All Trivial! All the Time!

"And then, cleavage!" The CNN news anchor couldn't have sounded more excited as a white arrow blinked on the screen, pointing down the New York senator's chest toward the point where her V-necked shirt gave way to slightly more skin -- we're talking millimeters -- than Hillary Clinton usually reveals.

Cleavagegate began when a colleague of Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan called her over to check it out on C-SPAN2. Struck by the flash, Givhan penned a Style section piece parsing the meanings of the remarkable fact that women -- yes, even women who are politicians -- have breasts.

But if showing cleavage "in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres" is "a provocation," as Givhan proclaimed, writing about it was even more of one. Outraged readers inundated the Post with letters, the Clinton campaign sent out a fracas-based fundraising appeal, and the story rapidly morphed into the sort of political to-do for which campaign 2008 is increasingly becoming known: silly, visual, and entirely overdetermined. Within a week, MSNBC was airing six news segments a day devoted to a sliver of skin.

From John Edwards' $400 haircuts to Barack Obama's swimming trunks, the line between political journalism and the gossip pages appears to have broken down. Not all of this is the media's fault: Part of it is a result of our new cultural politics. Whereas politicians used to appeal to voters on a mix of interests and issues, Republican political strategists today believe voters cleave to presidential candidates based foremost on cultural affiliation. The GOP's focus on John Kerry's windsurfing and spandex bicycle shorts during the last presidential cycle was a result of this theory. But part of this silliness, too, is a result of several under-acknowledged transformations in the structure of our media that are producing something new: a massive and wildly disproportionate focus on the trivial.

In the 1960s, The Washington Post would not have sent a senior political reporter to do a detailed profile of a presidential candidate's stylist, as John Solomon recently did on Edwards' long-time hairdresser, because coverage of hair was sequestered in the women's pages. (Of course, the candidate might not have had a stylist to begin with.) In 1969, executive editor Benjamin Bradlee replaced that dated section with the more serious Style section, devoted to culture and lifestyle issues. Post publisher Katherine Graham denounced some of the early stories as "bitchy" and "snide," but the new section was a hit, and the movement to gender-neutral cultural pages was national. Time magazine, in 1972, described it as the "Flight from Fluff," and legendary New York Times editor Charlotte Curtis transformed her Family/Style section from a society page into a sociological one documenting the massive social transformations of the day, from women's lib to the new gay rights movement and sexual revolution. The four Fs -- "family, food, fashions, and furnishings" -- would never again be the province solely of women writers, nor would men be told such matters were beneath them.

But the "Flight From Fluff" came to an end as the new social movements petered out in the 1980s, and the era of social upheaval gave way to the new materialism. The gender-neutral sections became workaday homes for pure features, traditional four-F coverage, arts and entertainment stories, and the occasional irreverent New Journalism-style political dispatch. Today the explosion of news blogs at papers, which reporters fill with colorful stories and minutia that doesn't rise to the level of news, have expanded the Style section's style coverage of politics even further, so that it now seems totally normal to read a New York Times blog item on Clinton's Senate press secretary's efforts to win an online beauty contest. Add to that the rise of the new celebrity magazines, one of the few growth cate-gories among print periodicals, along with celebrity candidates such as Fred Thompson and Barack Obama; a massive number of gossip and partisan political blogs (which love to dig up and publish personal information on political and media ļ¬gures); and cable stations with ages of airtime to fill, and you have the perfect conditions for a single casual newsroom observation of Clinton's shirt to ricochet across the media landscape like a thunderclap. The Style section ran both Solomon's and Givhan's pieces.

It was not for this that the women's pages were shut down. The segregated sections needed to go, but the idea was to elevate both the work that women writers did and the way women and society were covered. And sometimes Style-style political writing still does. But all too often, it does the opposite: It helps bury weighty matters of state beneath an avalanche of flamboyantly entertaining -- and eye-ball grabbing -- irrelevancies.