There is a game in politics with the sole purpose of generating conflict. It's a game so effective at making sparks fly, and setting politicians up for certain failure, that the media loves to play it as well.
After all, no story attracts more attention than one that caresses the picture of a car wreck, with fire everywhere, dozens dead and injured, a drunk stumbling from the scene. Many political writers gauge their success by how close their work mimics the report of that car wreck. Barbara Barrett, Washington corespondent for The News & Observer is one of them.
So exactly what is this game designed to produce a wreck? It's setting up a false dichotomy in which a politician has only two choices, each of which makes absolutely no sense and both of which lead to political disaster. For instance, on any given issue the politician d'jour is faced with this binary choice...
On Iraq, he could...
A) Cut and run like a coward and have the soldiers home by 5 PM, or
B) Stay the course, kill millions, and turn the country into a parking lot
On a woman's right to choose, he could...
A) Support abortion if the "fetus" has not yet entered the first grade, or
B) Oppose abortion, and demand for every embryo the right to vote
I could go on, but my point is probably clear. It's a matter of being damned regardless of the choice. It's a "gotcha" style of politics, and a "gotcha" style of journalism that makes victims of both the politician and the public.
Look at today's story by Barbara Barrett about Rep. Heath Shuler. The title for that story is, "Shuler says he's in D.C. for N.C." On the surface it sounds like a cute headline that's reasonable enough, after all shouldn't every Congressman in "D.C." be there to serve his constituents? Of course.
However, Shuler's hope to be a good representative "for N.C." is not the story that Ms. Barrett wants to tell. The story she's after is one in which Heath Shuler has to make one of only two possible choices; he can either be a good representative "for N.C." or he can be a good representative for the Democratic Party, but he can't be both.
Here's the lead of her story...
WASHINGTON - North Carolina's newest congressman took the oath of office Thursday, pledging to serve the conservative voters in his Appalachian district, not the national Democratic leadership that helped propel him to the U.S. Capitol.
Of course, Shuler never actually said that, despite I am sure of her every effort to get him to say it. And the choice she offers up is utterly false. It's a choice of black and white in a world that has shades of gray. She might as well write, "Heath Shuler took the vows of matrimony today pledging to serve his wife, but not any children they might one day have."
The example of the marriage vow is apt, but it's also unfortunate, because a choice that stupid would be a huge story in itself. But that is exactly the nonsensical choice she's imputing to Heath Shuler. He can't possibly win, no matter which stupid choice he makes, so for her, and The News & Observer, the purpose of generating conflict and future news print is perfectly served.
If Shuler winds up voting for funding stem cell research he's betrayed "mountain values," and caved into the Godless leadership of his party. If he winds up voting against funding stem cell research, he's an ingrate who's spit in the eye of his fellow Democrats. Either way, Shuler's story is set up in such a way where only one ending is possible... he's just another politician who can't be trusted.
Those who don't believe that every vote Rep. Shuler casts won't be described in exactly this way are hoping against the reality of a press that sells papers using the picture of a car wreck. Knowing this full well, Ms. Barrett is quick to remind us...
Shuler begins work wearing a bull's-eye, a certain target for national Republicans gunning to regain the seat in 2008.
"If he hasn't started [running for re-election] already, it's a little too late," said William Sabo, a political scientist at UNC-Asheville.
In other words, "Keep reading, the wreck will be delcious, pictures to follow."
In this particular instance I've highlighted the work of only one journalist, and only one paper. Perhaps that's unfair, because this approach to Rep. Schuler is the preferred storyline of virtually every journalist who's covered his improbable campaign. They start out with the handsome quarterback hoping to make it big, and they end up hoping only to report on his career ending injury.
At least it's a storyline with which Rep. Shuler should be familiar.
The mainstream media is left only to wonder why they are losing eyeballs to amateurs like me, writing for free, on a blog they've never heard of, and that on a good day welcomes 30,000 individual readers. "Where," they ask, "have we gone wrong?"