Saturday, July 21, 2007

Useful Mediots

We keep coming back to the same questions, when we look at political media coverage: is it coincidence, carelessness, or design? Is it misguided efforts to roll with the kewl kids at the alpha end of the pack, or just institutional laziness? What the hell is wrong with these people, and why must we endure their sloppy, inane bullshit yet again? Did they not learn anything from the last empty suit they failed to deflate, just because he played grab-ass with them a little bit better than the other guy?

The 2000 election was close enough that any number of things can fairly be described as having made the difference. But what Bob Somerby describes as the media's "War Against Gore" was undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in Bush's "victory." The contempt many political reporters felt for Gore is clear, as is the inaccurate, unfair, and grossly distorted coverage of Gore that decided the campaign. And, again, you needn't take my word for it: Bob Somerby, Eric Alterman, Eric Boehlert, and others have chronicled the acknowledgements by working journalists of their colleagues' hate for Gore. Jake Tapper described reporters "hissing" -- actually hissing -- Gore. Time's Eric Pooley described an incident in which a roomful of reporters "erupted in a collective jeer" of Gore "like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."

And Joe Scarborough -- conservative television host Joe Scarborough; former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough -- has said that during the 2000 election, the media "were fairly brutal to Al Gore. ... [I]f they had done that to a Republican candidate, I'd be going on your show saying, you know, that they were being biased."

Somerby has long argued that one of the reasons the media's hatred for Gore was able to define the 2000 campaign so completely is that too few people talked about it -- and demanded that it stop -- at the time.

And now they've decided to turn their sights on Edwards, for one of the most tortured, cynical redefinitions of the word "hypocrisy" imaginable. Perhaps inadvertently, one of the gifted scribes gives up the game:

There is a difference in the political reality: fairly or unfairly, a healthy chunk of the national political press corps doesn't like John Edwards.

Fairly or unfairly, there's also a difference in narrative timing: when the first quarter ended, the press was trying to bury Edwards. It's not so much interested in burying Romney right now -- many reporters think he's the Republican frontrunner.

As despicable and unprofessional as those admissions are, Ambinder at least deserves some small amount of credit for being somewhat honest about the level of collective perfidy going on in this debauched joke of a profession. And I realize that there are plenty of fine reporters out there, and I'm not trying to broad-brush them, but here's the deal -- this "healthy chunk" Ambinder alludes to needs to be revealed and run out of the business, period. There is no excuse for this sort of thing, and there sure as hell is no excuse for glossing it over with lame "fairly or unfairly" asides.

Equally as interesting is Ambinder's assertion that these gutless weasels, these disgraces to their craft, don't want to "bury" Romney simply because he's perceived as the frontrunner. I happen to think that perception is correct -- Giuliani is starting to take on water; McCain is done; and Fred Thompson is about three months away from aw-shucksing his way up to the podium, 'fessing that he really don't have the fahr in the belly, folks, but if y'all will jes' vote fer whoever'll put ol' Fred in his Cabinet, why, that'd be right nice of ya.

(Let me be more clear about this: Fred Thompson is not really intending to be a serious candidate, even if he "runs". He's there to round up the morons who can't stand the current crop of losers, but don't want to vote Democratic. Get them all into one place, and then pass them off as a rump bloc. And if any campaign finances happen to be left in ol' Fred's war chest, we'll just call that there a finder's fee. All these bozos running their "I'm With Fred" blogs are being played like a washboard on Cooter's front porch.)

So Ambinder has tacitly admitted that, while perhaps not organized enough to be called a conspiracy per se, there is at least enough childish behavior and sheer abdication of professional responsibility to warrant any decent editor to fire their asses, and any sensible colleague to make a point of repudiating this sort of thing. It's inexcusable and unacceptable.

And it's not terribly different from this endless inane, vapid commentary on candidates' sexuality. You know, enough, okay? Is there some sort of by-law in the Journalists' Code of Ethics that says that presidential candidates are supposed to be undermined and worked over as if we, the readers, were a bunch of catty, half-witted seventh-graders?

We seriously need to start repudiating these people when they do this, to the point where they have to find another line of work. Because they really should -- what they do barely qualifies as gossip; it sure as hell isn't journalism. Either they're unspeakably stupid, or unforgivably corrupt, and should be held accountable for both.

[Update: Russell Baker, in the latest New York Review of Books, both elaborates on how the emphasis on revenue enhancement has severely atrophied the reportage model, and has some observations about how the serious, fact-checking passion of the intemperate bloggerses is rapidly filling that void -- and that, much to the chagrin of the neutered Beltway house cats, it might even be a healthy thing:

Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product. Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing, or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country, and the local community. Cost-cutting has reduced the number of correspondents stationed abroad, shriveled or closed news bureaus in Washington, and crippled local reporting staffs which once kept an eye on governors, mayors, state legislatures, small-town rascals, crooks, and jury suborners. It has also shrunk the size of the typical newspaper page, cutting the cost of newsprint by cutting news content.


Blogging is a more interesting development, perhaps because bloggers are so passionate about it. It is a valuable restraint on careless and sloppy journalism, for the vigilance of the bloggers misses not the slightest error or the least omission, and the fury of their rage is terrible to bear. Committed bloggers insist that they are practicing journalism just as surely as a correspondent like John Burns is practicing journalism when reporting on the Iraq war from Baghdad for The New York Times. Anyone wishing to debate the point must be ready to argue all night and well into next week. What is indisputable is that practically every blogger can now be a columnist. With vast armies of columnists blogging away, it seems inevitable that a few may eventually produce something original, arresting, and refreshing and so breathe new life into this worn-out journalistic form.

Exactly. When journalists, and the corporations who employ them, have lost sight of the mission, and the opportunity for a more democratized corrective becomes technologically feasible, the form changes, as does the perception of it. And ultimately, it's for the better, I think, all pretenses of vituperation and offensensitivity aside. Journalists used to be passionate about the job and little else, or so goes the legend; now they are encouraged by corporate to see the big picture and act in a role of fake comity, uphold the status quo.

I think also that the notional opportunity that a role in reportage is an entry vehicle for a star turn, that one could aspire to be the next newsmilf or hunky basso profundo anchor, has attracted a certain number of people who are otherwise completely unsuited for the rigors of the actual job. This would explain a great deal, particularly the repulsive notion that it's even remotely acceptable for someone to use their position as an excuse to nurse and transcribe their grudges and hang-ups. I am not even slightly bullshitting when I implore such cretins to quit, now, and find an honest day's work.

I would also take some issue with Baker's assertion that the press could not have adequately obstructed the juggernaut to war with Iraq. Not so much the veracity of the claim; it may in fact have some truth to it. The public wanted blood for 9/11, rightly so, and the administration was certainly devious enough to divert this kinetic energy to their own aspirations.

However, the point of issue is not that the media had tested the limits of its powerlessness to challenge official lies and dogma, and found itself wanting, it's that they didn't even try. They fell over themselves to embed, to suck up, to send hacks like Judy Miller over to transcribe whatever factoid was passed to her under whatever debauched conditions, since she has a rep for, um, "compromising" her sources. They are far too timid and deferential and clubby with the people they are assigned to cover, to ever do much good. But they can and should at least make the effort to avoid becoming instruments of propaganda, and at that, they failed utterly.

The question is whether they have learned any lessons at all, as we watch the can be kicked further by a disgustingly cynical Republican minority, and talk of hostilities with Iran continues apace. They can blame the majesty of the offices and the incivility of the bloggerses all they want, but ultimately, either they want to cover the facts and report responsibly and impartially, or they don't. I can't make that choice for them, unfortunately, so I wish to hell they'd grow up and stop blaming us for their self-serving bullshit.]