How often do you read the word “dildo” in a CNN story? If you have not followed today's media convulsion, you must really read the whole thing.

Regardless, here’s a summary: “A conservative activist known for making undercover videos plotted to embarrass a CNN correspondent by recording a meeting on hidden cameras, aboard a floating ‘palace of pleasure,’ and making sexually suggestive comments, e-mails and a planning document show.

“James O'Keefe, best known for hitting the community organizing group ACORN with an undercover video sting, hoped to get CNN Investigative Correspondent Abbie Boudreau onto a boat filled with sexually explicit props and then record the session, those documents show.” (Among the props was the previously mentioned dildo.)

Our politics is becoming less about alternative policies and more about alternative realities.

O’Keefe’s latest brainstorm went awry, however, when an embarrassed confederate gave away the plan to Boudreau. CNN then obtained copies of e-mails confirming the zany details, including O’Keefe’s hope of seducing Boudreau by plying her with strawberries and champagne. It’s like a scene out of some horrible Austin Powers sequel.

It’s a funny story, in a way. But it contains some serious elements too, worth thinking about

• James O’Keefe is obviously a loose cannon—or worse. Before his Lothario stunt, he was arrested for attempting to plant electronic eavesdropping equipment in the Louisiana office of U.S. Senator Mayor Landrieu. His videotapes of ACORN employees offering him pimping advice have been exposed as deceptively edited.

Yet even so, O’Keefe remains a hero to many in the conservative movement. He can raise money, fill a hall at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), and count on a friendly reception from Fox News and talk radio.

For O’Keefe, politics is a form of war, waged without rule or limit. That would not matter much if he were one lone attention-seeker. But O’Keefe is not alone. Some conservative leaders have honorably repudiated O’Keefe’s latest gambit. Special praise here for Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a watchdog group. But if the “politics is war” attitude persists, these episodes will recur.

• In these Tea Party days, conservatism has supposedly rediscovered its vocation as a movement for free-enterprise and limited government. If that were true, I’d be drinking the tea myself.

But O’Keefe did not choose to sting a middle-class family that had shifted assets out of grandma’s name to qualify her nursing-home expenses for Medicaid subsidies. He seems uninterested in mohair subsidies or overpriced road-paving contracts.

His target was the hated liberal media–just as Newt Gingrich has targeted “sharia” and the “secular socialist machine.” O’Keefe assumed that conservatives thrill to cultural conflict more than economic debate. Nor is he alone in that assumption: It’s one reason, in fact, that savvy economic conservatives so eagerly recast economic conflicts as cultural conflicts.

• Of all the liberal media institutions to target, it’s fascinating that O’Keefe chose CNN. For many, politics is becoming less a competition between parties, more a competition between networks: Fox vs. MSNBC vs. CNN displacing Republicans vs. Democrats.

TV becomes a world in a box, with TV’s own internal feuds – O’Reilly vs. Olbermann, Rush vs. Schultz–absorbing the energy that might otherwise have been invested in battles over real resources in real political contests. Instead of addressing realities, we are contending with phantoms; our politics is becoming less about alternative policies and more about alternative realities.

Middle-class incomes may have stagnated during six years of Republican leadership, but O’Reilly’s numbers rose, and isn’t that vindication enough? In the same way, as America’s enemies become more elusive and unpronounceable–as the war against those enemies seems to drag without resolution–it becomes more satisfying for some to redirect their antagonism from the enemies of America to the enemies of Fox News.