WASHINGTON — So this is what passes for big-time political journalism in August 2008: Chicago CBS2 reporter Joanie Lum standing in the dark, live at 5 a.m. Friday in Hyde Park, Sen. Barack Obama's neighborhood.
"Barack Obama's neighbors are speculating along with the rest of the country" about his vice presidential pick, she declared.
"It could be any minute," the station's anchorwoman added, "cell phones all over the country ringing with a text message from Barack Obama."
The bottom line is this: There's still VP news. It's just that there hasn't been any VP news.
But that hasn't stopped the media, so viewers and readers have been treated to such tidbits as:
_It must be Sen. Evan Bayh. "Obama team to hold `major' event Saturday in Bayh's Indiana. Campaign team gathering for possible veep announcement," the Nashville Post declared Wednesday morning. The story was quickly picked up by CBS, Channel 6 in Indianapolis, Politico and others.
And then . . . never mind. "Update," Politico quickly added. "An Obama aide denied the report."
_So it must be Kaine. The Washington Post reported that Obama is putting Rick Siger, an advance man for Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, on the campaign staff, and Obama Thursday wrapped up two days of campaigning in Virginia.
Obama visited with Kaine for 15 minutes Thursday, and afterward Kaine was asked if he'd gotten the nod. Kaine said nothing except "I'm going to let the campaign speak for itself." At the next event, the press pack hyperventilated over Kaine's body language: Is he animated like a winner? Is that smile a bit strained? Opinions varied. Facts remained absent.
_ Hmm, maybe it's Sen. Joe Biden after all. The Los Angeles Times Wednesday quoted Delaware Sen. Tom Carper saying he learned of "a discussion that involved (security) protection for Joe."
Then again, earlier this week, Biden sent mixed signals. Reporters outside his Wilmington, Del., home, were left to analyze a sentence he muttered while pulling out of his driveway.
"I'm not the guy," he said.
The media reached the conclusion that he was acknowledging that he's not Barack Obama's running mate — until a source close to Biden said later that his comment didn't mean what it appeared to mean, it was just old Joe Biden joking that he's not really Joe Biden.
_It must be . . . who the heck knows? The Washington Post weighed in huge on Tuesday, with a headline covering two-thirds of the top of the front page: "Who's No. 2? Obama Keeps Everybody Guessing." Its conclusion: "Nothing is certain."
On Friday, the Associated Press offered a roundup of what potential VP picks were doing. "Evan Bayh was working and spending time with his family at his home in Washington," etc.
Early in the day, AP also offered this nugget: "Obama is hours away from naming running mate." How many hours, though, it couldn't say: "Obama was expected to text message his choice later on Friday or Saturday." Well, yeah — Obama and his pick are expected to appear together Saturday in Springfield, Ill., in early afternoon.
The speculation followed a Thursday report in USA Today, which trumpeted this scoop: "Obama says he's chosen his VP_ won't reveal who it is yet."
Earlier in the day, Time magazine's daily political briefing promised: "Despite no major veep news emerging overnight, it hasn't stopped the speculation from growing. Get details and all your 24/7 political news on The Page."
Politico, not to be outdone, pledged that, "as VP speculation swirls, Politico takes you inside the discussions. Will it be Kaine, whose staff met with Obama?"
It then quoted McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev, who'd asked Kaine what he and Obama had discussed.
"Kaine answered: `He visited with my staff just to basically say hi and thank them for all their hard work.'"
All this frenzy is building as the same press corps widely concedes that the anointed one will have 24 hours of scrutiny followed by an autumn, and for that matter possibly eight years, of likely obscurity.
So why the media madness?
"It's easy to write about," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of the Boston University School of Communication.
No need for all that boring fact-checking.
"Policy stories take more work to get right," said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
And in most cases, there's no need for all those highfalutin sources who confirm what other sources say.
"It used to be you needed two sources. Now you hear people repeating what `some people say.' We don't know if they're just repeating what they heard from someone in an elevator," said Thomas Steinfatt, professor of communication at the University of Miami.
And, say the media cognoscenti, all this handicapping is what the public really wants.
"Lots of people love politics as a game, and journalists are way into the game," Greene said, despite polls that routinely find that people care most about the economy, the war on terror, health care and energy.
To get scholarly for a minute, the craziness is the product of a celebrity-driven culture, in which information is often provided by bloggers pecking away on laptops and non-stop cable channels where the bright red "breaking news" crawl never stops.
And so, the Drudge Report announced on Monday at 5:01 p.m. that, "The New York Times newsroom was buzzing after Obama beat-reporter Jeff Zeleny learned that the Dem hopeful has now finalized his choice for a running mate."
It could happen as "early as Tuesday," the report said.
So obviously it would happen Thursday, when Obama appeared in Richmond with Kaine.
So get ready. It could happen late Friday or Saturday. Or not.
"CBS News has confirmed that Barack Obama's campaign now plans to announce Obama's vice presidential choice to supporters via e-mail and text message on Friday afternoon," its dispatch beamed.
It added in parentheses, "This plan could change, of course."
On the Web:
The Nashville Post story: http://www.nashvillepost.com/news/2008/8/20/obama_team_to_hold_major_event_saturday_in_bayhs_indiana
Carper's comments: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-biden20-2008aug20,0,6931845.story
The Drudge Report from Monday: http://www.drudgereportarchives.com/data/2008/08/18/20080818_210518_flashom.htm
The Washington Post article saying "nothing is certain": http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/18/AR2008081802691.html
USA Today's latest story: http://blogs.usatoday.com/onpolitics/2008/08/obama-says-hes.html
Harper's Magazine: http://harpers.org/archive/2008/08/hbc-90003447