Irony Squigglies

by digby

Hey, remember that fawning Giuliani article in the New York Times a week or so back? Quite a few of us wrote about it, including yours truly, wondering whether we were going to be in for another round of GOP candidate worship from the NY Times. Considering the ongoing front page obsession with the Clintons' sex lives and the dearth of critical front page stories on Giuliani, it isn't really all that absurd to surmise that the Times may be getting ready to do a re-run of the egregious 2000 campaign coverage in which Kit Seelye consistently portrayed Al Gore as a mendacious circus freak while Frank Bruni wrote gushing article after gushing article about George W. Bush's puckish-yet-masculine regular guyness. Anyone who thinks that didn't have an effect on the campaign needs to ask themselves why they call it the paper of record.

One of those who wrote about the Times article was Mediabloodhound and waddaya know? He got a response in his comments from the writer of the piece, Michael Powell:

Your mama needs to reinsert the irony squiggly in your DNA. But congratulations: It's really hard to read that piece and take every single word seriously, but you done it. Another irony-immune blogger. You go dude.

Michael Powell

Yes, it has been confirmed that this is the real Michael Powell.

Now, I had also gotten a note from a reader who said that I had misread the piece, that it was satire and I was being obtuse. I went back a re-read it and thought to myself, "well, it could be..." But, you see, it was kind of hard to be sure since it appeared on the news pages of the New York Times and didn't honestly seem all that satirical, considering their previous gushing coverage of "Daddy" candidates. Op-ed? Sure, I might have thought it was "ironic." On Keith Olbermann or Jon Stewart, ok. This could be, with a little tweaking a "fake news" piece. But on page one of the New York Times, I am not expecting to read Maureen Dowd and frankly, this piece was not even close to being in her league, if that was the intention (which I suspect it was --- Modo's mean girl coverage of Bush Sr in 1988 is what made her a star, to the endless detriment of journalism ever since then.)

Here's part of Mediabloodhound's response:

My “mama” would be thrilled to receive a shout-out from a New York Times reporter. Though, if she were healthy enough, she would assure you her son’s “irony squiggly” is firmly in place. She might even point you to some satire on her son’s site, and say, “See?” She might even explain, “But the thing is, Michael, he labels his satire as such, whereas you’ve written, as you seem to be saying, a highly ironic news article – whatever that is – which is neither labeled “news analysis” nor “op-ed” nor, for that matter, “satire.” My mama, again, if she were well enough, would probably think you’ve missed the point of my critique, or, instead, knowing exactly what was I getting at, that it struck a nerve, causing you to react defensively rather than to thoughtfully consider constructive criticism in a professional manner.

I think I am a fairly sophisticated reader of the news, and usually don't have any problem understanding satire, "irony-immune" blogger or not. But regardless of my own shortcomings, there's a reason why Billmon called it Pravda on the Hudson: we have to spend way too much time these days deciphering the news pages as if they are a bunch of ancient druid runes. I spend hours here and at other blogs trying to read between the lines and figure out what these reporters "really mean" because the conventions of modern journalism are so arcane that you have to be some sort of insider or psychic to know what the hell is actually going on. Just as I can't understand why I have to try to interpret why certain anonymous sources might be saying saying certain things and who they might be and what their real agenda is, I can't for the life of me figure out why the news pages should be a place for reporters to demonstrate their satirical writing gifts --- and then be upset when people are confused by the context.

Yesterday, Michael Powell responded to Mediabloodhound's riposte and explained his position further:

Ad hominen? A curious complaint given the shots you dished up. Buuuuuut lemme be very clear. As a native New Yorker, I'm fine with ad hominens all around. I was just cruising the web, saw your original blog, smiled and wrote a quick comment.

It's intriguing to read the interpretations--and yes, to my mind, misinterpretations--of my piece. I dig blogs, even when the bloggers are so ferociously caught up in their moment/politics/sense of righteousness that they miss the forest for the trees.

That said, I also freely/ fully/forever acknowledge that I've often had occasion to think: "Y'know, in retrospect I'd have worded something differently etc ... "
So, that throat clearing aside ... the NYT (as it true of most of the big papers) takes a layered cake approach to political coverage. For every major candidate we will do some investigative work, some bio/thematic, and some life on the trail pieces.

I will do work that falls into all three categories over the next few months. I covered this guy many moons ago, when I was city hall bureau chief for a different paper. And I wrote a much longer piece on him for the Washington Post back in, oh, 1999 or so. My coverage gave the man his due but was hardly adoring. Don't trust me, find the pieces on the web. Anyway, before launching into some longer pieces on Giuliani, I wanted to reacquaint myself with his campaign style.
What I found was a famously tempermental pol who was, so far with considerable success, keeping his bubbling id under wraps. As I would maintain is very clear from the lede, I am most certainly not suggesting that Rudy's snarl has been surgically removed, but merely put under wraps.

I know many people--not least a number of my fellow New Yorkers--who find this hard to believe. They tend to dismiss Giuliani because they remember the roiling roaring mayor and cannot imagine that a man such as this could become president.
They're wrong, to my mind. To the extent that he keeps this aspect of his nature under wraps, and showcases the rather more impressive side of his talents as a candidate, he becomes quite formidable. Speaking of formidable, his ego also is of copious size, as was clear -- again, I thought -- from the conclusion of the piece.
There are many people who read this piece and, to my mind, got precisely the bemused tone rather clearly. (We run pieces every day that adopt all sorts of tones, from deadly serious to ironic to light-hearted). There are also apparently a number of no doubt very smart (and lemme posit that I very much accept that your irony squiggly is in place)people who didn't read it that way. I would argue that this is, in part, because people see "Giuliani" and want to read an evisceration, or a deep dive into his views on torture, on civil liberties.

I understand that.

But there is a continium of coverage. The point here was to note this is a formidable pol and--based on his history as a candidate in 1993--don't count on him imploding.

Judge us over the course of the next eight months, and I feel very confident that you'll see a collection of pieces that add up to a complex whole.

Anyway, I've gone on too long. But I figure there is underneath the mutual ad hominens a more serious discussion waiting to happen ...



A more serious discussion is imperative.

Let's go back and look at some of the things that Powell wrote in his ironic piece:

The dyspeptic, “not afraid to suggest his opponents have really deep-seated psychological problems” Republican mayor of fact and legend has taken a holiday. What’s left on the presidential campaign trail is a commanding daddy of a candidate, a disciplined fellow who talks about terrorism and fiscal order and about terrorism some more


If Hillary Rodham Clinton is the nurturer warrior and Barack Obama the college idealist and John McCain the tough but irreverent flyboy, then Mr. Giuliani is the father, the talk-tough-on-terror, I’m-comfortable-wielding-authority guy.


In dress, he plays to type. Other candidates go open-necked or pull flannel shirts out of the closet for New Hampshire.

Not the former mayor. He dresses in the one-size-too-large suits he has favored since his days as a federal prosecutor, with the top shirt button fastened and tie knotted tight. It is difficult to imagine anyone asking him a “really dopey” (two favorite Giuliani words now in abeyance) question about his favored style in underwear, as someone once did of Bill Clinton.


Mr. Giuliani laughs, he gestures expansively, he even pokes fun at his tendency to wax a wee bit authoritarian. (He suggests a touch of the cane was necessary to impose discipline on that liberal asylum known as New York.)

Talk about getting "caught up in their moment/politics/sense of righteousness that they miss the forest for the trees."

Let's say that the joke is obvious to all the smart people who know Michael Powell and they understand that Giuliani is actually a quasi-fascist phony. The problem is that this isn't a joke to the Republicans. They really do applaud him wildly when he says he wants more torture and fear mongers shamelessly about terrorists coming to kill us all in our beds. They LIKE this stuff and a "real" tough guy whose lunatic personality is just an act is exactly what they are trying to portray. Perhaps it's just coincidence that the first layer of Powell's cake and the Giuliani campaign's strategy mesh so well at this particulkar moment, but nonetheless, I'm sure they are very, very pleased that the liberal NY Times is once again advancing the exact narrative they want them to, ironically or not. They know very well that the purveyors of conventional wisdom turn their "irony squigglies" on and off as it pleases them --- and it's obvious that disciplined Republican daddy figures are highest on their list of preferred leadership styles.

After years of terribly unfair, irony-free, coverage of Democrats (and fluffy campaign coverage of Bush that would make Entertainment Tonight cringe with embarrassment) the Times will have to excuse some of us for not being terribly reassured when a clever writer explains that we need to wait for another eight or nine months to see the more "complex" layers of the cake. These narratives are being set right now and experience shows that they will not be "complex" at all: Hard/Soft, Daddy/Mommy, Leader/Loser.(And it has little to do with the real gender of the candidates --- The politican who is the most feminized in the race is not Hillary, it's the family man John Edwards, "the Breck girl." John Kerry was the most famously flaccid political "flip-flopper" in history.)

Certainly, the rest of the political media establishment has some very interesting views of what makes a story "important" and "meaningful" and they aren't waiting for any layers to reveal themselves:

MATTHEWS: ... This Post story was huge down here today. It‘s at the top of the fold, like that Pat Healey piece was in the “New York Times” a few months back. Newspaper editors of major papers are deciding to put the Clinton story at the top of the paper. What is this about?


MATTHEWS: But is it a major front page news story at the top of the fold because of the politics involved or because it is a good gushy story?

And then there's this:

Rudy Giuliani, usually no day at the beach, is smiling his way through the summer, grinning even when people ask him the worst possible questions on 9/11.

Simplistic conventional wisdom is made every day and it's made from pieces like Powell's. I'm sure it's boring to write a straight, entertaining article about Giuliani, but reporters need to figure out a way to do it so that Chris Matthews, if not an irony impaired blogger like me, doesn't misunderstand it. It's vitally important that he does so, because it's guys like Matthews who push these narratives and put Democrats at a disadvantage time and time again, informed by these cute "light" personality pieces that always seem to portray Republicans as authentic leaders and Democrats as phonies and freaks. Journalists who wish to truly do a good job need to think about how this happens and try to work against it. I assume that Powell is a good journalist. And I agree with him that Giuliani is a formidable candidate --- unlike his New York acquaintances, I take his campaign very, very seriously. But I think it also behooves the NY Times to be very serious this time about their coverage of all the candidates. They've shown a propensity to fall into these established narratives over and over again.

I'm not very hopeful, I have to tell you. So far, we've found out that Giuliani's looney personality is really just an act and he's actually a very strong and disciplined leader. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton's calm personality is also just an act and she is actually a cold and calculating bitch. This notion of a "layer cake" sounds like more of a Republican souffle and a Democratic cowpie.

BTW: Powell did a video to accompany this story. Give your irony squiggly a jolt because you're going to need it. You will see that he calls Giuliani a "wartime" mayor but not for his alleged leadership on 9/11 --- for his leadership of a "liberal city" where he imposed fiscal discipline (Clinton who?) and public safety. I guess that could be called ironic. It sounds more like a gift to the Giuliani campaign to me --- he put the liberals in their place now he's going after the terrorists. Mmmm. Cupcakes.

Update: As Mediabloodhound reminded me in an email, the NY Times recently went to great deal of troubled to create guidelines designed to distinguish between the straight news and "analysis" on the news pages. Here's the story, by Byron Calame called "Drawing a Clearer Line Between News and Opinion." I'm not sure where Powell's piece fits in, but I wouldn't think that such a satirical "tone" could be called straight news. It would be an interesting question for the new ombudsman.

Update II: Mediabloodhound smartly responds to Powell.

Update III: Avedonobserves that the NY Times is now like a Fanzine.