What haircut stories tell us about the press

by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters

Call it the haircut beat.

Matt Drudge for years has done his best to stay on top of all the breaking haircut news, but with the 2008 campaign ramping up, no single person can be expected to monitor such an important press topic. News organizations would be wise to act now, rather than be caught flat-footed if and when news suddenly breaks that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has changed barbers, or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) has opted for a different hair tint. After all, both stories, while admittedly trivial, could serve as telling metaphors for a modern-day campaign.

It was only through hard work and focused determination that the Beltway press corps was able to stay on top of the recent John Edwards haircut blockbuster, after news broke that he had to reimburse his campaign for two pricey $400 haircuts. But how many times can reporters and pundits be expected to respond with such vigor? There needs to be some sort of collective newsroom mechanism in place so that no Democratic haircut lead goes unreported.

Creepy media undercurrent

Yes, I'm being facetious, but in the wake of the Edwards haircut saga, it's hard not to be contemptuous of the press. And I'm not just referring to its skewed pursuit of trivia. Fact: According to TVeyes.com, CNN aired more references to John Edwards' haircut than it did to Edwards' reaction to the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the ban on so-called partial birth abortions.

Addressing the pressing topic of Edwards' trim recently on National Public Radio, which returned to the issue again and again, Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum phoned in to announce the story served as a telling metaphor for the campaign.

I'll say. The only difference is Purdum thinks the story revealed a telling trait about the Edwards candidacy. I'm convinced the story exposed something far more informative about how the Beltway press operates.

For one, haircut stories reveal a very creepy media undercurrent as millionaire pundits use the mini-controversies to prove that they -- unlike spurious Democrats -- are still in touch with their working roots. Why journalists feel they need to manufacture blue-collar bona fides remains unclear. (What are they running for?) Yet they regularly press the point in the context of supposedly unmasking "phony" Democrats.

Teeing off on the breaking haircut news, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently ridiculed Edwards. Referring to him as the Breck Girl and the Material Boy, she claimed Edwards' lavish lifestyle meant he wasn't qualified to talk about working-class woes in America. "You can't sell earnestness while indulging in decadence," she lectured Edwards.

But to me, this was the most telling passage:

Speaking of roots, my dad, a police detective who was in charge of Senate security, got haircuts at the Senate barbershop for 50 cents. He cut my three brothers' hair and did the same for anyone else in the neighborhood who wanted a free clip job.

Belittling Edwards for being out of touch, Dowd felt the strange urge to prove she had a working-class bond, so she invoked her dad, the cop. Of course, it would have been more persuasive if Dowd had referenced something from her adult life, but since I'm guessing she pays more than $400 for her SoHo rinse and trims, dear old dad had to do.

Meanwhile, NBC anchor Brian Williams appeared as a guest on David Letterman's show last week where discussion soon turned to Edwards' haircut. Asked what was the most he'd ever paid for a trim, Williams responded, "probably $12."

Really? I have to pay $16, plus tip, for a trim at a little barbershop on Valley Avenue in the New Jersey 'burbs. But Williams, who lives in a restored farmhouse in Connecticut where he parks his 477-horsepower black Porsche GT2 (that is, when he's not decamping on the Upper East Side), gets his haircut for just $12. And remember, that's probably the most he's ever paid.

Williams enjoys a $10 million salary. He's a celebrity journalist and recent Men's Vogue cover boy, who, up until just a few years ago, was probably known as much for his perfectly coiffed locks as he was his reporting skills. Yet, eager to project himself as one of the guys, Williams insists his trims cost chump change.

And it wasn't haircut-related, but did you see NBC's Tim Russert being interviewed on Bill Moyers' recent documentary, Buying the War, which looked at the media's weak, lapdog performance during the run-up to the Iraq invasion? Pressed at one point about why he allowed himself and Meet the Press to be co-opted by the White House in 2002 and 2003, Russert responded, "I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo and I know who my sources are [and] I work 'em very hard" [emphasis added].

Then again, presenting himself as a Working Joe has become something of an obsession with Russert over the years -- albeit a Working Joe who makes seven figures a year and, as the Daily Howler has noted, summers with the swells on Nantucket, lounging around in his multimillion-dollar beach island home; a "sprawling gray-shingled house, with rooftop sundeck and cutting garden," as Washingtonian magazine described it.

The point is that journalists who often announce that Democratic haircut stories matter because they pierce the "folksy," working-class persona that campaigns work so hard to create, are often the same journalists who work so hard to create their own "folksy," working-class personas.

Only Democratic haircuts count

The problem is the media/haircut trend goes far beyond the recent Edwards hiccup, which everyone agrees was an obvious campaign misstep.

The press has been perversely obsessed with the grooming habits of Democrats for years. In 2002, Matt Drudge created a press stir when, on the receiving end of a Republican National Committee leak, he reported that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), "the self-described 'Man of The People' pays $150 to get his hair styled and shampooed, the cost of feeding a family of three for two weeks!!"

Drudge's math only worked if that family of three ate king-size Snickers bars for each meal over those two weeks. (i.e. $1.19 per person, per meal.) But no matter, CNN treated the Kerry haircut story as news, with its Inside Politics host announcing, "Just two days after moving closer to a presidential race, John Kerry already is in denial mode."

The coif of Sen. Clinton, as well as her salon bills, has been the topic of much debate while she's served in the Senate and earlier as first lady. For candidate Al Gore, the press, in search of clues to his "character," obsessed over his wardrobe rather than his haircuts.

Of course, the granddaddy of the haircut capers came in 1993 when the Beltway press, led by The Washington Post, went absolutely bonkers over the fact that President Clinton received a haircut aboard Air Force One from a man who often charges $200 for a trim. The original stories also claimed everyday travelers at Los Angeles International Airport were delayed because of Clinton's vain ways. That part was later debunked, but the press continued to cling to the "Hair Force One" story as being a very big deal.

The Post referenced the silly incident 50-plus times in less than 50 days, treating the hoax as a serious political story. And these papers all played the frivolous haircut story on the front page: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Orlando Sentinel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times.

Year in and year out, the press uses haircut stories to paint Democrats as vain (read: effeminate) hypocrites. Vain, because they care too much about how they look. And they're hypocrites because Democrats claim they care about working people, but in truth they only care about their appearances. (See "vain.") The press loves playing Hypocrite Police with Democrats. (Here's the Associated Press from last week scolding Democratic candidates for not jet-pooling to their South Carolina debate and failing to "to save money, fuel or emissions.")

What's telling is that the press treats only Democratic haircuts as news. Personal grooming foibles and other potentially embarrassing issues of vanity on the Republican side are deemed to be beneath serious consideration because they don't reveal anything about the politician.

President Bush wears $3,000 hand-made suits. And for the 2005 inauguration, Laura Bush sat for a $700 haircut from stylist-to-the-stars Sally Hershberger. The press, though, shows no interest in dissecting the First Couple's at times vain and extravagant lifestyle.

Meanwhile, serving as president in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was among the select number of American septuagenarians with a full head of dark, dark hair. Did vanity get the best of Reagan and did the former actor dye his locks in exchange for a more youthful, vigorous appearance? As Michael Kinsley noted in 1991, "Shortly after he left office, Reagan's head was shaved for brain surgery, and briefly, as it grew back, his hair was completely grey."

Did Reagan's hair treatment serve as some sort of symbol for his presidency? At the time, the press corps came to the understandable conclusion that the issue was essentially pointless and it was not treated as news. In recent years, however, the press, with the help of mischief-making Republicans, has signed off on the notion that Democratic grooming habits are big news. They matter.

I'm sure journalists would stress they never took the Edwards story all that seriously and that they shouldn't be scolded for having a little campaign fun.

But in its Conventional Wisdom Watch column, Newsweek placed The Haircut directly behind the Virginia Tech massacre and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' Senate testimony as that week's most important news events. And a New York Times Week in Review piece included a roundup of key news developments and highlighted the surging stock market, the rise of the British pound, the record-setting amount of mutual funds distributed to investors last year, and yes, Edwards' costly trim.

Indeed, if journalists truly thought the story was trivial, then the haircut details wouldn't have been picked up by CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Fox News, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, the Associated Press, The Arizona Republic, The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, The Charlotte Observer, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, The Des Moines Register, the Detroit Free Press, The Indianapolis Star, The Kansas City Star, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, The New York Times, The (Newark) Star-Ledger, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Seattle Times, The Oregonian, and the San Antonio Express-News.

Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's media critic, addressed the haircut story not once but twice online. And according to Dave Johnson and James Boyce, writing at the Huffington Post last week, the haircut story spread rapidly: "If you do a Google search for pages that contain the words 'edwards', '$400' and 'haircut' there are already 187,000 web pages that contain those terms!"

And lastly, note that while appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman, NBC's Williams agreed with the host when he said that the Edwards haircut story was "silly" and there was "no reason for us to continue talking about it." Yet just two days later, serving as moderator for a televised Democratic debate, Williams' second question to Edwards was about The Haircut.

That tells us more about Williams the journalist than it does about Edwards the politician.

article originally published at http://mediamatters.org/items/printable/200705010001.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey