Douglas MacKinnon

As this negative and insufferably long presidential primary season continues, two truths — with apologies to Thomas Jefferson — have become self-evident.

The first is that Iowa and New Hampshire seriously need to be kicked to the curb. When about 10 percent of the residents of Iowa can hold the candidates and the national media hostage for a year, it's time to say, "enough." When the paper of record in Iowa dictates that Republican gadfly Alan Keyes is a presidential candidate and then sponsors a debate that takes Iraq and foreign policy off the table, it's time to acknowledge that egos have grown out of control. When, in an attempt to save face, New Hampshire almost holds its primary in 2007, it's time to crash the entire primary schedule and rebuild it in time to save 2012.

The second, and more serious truth to be acknowledged, is that the national media — especially when it comes to the Democratic candidates — has hijacked much of the process by pompously and prematurely dictating to the voters who was "top-tier" and who was "bottom-tier." Then, based on those prejudiced pronouncements, the focus is on who got coverage and questions, and who was unceremoniously deposited on top of the slag heap.

As a rule, the national media dictates that in order for them to take a candidate seriously, he or she must be, or have been, a governor or a senator, or at the very least, "America's Mayor." Beyond that, they have to be a candidate they deem interesting, charismatic, amusingly self-destructive or a good human interest story. Experience, gravitas and accumulated real-world knowledge are not prerequisites for the media to vault someone to the "top-tier" category.

While this media elitism or snobbery may be entertaining for some in and out of that business, the truth of the matter is that it rigged a process that is critically important to the well-being of our nation — a process, that because of the ludicrously compressed primary season, became more vulnerable than ever to this type of media manipulation. As proof, look no further than the results of Iowa. In the grouping bestowed upon them by the media months ago, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton came out on top.

And yet, a number of Democrats that I have spoken with these last few months have told me that they think of Sen. Chris Dodd as the "adult in the room, and the most electable in a general election." That said, they were working with, or were going to vote for, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama or Mr. Edwards. When asked why, they simply said, "because the media rated Dodd bottom-tier from the beginning and I don't want to waste my vote or time."

Why would the media elevate Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards over a candidate who has more than twice as many years in Congress as those three combined? On issues of importance to the left, he is considered a man of substance and real experience. He has a liberal track record with regard to foreign policy, health care, women's issues, banking and education. Beyond that, he speaks Spanish fluently and has great hair.

One angry Dodd supporter told me, "the media counts Hillary's time as an observer of her husband's presidency as deep experience. If that is their criterion, shouldn't former press secretaries Mike McCurry or Joe Lockhart be running for president?"

A better question to be asked with regard to why the media and Democrats would sacrifice seasoned candidates like Mr. Dodd and Sen. Joe Biden is: Have they fallen into their own trap of political correctness? That being, in their rush to diversify their newsrooms with more minorities and women, have they too quickly jettisoned veteran, gray-haired men for very young, relatively inexperienced reporters?

In turn, have these young minority and female editors and reporters let personal bias or human nature get in the way of fair and even coverage? In other words, did they even subconsciously give more time, attention and copy to candidates who looked and sounded more like them at the expense of the older white guys like Mr. Dodd and Mr. Biden?

To their credit, Brian Williams and Tim Russert of NBC News attempted to address the over-influence of the media on the night of the Iowa caucuses. Both men wondered if the press was creating "self-fulfilling prophecies for the 'bottom-tier' candidates." Mr. Russert admitted that it was a subject that was going to have to be dealt with at some point.

But not now. Such introspection will come too late for the Dodds and the Bidens of this campaign — men of experience who will now see Mr. Obama, a candidate with really just one year of service in the Senate, elevated, at least for the moment, to frontrunner status.

Is his a resume worthy of the presidency? How much blame or credit does the media deserve for this outcome?

And finally, who pays the ultimate price for such interference?


Douglas MacKinnon

Douglas MacKinnon is former White House and Pentagon official who spent three years working in a Joint Command.

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