Because It’s All About Him

Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about rape a few days ago showed him to be ignorant.  His refusal to withdraw from the race despite being urged to do so by virtually every fellow Republican, from presidential candidate Mitt Romney on down, shows him to be an egotistical fool — in short, a hack politician.

Akin not only isn’t withdrawing, his campaign website seeks to raise $24,000 in 24 hours to “help Todd fight back against the party bosses.”   Huh?  This guy thinks he’s being unfairly railroaded by GOP leaders, as opposed to being asked to do the honorable thing and quit, so that the Missouri Senate campaign, or even the national campaign, won’t be sidetracked by continuing discussion of his idiotic comments?  (And who would possibly make a contribution in response to such an absurd appeal?)

Akin’s antics just reaffirm why so many of us instinctively despise and distrust career politicians.  We know that they will say and do just about anything to get elected, and the normal human reactions that spur many of our actions — reactions like shame, and embarrassment, for making absurd statements — don’t seem to affect them.  Like so many other politicians of both parties, Akin professes to stand for certain positions on the issues and depicts himself as a selfless public servant who just wanted to represent the people — but when those politicians say (or do) something so stupid that the only decent response is to withdraw or resign, the facade of public service is ripped away and the ugly, overwhelming narcissism and selfishness is exposed for all to see.

Todd Akin obviously could care less about his party, his positions on the issues, or his ability to be an effective legislator.  Instead, he cares only about himself.  If he doesn’t recognize reality and quit, I hope Missouri voters give him an historic drubbing come November.

. . . And Reporters Should Act Like Reporters

One other point about the salutary role of the press in exposing Representative Todd Akin’s ignorant views about rape and women: the press can only fill that role if reporters actually act like reporters.

Unfortunately, the situation that produced Akin’s Waterloo — where one public figure sits down with one reporter to answer questions — happens all too rarely these days.  How often do political figures even appear on shows like Meet The Press?  Rather than a Senator, foreign leader, or some other actual public servant, the guest often is a campaign manager or other unelected individual who is there to voice the talking points of a particular candidate, campaign, or party.  Moreover, much of such shows is devoted to “roundtable discussions” where celebrity journalists who never have done much real reporting express their opinions about the “issues of the day.”  No doubt the producers of those Sunday morning shows think the arguments that ensue make for “better television” than the Meet The Press format of the ’60s, where a panel of three serious, gray-suited reporters respectfully fired questions at that week’s guest.

To illustrate the point, consider the first Meet The Press that aired after Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate.  The two “newsmaker” guests were Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Obama campaign guru David Axelrod, followed by a panel of journalists arguing about the impact of “Obamacare” and Ryan’s proposed budget on Medicare.  Does anyone really expect much in the way of “news” (or enlightenment, for that matter) from such a lineup?  Given the focus on Medicare, rather than featuring an ever-present hired gun like Axelrod or a tiresome panel of TV personalities, how about bringing in the chief actuary of the Medicare program, or one of the Medicare trustees, and have knowledgeable reporters who cover Medicare ask them some meaningful questions about the programs, its condition, and the expected impact of the competing proposals?

The important role of the press in our democracy means that the news media must actually be willing to play that role:  as the skeptical, neutral questioner interested in ferreting out the truth, rather than the point-of-view advocate for one position or another.  We can celebrate the role of the press in showing something important and disturbing about Congressman Akin, but we can also regret that the press — due to disinterest, or laziness, or a concern for ratings — doesn’t play that role as often as it should, or could.

Todd Akin, The Media, And The Weeding Out Process

Recently Rep. Todd Akin, a Republican Congressman who is the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, sat down for an interview with a TV journalist.  During the course of questioning about his views on abortion, Akin — an ardent “pro-life” politician — made some creepy, disturbing comments about “legitimate” rape and his apparent belief that the female body can somehow “shut down” pregnancies that would otherwise result from such a rape.

Akin’s weird, benighted comments provoked a firestorm of criticism from people across the political spectrum.  It was heartening to see that both presidential candidates harshly criticized Akin’s statements, as did countless Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, and liberals.  And now there is, quite appropriately, enormous pressure on Akin to immediately withdraw from the race.

I mention this strange incident not to add my voice to the chorus of people condemning Akin’s views — although I’m happy to do so — but rather to make a broader point:  Akin’s situation demonstrates, yet again, why we should insist that our political candidates regularly sit down and answer questions from the press.  I’m sure Akin’s campaign ads, and carefully planned appearances, and speeches all depict him as a thoughtful, reasonable person well-suited to serving in the Senate.  It was only when he sat down for an interview, and had to give an honest response to an unscripted question, that his real views were exposed.  As a result, the media performed a real public service in weeding out someone who virtually everyone agrees is not fit for public office.

When politicians control the message, we don’t really learn much about who they are or what they believe.  I’m proud that the news media played a key role in giving us a more accurate picture of Todd Akin, and I wish that it had more of an opportunity to regularly play that role with everyone, from presidential candidates on down, who runs for public office.  And when candidates dodge the press, as so many of them do, we voters should hold them accountable for doing so.