself while he should quit the campaign to take care of his wife? Blogs I checked out across the landscape were either mostly encouraging or indifferent.

This was an issue bound to set off a series of private and public issues like so many firecrackers. When you combine the surreal nature of presidential campaign politics - in which every word and action is parsed to the bone for motive and political advantage - with issues such as how people deal with death and illness, you are guaranteed a strange brew of media hyper-reaction.

It's one thing to wonder how Edwards might deal with this development and how it could lessen his focus on dealing with urgent White House issues - there are historical examples that show it matters little or could matter a lot.

Dealing with the shock of a deadly illness and its consequences is a normal state of affairs for an overwhelming majority of Americans - and most have no choice but to continue going on with their lives and that includes working. This private decision, which the Edwardses have to live with, seems to be their preferred form of medicine. It could be folly and folks may question his judgment - or appreciate their bravado.

For their part, the Edwardses, who will appear together at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Monday evening, gave as good as they got by being as graceful as Couric was not with her perky mugging. When Elizabeth countered with an "Aren't we all, though?" answer about "staring at possible death," it was game, set and match for the Edwardses.

It's a sad irony that Edwards has focused much of his campaign on universal health care, precisely due to his wife's original illness (breast cancer diagnosis in 2004). He told me recently that experience opened his eyes to the need for a radical health-care policy solution - mostly because his wife got life-saving treatment unavailable to millions of Americans.

It was one of many potential lines of inquiry that Couric chose to ignore in pursuit of a dubious perky inquisition. It was much easier to question their motives and, by extension, their fitness as parents to satisfy the hungry chorus.

Setting the story line

Couric's exhibition wasn't my only media pet peeve of the week. I do have another workshop to attend to expand my pundit credentials. It's called setting the political candidate story line by indulging in gossip exchanges, worshipping the D.C. God of conventional wisdom (i.e., giving into punditocracy group think) and committing no overt acts of journalism.

The latest story line that has surfaced recently from the D.C. media herd is politely called "Obama as lightweight." The emerging consensus, reflected in recent D.C. political coverage from reporters and opinion wise guys and gals, is that Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has lost momentum because of rookie mistakes, lackluster campaign performances and severe policy deficiency issues.

What happens in this communal feeding frenzy is that everyone jumps on board sharing the same tidbits (a few quotes from unimpressed voters); same trite observations from so-called campaign experts about the campaign process that no sane person would digest (especially coming, in this case, from Democratic policy wonks who have proven quite adept at losing and totally misreading public sentiment); and then equally trite pundit observations about how certain they are about what it all means.

And all the components become a processed food-like journalism in which pundits share their prepackaged gossip as wisdom (for a brief example, see David Broder's column on Page D3, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times or Joe Klein of Time).

What all the stories and columns and blog entries share is a shallow effort - much lighter than they accuse Obama of being.

My point isn't to defend Obama. His popular bid may turn out in the end to be a passing fad. Or it may not. Then again, this establishment media antagonism may prove beneficial to Obama in the long run. The reality is that most informed voters couldn't care less.

(Conflict alert: Seacoast Media Group, the parent company of Herald Sunday, is hosting a community meeting on health care with Sen. Obama on Tuesday. We have invited all the major party presidential candidates for similar events throughout the primary season.)

My point is that it makes for little-than-amusing word play because the mainstream D.C. pundit herd has little credibility in its policy assessment and even less in its character judgments.

After all, this was the same crowd that fell for George W. Bush, while tarring and feathering Al Gore every chance it could. It treated Bill Clinton as a slick-hick governor and George H.W. Bush as a "wimp."

My last memorable brush with this power-to-be-consistently-wrong-but-rise-in-influence came from a D.C. reporter covering former Vt. Gov. Howard Dean in late 2003. The D.C. wise guy - name withheld to protect his arrogance - told me the primary season was eventually over because Sen. John Kerry was finished and his "sources" in D.C. told him Dean was a shoo-in.

When I suggested it was two months too early to know much for certain, he shrugged his knowing shoulders. He was changing his travel plans to take a vacation during the actual N.H. primary - as opposed to that in his imagination.

I didn't see him again during that primary, but have always wondered how his vacation went after shoo-in Dean lost to Kerry.

Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Herald. He can be reached at mmccord@seacoastonline.com.