The Economist has a column wondering why nut-job Republican presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann is getting lots of positive media coverage while her more principled and far more experienced competitor Ron Paul gets ignored (as in every other election he’ll continue to get no coverage unless he toes the Fox party line and gives up on half of his libertarian ideals) - Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann: Manufacturing irrelevance.
This passage from the text "Ron Paul is a goofily avuncular non-comformist ideologue who speaks unutterable truths about American foreign policy and delivers incessant indignant harangues about the monetary system that approximately no one in the media understands. I think Mr Paul's influence on the ideological cast of American conservatism has been underestimated and underreported, but to take even his influence, if not his candidacy, more seriously would require the talking haircuts and the newspaper typing corps to wrestle with a charged set of geopolitical and economic topics they would rather continue helping Americans not understand." is a classic.
It turned out that I was not wrong to wonder if Ms Bachmann would really pull it off. It was a squeaker. Mr Paul fell short by less than 1% of the vote. But, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Ms Bachmann scored a legitimising media boost from her victory while Mr Paul's near-win scored him bupkis. Even Jon Stewart says so!
But wait! If Jon Stewart is pointedly chastising the media for ignoring Ron Paul, and Jon Stewart is himself part of the media, is the media really ignoring Ron Paul? It is, yes. The subject of Ron Paul remains as willfully overlooked as an American war crime, even as the question of the justice of Ron Paul-neglect has become a white hot topic. Even Mr Stewart's amusing segment, which persuasively makes the case that much of the media has in fact conspired to slight Mr Paul, is not about Mr Paul so much as whether there is too little in the media about Mr Paul. And the generous Mr Stewart is at odds with the prevailing opinion that the media's present pattern of Ron Paul non-coverage gets it just about right. Here's Kevin Drum of Mother Jones. Here's Steve Kornacki at Salon. Here's Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune. Here's Dan Amira at New York. They speak with one voice: Mr Paul is a marginal candidate with a proven base of highly-motivated supporters who turn out in droves for mock-electoral trifles, but he lacks the the broader base of support necessary to qualify as a contender worth covering.
Though I think there's something to this line of thought, I also think there's something insidiously circular about it. Perhaps the best way to grasp this complaint is to compare Mr Paul's coverage to Ms Bachmann's. Both serve in the House of Representatives, though Mr Paul's record of service is decades longer. Both are significant figures within the populist tea-party movement. Real Clear Politics's average of recent national polls puts Ms Bachmann and Mr Paul at 9.6% and 8.8% of the Republican vote, respectively. Of course, poll results aren't independent of press coverage. Ms Bachmann, for reasons known only to the gods, has been lavished with media attention, even before dipping a toe in the presidential water. Yet she remains at least as unviable a candidate as Mr Paul is said to be. Indeed, had the media hivemind determined early on to treat Ms Bachmann as a badly underqualified tenderfoot legislator who was for a time the tea-party flavour of the month, chances are she'd be noshing deep-dish with Herman Cain at 5%. And had the hivemind resolved to treat Mr Paul as a conservative elder statesmen whose memorable 2008 run for the GOP nomination prepared the ideological ground for the tea-party movement and helped get his son elected to the senate, he very well might look like a "top-tier" candidate in this election season's weak Republican field.
None of this implies that Mr Paul deserves Ms Bachmann's ridiculous level of coverage. He doesn't. Rather, I think Ms Bachmann deserves to be treated like the unprepared also-ran she is. If a Ron Paul victory in Ames would have unmasked the straw poll as a colourful but politically irrelevant spectacle, Michele Bachmann's victory ought to have done the same. But it didn't because the MSM likes Michele Bachmann; it made Michele Bachmann. She's a photogenic embodiment of a certain polarising brand of conservatism that makes good copy and great TV. By contrast, Ron Paul is a goofily avuncular non-comformist ideologue who speaks unutterable truths about American foreign policy and delivers incessant indignant harangues about the monetary system that approximately no one in the media understands. I think Mr Paul's influence on the ideological cast of American conservatism has been underestimated and underreported, but to take even his influence, if not his candidacy, more seriously would require the talking haircuts and the newspaper typing corps to wrestle with a charged set of geopolitical and economic topics they would rather continue helping Americans not understand. So Ron Paul's a proven loser we can neglect with a clear conscience, while it is a matter of great public interest whether or not Michele Bachmann actually attended a family reunion, because, you see, the winner of the Ames straw poll is a real up-and-comer who's pulling down a fearsome 10% in national polls, right up there with non-candidates Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin. Right up there with Ron Paul.