Perhaps Mitt Romney played it right when he was meek and contrite in response to the Washington Post's front-page allegations that he bullied a kid half a century ago in high school.
Romney no doubt feels embarrassed by the charges, even if most of us struggle to understand their relevance or gauge their veracity. But the time is coming for Romney to get angry, very angry, with what is increasingly, quaintly called "the mainstream media."
The Post's decision to play up the story as if it were major news — front page, thousands of drably dull self-serious words piled high as if to justify the one buzzy nugget — is an embarrassment. It was clearly intended to link Romney to the new progressive cause: fighting anti-gay bullying, in the context of President Obama's "sudden" support for gay marriage. It was naked advocacy gussied up as journalistic due diligence.
It was also a significant error — if you work from the assumption (as I do) that the Post and other mainstream media outlets are determined to do what they can to reelect Obama — because they tipped their hand too early.
It's always dangerous to ascribe singular purpose to a collective entity like "the media." Of course, there are individual figures who — despite whatever personal biases they may have — are trying their best to be fair. But as a generalization, the mainstream media are so deep in the bunker for Obama, they could ride out a nuclear war without having their Jenga tower fall over.
In 2004, John Kerry's war record embellishments and involvement with a radical group that at one time discussed a plot to assassinate U.S. senators who supported the Vietnam War were treated as fixations of the deranged right. Evan Thomas, then of Newsweek, proclaimed what pretty much everyone knew: The press "wants Kerry to win." And that was John Kerry, a man few in Washington like and many consider to be a pompous human toothache.
Obama, meanwhile, is beloved. In 2008, concerns about the man's past were largely brushed aside, ignored or re-spun to fit the acceptable story line.
No doubt some believe that if a Republican candidate had a hate-spewing pastor and associated with an admitted former domestic terrorist, the mainstream media would be equally dismissive. After all, who cares about that. I mean, how can that stack up news value-wise against a 17-year-old hazing a kid at school nearly 50 years ago?
In 2008, the imperative was to clear the field for the first black president. Now that that box has been checked, a new story line is needed. Enter Newsweek. It features Obama with a rainbow-colored halo (because conventional halos are so Republican!), touting him as the "First Gay President."
Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, may be a genius. No doubt it has gotten boring saying Obama's opponents are racist. Now the press can treat his critics as homophobes, even the ones holding the same position on gay marriage that Obama (publicly) held for the last decade — until last week.
The Obama campaign's rationalization for the president's decision to drop what most knew was a calculated political lie is that it would "fire up" his base among rich liberal donors and college students. It did that.
But it also fired up his base in the press corps, enabling writers to rekindle their obsession with the "historic" nature of the Obama presidency.
As the London Telegraph blogger Tim Stanley writes, everything the president does is cast as part of history. The president could go "seal-clubbing and much of the media would see it as a new epoch for winter sports. 'Barack Obama Becomes the First President to Kill Six Seals in Under One Minute,' the New York Times would proudly report."
It's worth noting that there's little evidence — yet — that Obama's decision will actually help him with voters, voters who are increasingly less deferential to campaigns from traditional media outlets.
Still, it never hurts to have good press. In football, they sometimes refer to the cheerleading and noise from the fans as the "12th man" on the (normally 11-man) team. The media are revving themselves up to be Obama's 12th man, and the time is coming for Romney to call them on it, with passion.