“Media Matters”; by Paul Waldman

“It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that as Edwards has campaigned for president, vice president and now president again, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care.”

The Haircut siren song

“It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that as Edwards has campaigned for president, vice president and now president again, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care.”

If you assumed this point was made by a reporter writing a story on, say, John Edwards' position on health care, you haven't been paying attention.

No, this lament came from The Washington Post's John Solomon in the midst of a 1,288-word article about -- you guessed it -- John Edwards' hair. It's some kind of commentary, all right -- but not on the state of American politics; it's a commentary on the state of American journalism.

Let us pause a moment to consider the plight of John Solomon and other reporters like him. Committed to the betterment of the polity, eager to foster a substantive and meaningful debate, wanting nothing more than to play their role in the pageant of democracy, they strive to live up to the legacy bequeathed by our nation's founders, who understood so deeply the importance of the profession of journalism that they wrote an explicit protection for its practitioners into the Bill of Rights.

Yet all the reporters' good intentions come to naught. The siren song of The Haircut is too beguiling, sapping their will, rendering them powerless before its irresistible pull. Their fingers betray them, tapping out yet another article on The Haircut on their laptops, while bitter tears of regret splash onto the keys.

But let's give credit where it's due. Solomon didn't just write one more derivative article on The Haircut. He employed all his skills as an “investigative reporter,” snagging an exclusive interview with the guy who cut Edwards' hair. He delved deep, plumbing the depths of the stylist's feelings about Edwards, and meticulously cataloguing the price of each haircut administered. It is fair to say that no reporter has gone further, or revealed more about the moment when scissors met locks and what it all meant.

Alert the Pulitzer committee.

This piece was unusual for Solomon, since it had no need to rely on innuendo and breathless insinuations of wrongdoing. That was not the case with his prior exposés of cases in which Harry Reid did not actually do something fishy in a land deal in Nevada; Nancy Pelosi did not actually do something fishy with an earmark for San Francisco; Bill and Hillary Clinton did not actually do something fishy in setting up a charitable foundation; John Edwards did not actually do something fishy in selling his house -- each one placed before the Post's readers fairly reeking of corruption and untoward influence. In no case was Solomon able to prove what he implied the Democrats were up to, but we've gotten well used to that.

You don't have to be a professor of semiotics to understand what The Haircut is supposed to represent. It was seized upon with such glee by the press corps because it brings together two key stories that its members never tire of telling about Democrats. By sheer coincidence, they also happen to be the two portraits Republicans have painted of their opponents with such smashing success before, and are planning to paint again.

The first story is this: Democrats are phony. They pretend they're regular people when they're really not, reporters tell us. They pretend they care about poor people, when they couldn't possibly, if they themselves are not poor. (The Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, are rich and evince no particular interest in helping people who aren't, which seems to be what the press considers the appropriate stance to adopt.)

John Edwards is certainly rich. How rich? So rich that when he gets a haircut, he doesn't care what it costs. And not only that, he has a big house. As a point of comparison, Mitt Romney is much richer than John Edwards. I have no idea how big his houses are (he has at least three -- one in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, and one in Utah -- to Edwards' one), and neither does anyone else, because reporters haven't been interested enough to write stories about them.

But in the eyes of the press, if a rich guy spends a lot of time talking about ways to end poverty, he must be a "hypocrite," as though he were actually advocating not that poverty should be eradicated, but that everyone should be poor.

So the rich Democrat who cares about poverty is a phony, while the rich Republicans who don't -- well, no problem there. As Carl Cameron of Fox News said in 2004 while emphasizing John Kerry's troubles connecting with regular, honest-to-goodness all-American folk, “The problem for Kerry may be who he is: an Ivy League millionaire, who has rubbed elbows with the world's wealthiest sophisticates, while most of rural America is considered Bush country. Close your eyes and Kerry's praise for the heartland and its voters sounds a lot like something President Bush might say.” [Special Report, July 3, 2004] Let's see: “an Ivy League millionaire, who has rubbed elbows with the world's wealthiest sophisticates” -- was there anyone else running in that race to whom that would apply?

But no matter: Bush was an ordinary guy, the kind of fella you'd like to share a beer with, more at home at a backyard barbeque than with those snooty elitists with their wealth and power. In short -- unlike his two opponents -- Bush was real.

And wouldn't you know it? The Republicans running this year are real, too.

John McCain? Newsweek tells us that if he seems blue on the campaign trail, "[i]t may be because at heart, he is not a politician. He is a warrior," while his every utterance is lauded as "straight talk."

Rudy Giuliani? He's “the one tough cop who was standing on the beat when we got hit last time and stood up and took it," someone who has "street cred" when it comes to “protect[ing] this country against the bad guys,” says Chris Matthews.

Fred Thompson? He's “the pickup-driving former senator and 'Law & Order' star,” says The Washington Post -- never mind that the truck was a campaign prop.

Which brings us to the second story The Haircut tells: Democrats are effeminate. Who cares about their hair? Women, of course, and if a man gets a good haircut, he must not be much of a man. And it isn't just Edwards who suffers from these attacks, as Kerry and Al Gore did before him. Tucker Carlson, testosterone oozing from his pores, muscles rippling under his bespoke suit, declared that Barack Obama "seems like kind of a wuss."

The flip side of this story, of course is that Republicans are manly. Tune into a story about the 2008 race and chances are you'll hear what strong, masculine men the Republicans are. Chris Matthews wonders how easily Rudy Giuliani would kick Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ass in a street fight. Roger Simon of The Politico says admiringly that Mitt Romney “has shoulders you could land a 737 on,” while Newsweek calls him “buff and handsome.”

“Can you smell the English Leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man's shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved?” asked Chris Matthews about Fred Thompson. “Do you smell that sort of -- a little bit of cigar smoke? You know, whatever.”

Whatever, indeed. If it wasn't a haircut, it would have been something else. And it will be something else; with 16 months before the next president is chosen, there will be more stories that, reporters and analysts will assure us, show just how phony and effeminate Democrats are, and how authentic and masculine Republicans are.

Like John Solomon, political reporters pretend that these stories just happen, that they are delivered on a set of stone tablets by some assignment editor in the sky whose orders cannot be questioned.

Republicans claim Al Gore said he invented the Internet? Well, who cares if it's a lie? It's “out there,” so reporters have no choice but to repeat it and repeat it until it becomes the essence of the public's view of the man, a vivid distillation of what all reporters dislike about him. Republicans say John Kerry “looks French”? Ha ha, what a witty barb! We'll make sure to mention it in story after story. John Edwards got an expensive haircut?

That certainly is worthy of extended discussion, rumination, and analysis, and once every ounce of blood is squeezed from the stone, we'll just keep it around to bash him over the head with, lest he begin to think for a moment that he can convince anyone he's anything but a fraud and a girly-boy.

But there is no assignment editor in the sky. Stories don't just “happen”; they are the product of choices made by journalists. When a campaign comes to a reporter with a juicy piece of opposition research, the journalist makes a decision to write about it, or not. When a flack makes a vicious attack on his candidate's opponent, reporters choose to repeat it. John Solomon chose to write about John Edwards' hair, and not his health care plan. There's nothing stopping them from writing about issues, or even writing about the day-to-day progression of the campaign in a way that doesn't turn them into handmaidens of one side's crusade of defamation and distraction. Journalists have to make decisions every day. Is it too much to ask that they make the right ones?

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.