In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s. As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.
I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign. The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place. It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire. Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.
Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention. On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio. Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free. Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage? In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention. And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.
Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues. With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it. With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety. This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.