I’ve written before about annoyingly substance-free political journalism (and the substance-free politics on which it’s based). Here are two perfect articulations of why this kind of journalism and politics isn’t just annoying — it’s bad for America. First, from Andrew Sullivan:
We have war criminals as president and vice-president, and a constitution staggering after one serious terror attack. But the campaign is about whether Obama is like Paris Hilton.
The threat of Rove and his ilk is not that their petty, deceptive and irresistibly subjective tactics are evil in a petty, deceptive, childish kind of way. It’s that their venial sins distract from their mortal ones. It’s the mortal ones we have to be worried about. And the mortal ones that they are getting away with.
And from Ta-Nehisi Coates:
The housing market is collapsing, Iran is pursuing the bomb, climate change is peeking over the horizon–and we are discussing power-bars and Honest Tea. Look, all campaigns do their share of unfair attacks. And at the end of the day, it’s Obama’s job to come back with a devastating counter. He’s excelled at that all year. I expect him to do no less here. But–and I this will sound totally syrupy and naive–I really thought John McCain was a little better than this.
Jonathan Chait explains the political side of this state of affairs in his latest New Republic column:
In the late 1980s, the popular revolt against government that had bubbled up in the mid-’60s began to peter out, sapping the power of straightforward anti-government appeals. And, starting in 1992, Democrats ruthlessly purged nearly all their political liabilities by embracing anti-crime measures, welfare reform, and middle-class tax cuts, and, more recently, by abandoning gun control. What’s left is a political terrain generally favorable to Democrats, which has, in turn, forced Republicans to emphasize the personal virtue of their nominees.
And so, every four years, we have a Democratic candidate campaigning on health care, the minimum wage, education, Medicare, or Social Security, and a Republican candidate campaigning on themes like Trust, Courage, and so forth.
Why journalists play along with this game is another matter.
UPDATE: Michael Grunwald pushed back against this nonsense in a good Time column Monday, and Obama himself had a pretty good rejoinder at a town hall meeting (hat tip: The Plank):
The Internet is such a ubiquitous and necessary (for us addicts, at least) part of life in the late 2000-aughts that it’s strange and time-warpy to think of how recent that ubiquity really is. Vanity Fair has compiled a fun oral history of the Net that serves as one of those occasional reminders of the absurd pace of change over the past 15 years. (The oral history covers the Internet’s 50-year history, but the best parts are about the World Wide Web era.)
I first became aware of the post-CompuServe Internet when my brother was in college, circa 1992. I was so excited that he somehow had access to all the important information I couldn’t find anywhere else: namely, the special moves for Street Fighter II. I think Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam secrets were also big on my list of Net-procured info, but Street Fighter was the main treasure.
I remember my brother mentioning Archie and Veronica — two early search engines — and I had no idea what he was talking about, though I must have used one or both to find the video game tricks. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the first time I used a Web browser. In my memory, browsers just exist after a point.
Anyway, here are some interesting bits from the Vanity Fair piece…
I don’t always agree with Dana Milbank’s take on politics, but I always love reading his Washington Sketch pieces for the Washington Post. To me, he represents where newspaper journalism should be heading: reporters as honestly subjective sources unto themselves, rather than faux-objective conduits for he-said, she-said quote-getting.
My favorite Milbank pieces are sketches of congressional hearings. He’s not afraid of actually pointing out the absurdity and dulling obfuscation of government bureaucracy in action. I often wonder why the Post bothers running “straight” news stories about hearings — the kind of stories that dutifully recount “newsworthy” quotes (i.e. scripted boilerplate) — when Milbank’s sketch invariably tells you what really happened.
Milbank’s new piece on Hillary Clinton’s win in West Virginia isn’t about a hearing, but it’s one of his best columns yet. Not just because he uses Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch to frame Clinton’s dwindling candidacy, but because he finally reveals the hollowness of my all-time favorite stumping-politician move: the smarmily grinning point-and-wave (and its close cousins the grinning point, wave, and-thumbs-up; and the grinning point-and-nod, which Hillary Clinton does at the 8- and 52-second marks of this video and which Bill Clinton does three times in the first 21 seconds of this video).
Milbank’s description of Clinton running through the point-and-wave motions is almost poignant, despite the mockery of the story’s Monty Python framing:
A steep descent brings Clinton’s plane to Charleston’s hilltop airport. After an appropriate wait, she steps from the plane and pretends to wave to a crowd of supporters; in fact, she is waving to 10 photographers underneath the airplane’s wing. She pretends to spot an old friend in the crowd, points and gives another wave; in fact, she was waving at an aide she had been talking with on the plane minutes earlier.
If there’s been a more succinct, perfect illustration of Clinton’s end-game — or a better skewering of the point-and-wave — I haven’t seen it.
UPDATE: Credit Bill Walsh for the terrific headline (“This Is an Ex-Candidate”) on Milbank’s story. Walsh posted some other headlines he considered; I especially like “White Americans and the Norwegian Blue,” but I think his final headline was poifect.
In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)
There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:
When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.
In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.
The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.
I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the pointlessness of the “Is the media finally getting tough on Barack Obama” meme. The gist would have been that the media’s “getting tough” on Obama — just like the media’s alleged “Obama bias” — had zero to do with policy and everything to do with personality, image, and media meta-narratives. Likewise the media’s alleged bias against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with her policy proposals.
Furthermore, the near-total focus on these sorts of things to the exclusion of policy shows the general shallowness of newspaper political journalism, especially campaign journalism. There are many reasons for this, starting with objectivity conventions, which give reporters little reason to read white papers, policy proposals, scholarly books, etc. Whereas writers for New Republic, Atlantic, Slate et. al. are a) not bound by “objectivity” strictures and b) well-versed in policy.
Washington Post columnist David Broder is at this point basically a joke among serious political writers and bloggers. To them, he represents the pointlessness and shallowness of a certain kind of mainstream newspaper political coverage: A mindset that fetishizes objectivity and even-handedness to the point of prizing, above all else, “bipartisanship” for the sake of bipartisanship regardless of the policies involved.
According to this mindset, the havoc wreaked by tax cuts, cronyism, and Republicans’ turning K Street into another arm of government were not the result of deliberate policies and practices by one party, but rather occurred because of “partisan gridlock,” because “Washington is broken.” Thus bipartisan action is always good, regardless of whether the legislation produced by such action is sound. (The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait is one of the best critics of this view, and his book The Big Con is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of thing.)
Broder’s column Thursday about the recently enacted economic stimulus package is an almost comically perfect example of this shallow strain of argument. Continue reading