Now that the unusually lengthy presidential campaign is starting to close in on the first primary contests, one would hope the national press corps would focus on the candidates' policies pertaining to the issues that Americans are most concerned about--such as the war in Iraq, the economy and healthcare. Or they can choose to direct their attention elsewhere--namely, to Barack Obama's lapel.
On October 4, internet gossip Matt Drudge posted the headline, "Obama Won't Wear American Flag Pin Any More." That headline linked to an Associated Press report (10/4/07), "Obama Stops Wearing Flag Pin." Anyone who actually read the story discovered that both headlines were misleading, since wearing a flag pin was something Obama stopped doing several years ago, after the September 11 attacks:
"The truth is that right after 9/11 I had a pin," Obama said. "Shortly after 9/11...that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security."
But given the media's propensity to give Drudge's tips serious airtime--even when they turn out to be misleading or entirely false--it was no surprise that this tale would soon find its way out into the rest of the media. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer announced (10/4/07): "It involves patriotism and the American flag. Why has Barack Obama stopped wearing a lapel pin of the U.S. flag?"
On Fox News Channel (10/4/07), conservative pundit Laura Ingraham declared this was evidence that Obama was "not ready for primetime," while Fox News liberal Alan Colmes introduced a discussion of the subject by saying, "Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama has decided to discontinue a political tradition that has been the norm, for some, since September 12, 2001, wearing an American flag pin on his lapel." A guest on the show elaborated: "It's a little weird, Alan, that in the middle of the campaign, the guy takes off the American flag that most people wear because they're proud of their country."
Some coverage said less about Obama than about what journalists thought was important. Under the headline "The Politician and the Absent American Flag Pin," New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny (10/5/07) noted that Obama addressed the missing flag pin in a speech after "questions about the comments persisted"--questions, presumably, from campaign reporters.
Perhaps in part because Obama's criticism of gratuitous flag-touting struck a personal note for some media pundits (American media themselves were publicly criticized during the Iraq War for having "wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality," as the BBC's director general put it--New York Times, 5/13/03), some outlets were harshly critical. A Chicago Sun-Times editorial (10/5/07) lamented, "Oh for Pete's sake, Senator Obama, pin the darn American flag to your chest and tell people you're as patriotic as anyone." The paper went on to argue that Obama is "going to catch a world of hurt for his comments.... Obama has worked hard to stake out a centrist position, but his polarizing comments make him sound like a hardened leftist." The New York Daily News (10/5/07) similarly compared Obama to "the average college sophomore who has lately discovered political activism," and also suggested that Obama "did more damage to his White House hopes than a bomb bursting in air."
On ABC's Good Morning America (10/5/07), George Stephanopoulos said that the "problem" for Obama was that "he seemed to slam people who did wear the pin as we were moving towards war in Iraq and he was suggesting this was a protest on his part, and that was a mistake for Barack Obama." The notion that this incident fed into an existing media storyline about Obama--that he lacked the depth or experience to be president--was prevalent.
Two days later (10/7/07). Stephanopoulos hosted a roundtable on ABC's This Week that discussed the supposed controversy. While Time reporter Jay Carney thought the whole ordeal was unfortunate ("It pains me immensely that this might actually have traction"), ABC reporter Claire Shipman called such thinking "naive," saying: "This is a test when you are thrown a grenade on the campaign trail, all good politicians have to show they know how to handle it.... He played into the idea that he's not ready for primetime." Stephanopolous responded: "I think that's exactly right."
Interestingly, the guests who were not mainstream news reporters--conservative pundit George Will and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel--agreed that the whole thing was absurd. "What is the signal we're supposed to get from the flag?" asked Will. "It is either that I'm patriotic, and we take that for granted in this country, or that everybody who isn't wearing it isn't patriotic, and that's disgusting."
On ABC World News with Charles Gibson (10/4/07), the anchor opened a report: "Candidates face so much scrutiny these days. And it's not just their position papers and stump speeches that are fair game. Case in point: something of a controversy that has erupted involving Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and a lapel pin."
Actually, if candidates' "position papers and stump speeches" did receive serious and probing attention from the press, attention spent on frivolous issues like Obama's missing pin or Hillary Clinton apparently bizarre laughing wouldn't be so distressing. Serious political issues are on the table: possible war with Iran, new revelations about the White House sanctioning torture, congressional debate about warrantless wiretapping and so on. Does anyone in the media really think that Barack Obama's years-old decision about wearing a flag pin really compares to those stories?