"Rubio deserved what he got": New Hampshire's gotcha moments, media spats and why the GOP "is built on mendacity"

Salon speaks to media scholar Todd Gitlin about tedious debates, campaign coverage and political lies

Published February 8, 2016 9:17PM (EST)

Marco Rubio   (AP/Star Max)
Marco Rubio (AP/Star Max)

The dance between the media and politics is intensifying as we get into the first caucuses and primaries, even as some of the issues discussed get less substantial. Over the last few days, we’ve seen Marco Rubio repeat himself at the Republican debate in New Hampshire, a quarrel between Rubio and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, and misleading statements by the Ted Cruz campaign, including the false claim that Ben Carson has dropped out.

At the same time, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem are rallying behind Hillary Clinton on straightforward feminist grounds, arguing that women need to show solidarity (“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Albright said) and aggravating some women with the insistence. Steinem, speaking to Bill Maher, explained the support of young women for Bernie Sanders with, “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’ “

To make sense of the latest tussles, and to speculate where the race might go, Salon spoke to Todd Gitlin, the Columbia University media scholar and sociologist who is also the author of “Occupy Nation.”

The interview, by phone from Gitlin’s home in New York City, has been lightly edited for clarity.

The other night Marco Rubio was called out for repeating his line about Barack Obama trying to make the United States more like “the rest of the world.” He said it over, and over, and over again. Chris Christie jumped on him quite effectively.

Besides just a clumsy, robotic candidate, what else is going on here? To repeat that many times in a few short minutes made it egregious and extreme. But in a sense, wasn’t it an exaggerated version of what politicians do? Is it fair to pick on Rubio?

Exactly. But he was particularly crude and maladroit at staying quote-unquote on message. One usually is quicker of wit than to succumb to the disease of rote memory and repetition.

But of course you’re right – the very notion that what we hear from the stage is a debate is largely laughable. What you hear is people slinging talking points at one another. And looking for gotcha moments and one-liners. But Rubio deserved what he got from Christie; he’s maladroit enough not to be able to vary his sentences: The mask comes off and he’s revealed to be a kindergartner playing at his two-finger exercises.

Megyn Kelly got in a spat with Donald Trump a few weeks ago. Now Joe Scarborough and Rubio are fighting, though it’s quieter so far. How could this play out?

It’s another dimension of the absurdity of our puny politics. These interviewers who have never been elected by anybody, whose prowess is highly segmented – the viewership for cable shows is in single-digit millions –

We’re not talking about Walter Cronkite, with a broad audience…

Exactly. So their ability to adjudicate who’s legitimate or who’s not is a measure of the degradation of our political life. And the huffiness suggests that [Scarborough] thinks he’s royal, he administers the throne room. There are many TV personalities who have taken on this aggrandized, inflated sense of themselves, and have been accorded it by a political apparatus that requires these folks as conduits. So you’re setting up a dynamic of sycophancy on one-hand and self-promoting puffery on the other. None of it is healthy.

At the same time, Megyn Kelly seems to be winning her spat with Donald Trump.

She’s drawn him out as the brute, bully, misogynist thug he is. Points to her for that. It’s not that hard to get under his skin.

The other fight right now is over gender in the Clinton campaign.

Gloria put her foot in it, with that idiotic statement about girls going where the boys are.

You know, the campaign lasts a year and a half, there are a lot of longueurs… If you’re covering the campaign, you’re always looking for cute entrees to “the story.” There’s a race to the bottom for “the story.” And you have so many story-making, attention-getting outposts. Whatever swill is stirred up breaks out of the pack.

Does that seem to be what the media is fixating on right now?

Well, it won’t be the last time. The [opposition] teams have not gone to work yet – who knows what’s coming? The dynamics of manufacturing a story are pretty well understood, and there are professionals who are pretty good at sizing up a potential gaffe or an actual gaffe, or an issue. The Republicans have done it with Benghazi and the Democrats will find their own way to do it. And that’s just political life in these United States.

How about Ted Cruz and his misleading statements? Are they outrageous enough to be called lies?

Sure – this is a very good job for the mainstream media. They’re much better at it than they used to be.

Calling politicians on their lies, you mean?

Yeah – bring ‘em on. There’s so much garbage in politics. So much more [debunking] could be done. [Paul] Krugman had a good column about this today. Republicans are always saying that cutting taxes leads to economic growth. There’s no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence against it. And that’s not considered a lie.

Which of Cruz’s lines seems like the most mendacious? The Carson campaign has accused his team of spreading “dirty tricks” – rumors that Carson has dropped out and has thrown his votes behind Cruz.

Don’t ask me to distinguish among Ted Cruz’s misrepresentations, there are too many… I expect bullshit. Which flavor of bullshit it’s going to be any given week…

Is there a politician in this race who’s the least dishonest?

The Republican party is built on mendacity: None of the moderators yet have raised the issue of climate change and the pernicious nonsense that’s been coming from these people for years. I was hoping somebody would pop that question at the debate the other night. Nobody did.

Their ignorance, their blather about the Iranian bomb, their blather about the occupation of the West Bank… Where does it end?

The [Republican] party is based on a denial of evidence… I don’t know which denial of evidence is more egregious than which.

So what we need is a media that’s more attentive, less about media personalities and personal quarrels?

Obviously it’s called for to single out patterns of misrepresentation. And it’s necessary for the interviewers to be uniform in their skepticism. It’s not particularly helpful to fixate on the make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach of a Trump, when so much of what these candidates is proposing doesn’t withstand fifth-grade scrutiny.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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