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Welcome to The Mediadome--Somebody's Going To Get Hurt

Written By mista sense on Monday, April 28, 2008 | 7:39 PM

How did Sen. Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright get so antagonistic? It's as if they're in a cage match now, and only one can come out alive.

One explanation for their mutual hostility now is that they were trying to communicate in a media-drenched environment, in which sincerity is subsumed in spin, nuance is nudged aside by noise, and relationships are wrecked on hard surface of realpolitik.

Wright's cross-country antics--quite likely to continue, the traveling preacher-showman suggests, well past Election Day 2008--have hurt the Obama campaign badly; Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters, down for so long, are starting to look up for the first time in months. Meanwhile, Obama, who once praised Wright to the skies, now practically rolls his eyes when Wright's name comes up. Today in North Carolina, Obama said of his former pastor, "He does not speak for me, he does not speak for the campaign." OK, fair enough.

But then the Illinois Senator added, "And he may make statements in the future that don't reflect my values or concerns." OK, that's a wrap, in terms of that relationship!

So what happened? The basic outlines of the story are clear enough: Obama joined Trinity United Church of Christ in the 80s, when he was getting going in Chicago, when he needed both a spiritual foundation and a political base--TUCC was just the ticket for an out-of-towner eager to make his way through the thicket of South Side politics.
And then, when Obama decided to go national, well, Wright and his views--which Obama must have known about, in great detail--were a liability. And so the Reverend was expendable. Such cool political calculation happens all the time in politics, of course, and Wright, who is 66 years old, must have seen it before.

But there was one difference: Obama's separation from Wright occurred under the full glare of the media, especially the cable news networks, who really drive these kinds of stories, because of their near-infinite capacity to capture every "see" and every "saw" in a see-saw, every "tit" and every "tat," in an up-and-down, back-and-forth media volley. Not just the words, of course, but the sounds and images.

So when Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency on February 10, 2007, Wright was nowhere to be seen. And even at that time, when Obama was just a long-shot, the Cable Gamer still remembers Obama advisers whispering that Wright, who had given Obama the title of his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, was a little too "fiery" for the cool persona that Obama was trying to project to America. And indeed Wright was.

But the difference, of course, was that such internal campaign strategizing inevitably spilled out into the public. Nothing stays secret, for long, in this transparent society. And again, while blogs, feverishly updated round-the-clock by their proprietors, might move faster, and provide more detail, than any other media, including the wire services, it's the cablers that set the tone, during the day, for the nightly news broadcasts, and the next day's newspapers.

For a while, of course, Obama tried to have it both ways. Traveling through Iowa the day after he announced, Obama told the AP, "If your name is Barack Hussein Obama, you can expect it, some of that. I think the majority of voters know that I’m a member of the United Church of Christ, and that I take my faith seriously." Interesting that Obama would bring up his own middle name, but then immediately invoke Wright's Christian church as a defense against any accusation that he was too foreign, or even too Muslim, to get elected.

OK, now let's fast forward a year, to March 15, 2008, when the Wright stuff erupted. (What took the Clinton oppo people so long to find all these tapes? That's a secret that remains to be unraveled!) As we all know, Obama defended Wright as best he could all through mid-March, including his liberal-pleasing speech in Philadelphia on March 18. But by the end of the month, the pressure on Obama to put some distance between himself and Wright was growing too intense.

And so the distancing began--and it all began in public. Obama went on "The View"--a regular source of material for Cable Gamers--on March 28 and said, "Had the reverend not retired and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn't have felt comfortable staying there at the church." Tough words for anyone to hear, but if you were Wright--who has an ego, that's for damn sure--how would you like to hear them said about you on national TV?

And the spin was even worse. In The Chicago Sun-Times, one of Wright's hometown papers, the headline must have been jarring to the preacher: "Obama: Wright repented, so he stayed."

Now in his angry mind, of course, Wright hasn't repented for anything--he repeatedly insisted at the National Press Club today that all his now-notorious comments were either "misquoted" or "taken out of context." (Perhaps you can tell me how "No, no, no! Not God bless America, God damn America!" can be misconstrued, but that's another issue.)

But the point is, the modern media, including the cable news networks and such crucial new components such as YouTube, make it virtually impossible for private figures to have private conversations that stay private for very long.

No doubt there has been lots of back-channel communications between the Obama campaign and Wright, but without a doubt, it hasn't done much good, because the external public communication, through TV and the like, matters a lot more. Whatever honeyed words Wright might be hearing from staffers--or maybe Obama himself--are overwhelmed by the vinegar of televised distancing, which Wright obviously regards as dissing.

No secrets, no privacy, and not much opportunity to say things that aren't heard on TV at the same time. Is this a good way to run politics?

It's hard to say. On the one hand, transparency is good. On the other hand, sometimes you can't get anything done in the glare of publicity, with many strange cooks spoiling the broth.

And these new media dynamics are visible in government, too; even in such sensitive areas as war and national security, it seems that major players can't wait to go on TV to tell and sell their stories.

In the apocalyptic 1985 movie "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," Tina Turner (pictured above) warns, "Remember where you are. This is Thunderdome, and death is listening."

Things aren't that bad today, although the Obamans must be feeling Mel Gibson-ish by now.

But for sure, today, the whole world is listening. Welcome to the Mediadome. As the man said in the film, "Dyin' time is here."

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