No one is going to suggest that the mainstream media that spent much of the last week of a critical national election campaign focusing on a non-candidate’s failed attempt to tell a joke distinguished itself by offering citizens the information they need to cast informed votes. The absurd amount of attention that was devoted to a flap surrounding U.S. Senator John Kerry’s attempt to poke fun at George Bush’s ignorance of international affairs served as a reminder of how easily most broadcast journalists and talk-show hosts can be spun. It is much easier to note the exceptions to the rule — such as CNN’s “Broken Government” series and Jack Cafferty’s commendable “throw-them-all-out” commentaries, and syndicated radio host Stephanie Miller’s daily dissection of Republican talking points and the right-wing media’s repetition of them — than it is to count all the examples of tangled truths and mangled realities.
But the campaign season did close with one remarkable example of a prominent television personality using his program to challenge a particular politician’s penchant for peddling sleaze. The politician in question is U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, the Ohio Republican who, like several other members of the GOP caucus, has fallen behind in his bid for a new term.
Ohio political observers know that DeWine has a long history of engaging in dirty and deceptive tactics in the final stages of his campaigns — especially when the Republican is trailing. DeWine once accused former Senator John Glenn of being soft on communism, as part of a campaign that led the Dayton Daily News newspaper to accuse “mud-loving Mike DeWine” of running “a thoroughly negative campaign.” That was a rare example of the media calling the Republican to account.
For the most part, however, DeWine has gotten away with smearing his opponents because fewin the media have challenged him on his tactics. In fact, as the media has become increasing lax in recent years, the senator has come to count on journalists to swallow his spin without challenge or complaint.
So when DeWine went on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” a few days before this year’s election, the senator expected to be able to use the national “free-media” exposure to attack his Democratic challenger, U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown, without any facing any consequences.
DeWine appeared on “Hardball” to amplify charges made in a campaign commercial that was airing on television stations around Ohio. The ad dredged up a discredited claim that, when Brown served in the 198Os as Ohio Secretary of State, the Democrat failed to address charges that a low-level employee of the office sold marijuana. The DeWine ad failed to note that, when Republicans first raised this “issue” in 199O, the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper reported that that there was “no evidence of impropriety” by Brown, while the Dayton Daily News described the Republican attacks on the Democrat as “trumped-up charges” that had been “officially discredited.”