MEDIA BRANDS: In simply criticizing Dean's comments, the press missed a chance to facilitate meaningful debate

In a week in which Howard Dean consolidated his lead in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination by securing the endorsements of two major unions, the biggest political story was about his verbal gaffe. Or at least that's what the rest of his party's field and the vast majority of the political press called his remark, uttered at a debate, that he wants to be the candidate of the "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

In a week in which Howard Dean consolidated his lead in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination by securing the endorsements of two major unions, the biggest political story was about his verbal gaffe. Or at least that's what the rest of his party's field and the vast majority of the political press called his remark, uttered at a debate, that he wants to be the candidate of the "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

That the story had legs was unsurprising, given that the flag remains an icon subject to apparently endless debate whenever it appears in public life. The discussion is almost always framed by the media as a question of what the flag's lingering importance says about the state of race relations in the US. The Dean episode, however, represented a variation on the same old theme. In the simple mention of the flag, Dean neither attacked nor pandered to that part of the population. Instead, he referred to a simple political reality that few analysts would dispute: that the Democratic party had failed to regain the southern working-class voters it alienated during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Dean eventually apologized, admitting his words were clumsy. But if anything was clumsy, it was the knee-jerk reaction of reporters, who failed to go beyond the usual surface-level criticism and delve into a vital, if oft-overlooked issue - the plight of the poor, white American. In criticizing Dean for even mentioning the polarizing symbol in a way that wasn't condemnatory, most reporters took a position of moral superiority. Oddly, the denunciations were often accompanied by acknowledgments that Dean clearly wasn't trying to express some racial animosity. This ultimately served to undermine the criticisms. If, by all appearances, Dean is anything but a racist, then why take up the issue at all? The answer - the purely political one that Dean's chosen tack won't "play" in the contemporary South - saw beat reporters and editorial writers assume their usual roles of Monday morning political advisers, analyzing tactics and correcting politicians' grammar rather than relating candidates' platforms to voters' lives. In doing so, they missed a chance to delve into a key issue of a crucial divide in the body politic, and instead gave an inadvertent tutorial on what's wrong with coverage of elections. The lessons to be gleaned from the avalanche of coverage are as follows: First, candidates for national office should treat a disenfranchised subset of US citizenry with kid gloves simply because some of their views, or their iconography, are out of step with the perceived mainstream. Second, despite constant moaning that politicians lack spontaneity because they're too obsessed with polls, any attempt to deviate from conventional thinking will be met with demands for apologies. For once, it appears that it's not excessive polling that's threatening to constrain the terms of political discourse. It's the reporters covering it. -matthew.creamer@prweek.com

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