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Monday, March 31, 2008

Party Crashers

by digby

Apparently Jay Rosen was intrigued (and concerned) by Will Bunch's characterization of the liberal bloggers at Eschacon "declaring war" on the press. I find that interesting since, as far as I'm concerned, liberal bloggers declared war on the press many years ago. I'm not sure that this is even controversial. Pushing back on biased, anti-Democrat and pro-Republican lies and editorial judgment is supposed to be one of our primary raison d'etres.

Jay seems to think this discussion was unusually provocative, but it actually wasn't. What we said was that the press is in love with McCain, that it is very dangerous for Democrats and that we needed to work hard to combat that, starting now while the Democrats are still settling their primary. (As Bunch wrote in his piece, October is way too late to do it.) When I said that bloggers could get "personal and ugly" in ways that institutions like Media Matters couldn't, I wasn't suggesting that we "take the culture war to the next level and de-legitimate the media for as many people as we can reach." That's hyperbole that nobody even came close to saying.

By going personal and ugly, I meant that we could write about the press the way I did in the excerpt from this post which Jay positively quotes at length. In other words, we can write like bloggers, laying out the critique in edgy, irreverent, aggressive terms that an organization like Media Matters would not want to do. (And our new organizing tools may make it possible to drill our national critique down to the state and local level and mobilize readers to take it to the writers themselves.) The informality and shoot-from-the-hip style, along with our outsider status and freedom, is the essence of blogging.

A better case than my post, would be the ridicule the blogosphere as a whole dished out when the video of the McCain press bar-b-que in Sedona found its way on to Youtube. That was "personal and ugly" simply by showing the fawning media schmoozing with their favorite flyboy (and garnering two glowing accounts in the Washington Post on the same day.) After the 2000 campaign, when Bush bought off the press corps with Dove bars and Animal House nicknames, it's not unreasonable to be skeptical of the media when they get friendly with their favored candidates like this. The history of the love affair between the McCain campaign and the press is legendary and there has been nothing so far in this campaign to reassure me that it has changed.

Jay wonders if by "declaring war on the media" we mean we will declare war on Bill Keller for either being a "loser" and not making the McCain/Iseman story stick or having the bad judgment to publish it in the first place. Neither actually. The derision emanating from blogosphere about the Iseman story was mostly about the run on smelling salts down at the Village drug store --- The New York Times unethically published a front page story about McCain's private life based on rumor and innuendo! The humanity!

After years of trivial tabloid coverage of Democrats, from discussions of Kerry's
"butler" to Edwards' haircuts, you'll have to excuse us cynical bloggers for finding that reaction absurd, particularly in light of the lengthy, anonymously sourced front page story just six months earlier cataloging the number of nights the Clintons spent together. That story was relentlessly flogged by the cable gasbags, who justified their heavy breathing with the rationale that Bill had a habit of catting around, so his marital bed was newsworthy since his wife was running for president. Indeed, not only was it responsible to speculate how often the Clinton's have sex, it would be irresponsible not to.

Unlike the Clinton Rules which say that if one tiny detail of the story is proven factual then the entire story is taken as gospel, the McCain Rules say the opposite. The fact that the alleged affair with Vicki Iseman was not proven means that his rank hypocrisy on campaign finance and ties to lobbyists can never be mentioned again. The Village hissy fit (and McCains own self-righteous performance) was sufficient to cow any news organization from going there again.

Jay brings up the fact that my colleague on the panel in question, NTodd, said that if people are asking Chelsea Clinton about Monica Lewinsky we should have people asking McCain about the circumstances of his marriage. Jay speculates that it would be risky because McCain's response might be able to turn that into a positive viral Youtube ( that old McCain magic, I guess.) But even if that were so, according to Cokie's Law, once it's "out there," it doesn't even matter if it's true or not --- people would be talking about it.

This is how the right wing gets these things into the ether. It would be nice if they didn't, but they do and it does no good to stand on the sidelines clucking about how unfair it all is. Ironically, Jay reports that the person asking Chelsea that question was actually a Clinton supporter, but today it's become a topic of conversation on the Chris Matthews show because she's now being asked the question by others on college campuses. Howard Fineman sniffed that she was going to have to come up with a better answer than she has, spiritedly seconded by undercover right wing operative Michele Bernard. Only the reporter from Congressional Quarterly suggested that there might be some political coordination going on among these college students who are suddenly popping up and asking Chelsea Clinton how she feels about her father's infidelity. Everybody else on the show played dumb. (In case anyone's forgotten, College Republicans pretty much require ratfucking beatdowns as an initiation ritual.)

Most people don't know about McCain's marital history because the press has been hands off. It is why the gasbags and the village pearl clutchers were able to claim the Iseman story wasn't newsworthy and chastise Bill Keller for doing to McCain what the New York Times does to Democrats with impunity and Chris Matthews and his ilk do every day on their repulsive sideshows. I don't have any particular desire to know who politicians are sleeping with and the idea that this information is some sort of great window into the character or qualifications for the job (particularly when the criticism is coming from promiscuous celebrity playboys) is laughable. But if they are going to do it (and there is no sign that they aren't) the least we can expect is that they will be equal opportunity busybodies and show the same hypocrisy toward politicians they personally like as well as the ones they loathe. "Fair and balanced" scandalmongering isn't particularly edifying, but it's better than yet another decade of open season on Democratic presidential candidates.

Jay believes there is a chance that the press has been chastened by their behavior in 2000 but I see absolutely no evidence that they have ever looked at the fundamental issues underlying their attachment to McCain --- their simple-minded attraction to his macho warrior bonafides, the assumptions of political courage based upon his record of physical bravery 40 years ago and his famously bad tempered iconoclasm, his phony clubbiness. They give him a pass because they like him. And they like him because he pretends to like them. The fact that McCain's "openness" results in the boys on the bus protecting him is not an improvement over Tim Russert's mindless gotcha questions or the blatant hostility to politicians they find "boring" or "cold."

Jay brings up one episode I find very revealing, from Howard Kurtz:

McCain said he couldn’t stop[talking to reporters], because “that destroys credibility.” And besides, he said, “I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be.”

Can’t stop. Destroys credibility if I change now. Keeps me thinking. Reporters: lower level of human being. Kurtz was supposed to chuckle at the insult, which is the towel-snapping part of the affair

Is it really too much to ask that the relationship between the press and the powerful be based upon healthy mutual skepticism and (even begrudging) respect for each others' jobs rather than boys locker room experiences? It seems to me we should have worked that through after this last round, but apparently the "Bush III" campaign (talk about dynasties) is going to reported in much the same way as Bush II --- hijinx and bar-b-q and assorted useless stupidities substituting for journalism.

Jay thinks all that is possibly about to change because Obama may match McCain in "radical openness" with the press. It's possible, of course, but Obama's been more closed to the press than any of the other candidates of both parties (and considering his success so far, I would suggest that it's worked.) But as stories like this ,this and this begin to surface, you can see a critical narrative building up around his failure to do it.

There are a number of reasons as to why he's escaped the normal Democratic coverage so far, not the least of which is that the media have been obsessively diverted by their complicated, long standing relationships to the Clintons and John McCain, which play out as the soap opera or stirring warrior tales that were written long ago. That doesn't take anything away from Senator Obama, who until FoxNews decided they needed to get in the game, had managed to finesse them quite successfully. (Managing the press corps is a skill that I wouldn't ever take for granted. It's a big selling point for Obama in my book.)

But history shows that these love affairs with Dems tend only to last as long as the press corps isn't getting fed the kind of juicy, tabloid style GOP spin points they find irresistible, while at the same time being slammed mercilessly by the same operatives for being in the tank. The Reverend Wright brouhaha was an example of what we can expect --- at some point Obama will start receiving an onslaught of tough press. But it will be much worse for him if John McCain is allowed to continue to get away with allowing the professional character assassins to get it "out there" while righteously declaring his moral superiority and opposition to such tactics.

Jay quotes Paul Waldman, one of the co-authors of "Free Ride" about McCain's relationship with the media, saying that he's hopeful the book will help persuade reporters to take a step back and ask themselves whether their coverage of McCain has been what it should be. The book is impressive and perhaps there will be some in the press who read it and have that epiphany. But as Jay points out, the rightwing babblers all hate McCain too. Under those circumstances, the press conventions dictate that because McCain is hated by both the too hot right and too cold left --- he's just right. McCain becomes the man in the middle, that most precious of political commodities. (And he loves them, he really loves them!)

Judging by what I'm seeing in the campaign so far, the press hasn't spent even one minute reassessing their campaign coverage of the past couple of decades and are mindlessly running repetitious (and long ago discredited) plot lines. The younger ones don't even know how much right wing cant they've internalized and the older ones are still trying to justify their previous bad behavior. When you look at the press coverage of Bill Clinton, Gore and Kerry, it's more than obvious that Republican narratives dominate once they get going. (It's why I have been of the opinion that having the primary go on for a while was actually a good thing -- the Republicans can't settle on a single story line.) We can assume that this time is different or we can try to get out in front and attack this stuff head on, right now.

Jay wants us to not declare war, but rather try to persuade. That seems a matter of semantics and tactics to me. I desperately want to persuade them to stop being ninnies and jackasses but the only way I've seen to do that is by relentlessly pointing out their foibles and mobilizing the public to hold them accountable for it. If they all wake up tomorrow and begin reporting the race in a way that doesn't seem to come out of junior high slumber parties and boy scout camp, I couldn't be happier. But I think it would be foolish to count on it.

Jay has some interesting ideas about how to go about making the coverage of McCain better at the end of the article that are worth considering. (But I would be very surprised if McCain would allow liberal bloggers on the back of the bus and I suspect the press corps wouldn't like it much either. After all, we would very likely spoil the party.)

Update: I should make clear that I'm not criticizing Jay for his observations. I disagree with some of his assumptions about the possibility of change in the press corps' behavior in this election, but he's not wrong to ask these questions. I just believe that bloggers pointing out incorrect reporting isn't enough. Media Matters does that better than any of us. the independent bloggers connect the dots with aggression and attitude. It's what it takes to engage the public and break through.