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THE CAMPAIGN ON TV / CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Gotcha, 24/7

Heading into the conventions, it's still the 'oops' moments that really matter.

August 17, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

For DECADES, political pundits and voters alike have complained about the banality of the national conventions. Gone are the days when the party platforms really meant anything to anyone, when loyalties were bartered and policy deals hammered out in those iconic smoke-filled back rooms by men in wilting white shirts. Now it's just an office party of sorts, a series of scripted speeches and sound bytes signifying nothing. We are, after all, a nation that increasingly chooses its president based on that most ephemeral of factors -- personality.

So basically what we're looking for as we approach the conventions is some wonderful off-mike moment -- a backstage meltdown involving a Clinton perhaps, a racist comment from a McCain supporter, a wonderful/terrible political gaffe from either candidate. Something that would tell us all we really need to know without making us think too hard about the wars or the economy or our rapidly eroding education and healthcare infrastructures.

Something we can watch on YouTube and send to all our friends just like all the other news loops that have dominated this year's coverage.

Barack Obama's guns and religion comment. John McCain's Pakistan border mistake . Obama's rock star reception in Europe . McCain's golf cart incident . The greatest hits of the Rev. Jeremiah http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M-kD0QdRJk "> www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M-kD0QdRJk , the Paris Hilton video , the Obama fist bumps McCain's melanoma issues. The tire gauge controversy .

Big picture's out of focus

So MUCH has been said about the media's handling of this campaign that it's almost embarrassing to address the topic. But after watching hours, days, weeks of it on television, the cry of anguish cannot be suppressed: For the love of all that is holy, how did one of the most important presidential races in history, between two men who embody such disparate political possibilities, wind up looking like a montage sequence in a Will Ferrell movie?

"Bias" has been the watchword, but watching the nightly news loops, it seems less like bias than just plain old fear. Fear of missing the moment, of boring the viewers, of relying on the old-model thinking -- who, what, when, why, where -- while everyone yawns and returns their collective attention to their new iPhones.

"No, no, wait," news outlets seem to shout like desperate screenwriters in a rapidly deteriorating pitch meeting. Nevermind those boring old proposed policies or the contradictory voting records or any of that stuff, look at this, you're going to love it, it's The Big Reveal.

McCain stutters and stumbles -- is he experiencing age-related dementia? John Edwards flames out in scandal and Obama faces reporters in Hawaii wearing a polo shirt -- has he grown too smug? Which is more significant -- McCain's negative, truth-twisting ads or Obama's seemingly snooty refusal to address them?

For screenwriters, it's the oldest trick in the book -- the moment when the nice guy reveals his hideous temper or latent bigotry, when the silent distant hero gives way to a geyser of emotion. In one second, everything is made clear, events and intentions fall neatly into place and the viewer experiences the catharsis of discovered truth.

For journalists, it's a bit trickier, since real villains rarely monologue and revelation usually requires time, patience and many lawyers.

But that doesn't keep us from wishin' and hopin'.

As the Edwards scandal played out, heartbreak filled the faces of reporters and analysts, not over Edwards' infidelity but because, gosh darn it, he wasn't really part of The Big Story anymore. Oh, they all tried to make it somehow about the presidential campaign -- "That was a close one," gravely intoned CNN, MSNBC and Fox alike as if Edwards had narrowly missed receiving the nomination or being the vice presidential pick, neither of which was the case. Their anger and regret was clear, but it was all in the subtext -- if only it had been someone closer to a candidate, what a Box Office Moment that would have been.

The gotcha moment isn't exactly new: It's been the holy grail of covering presidential politics since Richard Nixon broke out in a flop sweat during the first televised debates. Going, going, gone is the journalistic chivalry that kept Franklin Roosevelt's inability to walk and/or John F. Kennedy's promiscuity a well-known secret. Vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton lost his spot on the ticket when it was revealed he'd had electroshock treatments; Edmund Muskie was toast when he seemed to weep while denouncing attack ads aimed at his wife.

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