Following Paris Attack, Washington Post Called For Substance -- And Then Returned To Campaign Optics

Contrasting Friday night's Parisian scenes of horror with last week's previous big campaign news about Donald Trump and his weird, rambling address in Iowa, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza recently bemoaned “the remarkable smallness of our politics.”

Pointing to the volume of trivial pursuits that pass as campaign news, Cillizza argued the press (including himself) “bear some blame” for not being substantive enough, and for focusing on trivialities and not covering “the various ways that the candidates for president would deal with the threat posed by ISIS.” (News consumers prefer trivial pursuits, he argued.)

So is it possible that the Paris massacre will change the press coverage and refocus much-needed attention on substance and public policy? 

Not likely, because there was Cillizza and the Post right after the Democrats' debate in Iowa Saturday night doing exactly what he claimed the press did too much of -- leaning heavily on optics at the expense of substance.

The Post is hardly alone in being guilty of the optics transgression or being overly fascinated with how campaign events look and play in the press. But the Post may have been alone in so neatly contradicting its own plea for post-Paris substance on the campaign trail and then immediately following that up with optics-heavy insights.

The media's obsession with trivia has been a campaign problem for years, and arguably an even bigger concern this year. Remember all the hot media takes about Hillary Clinton's accent?

And all these think pieces following her lunchtime stop at a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio?

*“Hillary Clinton Goes Unnoticed at Chipotle In Botched Retail Politicking Bid” (Washington Times)

*“Clinton Bypassed Centrist Taco Bell for Liberal Favorite Chipotle” (Wall Street Journal)

*“What Hillary Clinton's Chipotle Stop Says About Her Campaign” (Christian Science Monitor)

Who can forget the absurdist scene in April when a herd of campaign reporters broke into a sprint while trying to track down Clinton's “Scooby Van” as it swung behind a community college in Iowa for a campaign visit? And this was while the press deducted points from Clinton for not offering enough campaign substance.

Fast-forward to the horrific killings in Paris, and it appears that even that grave event can't alter the tone and tenor of U.S. campaign coverage.

Because even before the Iowa debate began, on its list of “the top 13 issues,” the Post was trumpeting as number two (after terrorism) the relatively pointless news burp about how Hillary Clinton recalled walking into a Marines recruiting office in 1975 and trying to join. Following the controversy surrounding stories from Ben Carson's biography, the Marines story caught the attention of the press mostly because it just didn't seem right; the optics were off.

Note that in terms of the debate, the Post listed the Marines non-story as being more important than clean energy, immigration reform and veterans care, among other pressing issues.

Then following the debate, the Post swooped in and announced Clinton's performance had been badly off kilter. (She was one of the night's “losers.”) According to Cillizza, despite the fact that Clinton “was quite good for much of the debate,” she nonetheless “made a few verbal and/or policy mistakes that will likely haunt her in the days to come.”

For instance, Cillizza stressed that Clinton had “refused a chance to say the words 'radical Islam' when asked about the threat posed by the Islamic State -- a decision that Republicans jumped on in the moment and will keep bringing up if and when Clinton is the Democratic nominee."

The Post emphasized the “radical Islam” point the next day in a news article about Clinton's supposed debate “gaffes” and “missteps.” (Belatedly, the Post offered up a different take on that topic.)

The Post announced that by not labeling the Paris massacre a “radical Islam” attack, Clinton had opened herself up to Republican attack. And by not adopting a GOP talking point she had committed a “misstep” and a “gaffe.”

Question: Doesn't that mean the entire Democratic debate represented a two-hour “gaffe”?

Elsewhere, the Post was sure Clinton had messed up by reminding voters she grew up in the 1960s during an age of student protest. “The TV ad, particularly if Republicans nominate someone like Marco Rubio, who is 45 years old (Clinton is 68), practically writes itself,” wrote Cillizza.

Note how the Post seamlessly adopted the GOP spin that of course voters prefer a candidate in their forties compared to a candidate in their sixties. The Post didn't bother with any independent evidence to back that up claim, it simply quoted Republican pollster Frank Luntz: “Nobody, Republican or Democrat, wants to vote for a candidate from the 1960s when we're well into the 21st century.” But if Democrats don't want to vote for a candidate from the 1960s, why does Clinton enjoy a large lead in the primary polls?

Any time there's a call for increased substance in campaign coverage, that's a good thing. Making it stick proves much harder.