As the next president of the United States sits down for the first time in the Oval Office, the top item on his to-do list might involve policies designed to boost a sluggish economy. Or perhaps she will survey the international landscape and focus on efforts to crush ISIS and contain Russian and Chinese military adventurism. Maybe he will set priorities for addressing Americans’ immigration concerns.
It’s not likely that he will spend much time wondering whether Barack Obama is a Christian. He’ll avoid forming a Blue Ribbon Commission — capitalized for emphasis — to choose a Secret Service codename. She will not ask her Cabinet members for their responses to another politician’s criticism of her appearance.
Yet it’s the latter set of issues that seems to preoccupy much of the national news media these days. Why ask Ben Carson about his plans to repeal and replace Obamacare when you can uncover his thoughts about the hypothetical merits or demerits of a Muslim president?
Why query Marco Rubio about lessons learned during the contentious immigration debate in the U.S. Senate when you can inform the world that he would like Secret Service agents to call him Gator?
Why seek the opinions of Ted Cruz — or John Kasich, or Carly Fiorina, or any of the rest of the Republican presidential field — on Iran, capital-gains taxes, carbon-dioxide regulations, or other policies that will affect hundreds of millions of Americans, when you can ask them what they think of Donald Trump’s latest insult?
Yes, media outlets need to find something interesting to sell to advertisers. Conflict among rival politicos is likely to attract more eyes than a discourse on the entrepreneurial benefits of collapsing the number of marginal income tax rates.
Still, members of a profession that prides itself on being an unofficial fourth branch of government ought to feel a little embarrassed about devoting so much time to the trivial and banal. It’s hard to believe that a self-respecting reporter or anchor can feel proud about saying, “Yeah, I’m the one who tripped up Candidate A today by asking him what he thinks of the term ‘anchor baby.’”
One curious aspect of the litany of off-topic questions is the fact that most seem to be aimed at candidates of only one political persuasion. It will be interesting to watch as Democrats take their places on the campaign stage. Will they be asked about a religious test for the presidency? Will Bernie Sanders encounter queries about how Hillary Clinton looks in a pantsuit? Will Clinton be asked which famous Socialist best resembles Sanders?
It’s possible. But if Democratic interviews and debates focus on more meaningful matters, the media will have some explaining to do.
Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.