Friday, February 17, 2012

The "Refs" Rig The Game - Political Journalism In 2012

After Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, New York magazine writer John Heileman observed that Gingrich's victory would result in several days of significant (and free) media  coverage because "the media want this race to go on …" that the coverage Gingrich would get would be "more favorable  … than he would ordinarily [get] from people who would normally give him tougher scrutiny."  These observations led the colorfully named "Balloon Juice" blogger John Cole to note that Heileman's comment confirmed that the media views itself as not needing "to inform or deal with facts - it is to horse race and get page hits." To which Heileman, in his February 6, 2012 column for New York observed "I'm not endorsing this reality, I'm just describing it." 


Shakespeare might think that Mr. Heileman doth protest too much.  In fact, the ready excuse many in journalistic circles use to defend their reporting is precisely the same - do not blame us.  We are just the flies on the wall observing the event and describing it.  We hold no position pro or con about it.  When the New York Times Public Editor asked (rhetorically, one hopes) whether Times reporters should be "truth vigilantes," the feedback was both immediate and intense among those who think the media has, in recent years, fallen down on the job of reporting facts (and fiction) instead of the "he said/she said" that passes as balance.  

More than 40 years ago, Walter Cronkite crystallized the anti-war movement by calling the Vietnam War unwinnable.  A declaration like that would have gotten Cronkite branded anti-American when George W. Bush was President.  Indeed, Republicans happily ran two campaigns (2002 & 2004) explicitly challenging those who did not support the President's foreign policy adventures as just that.  When Bush's Chief of Staff Andrew Cards famously said, in reference to the lead up to the Iraq War that "from a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," his comment barely made a ripple even as the Administration baldly did exactly what Card said they would - roll out their "product" (the war) that fall, with speeches, strategically leaked quotes to journalists and dark visions of smoking guns turned to mushroom clouds.  

Lost in that marketing campaign was a small, but concerted effort by some reporters to actually *gasp* investigate the claims that were being trumpeted by Judy Miller on the front page of The New York Times and the largely unchallenged assertions of a cavalcade of Administration officials in places as diverse as Meet the Press and the halls of the United Nations.  The fog of that long war has resulted in a fair amount of revisionist history and spin by the people who launched it to pretend like everyone was sucked into some weird group think and that no one questioned, at the time, how specious the arguments for going to war actually were, but the reality, as uncovered by journalists like Tom Ricks, was quite the opposite.

The years since President Bush directed the invasion of Iraq have seen the media hoard become more active performers in what now passes for political theater.  Where opinion columns were once reserved for august "wise men" they are now turned over to snarky polemists like Dana Milbank and pendants like David Brooks.  Reporters who were once memorialized in the seminal book "The Boys on the Bus," are now tweeting in real time about their very own "wheels up" from destinations on the campaign trail and dropping zingers about poor music choice and crowd size.  Lastly, the inside the Beltway zeitgeist is captured in the dishy Playbook written by Politico ace Mike Allen, who serves as his own one man PR machine by promoting its headlines on morning talk shows and then amplifying his (and his colleagues) reporting throughout the day via yet more appearances and of course, his Twitter feed.  Allen frames the "conventional wisdom" for each day, around which campaigns and elected officials prepare responses and rebut charges.  Of course, the amplification of the very issues Allen highlights merely serves to reinforce their veracity, unless, of course, the facts change, in which case the media scrum moves as one to the new way of thinking, without ever recognizing its error in the first place. 

To what end this all comes is unclear.  As newspapers have closed down, those that have survived have consolidated their newsrooms and, in many cases, reduced staffing in critical areas, the type of investigative reporting that used to drive journalism and helped uncover graft, scandal and wrongdoing at all levels of government and throughout the private sector is going by the wayside and being replaced with an endless supply of cable TV talking heads who parse political tempests in tea pots while all too often missing more important stories that have a greater impact on people's lives.  For example, while there is no question that the recent debate about federal health care policy regarding contraception deserved attention, the media was all too quick to be sucked into the swirl of the back and forth instead of doing the hard reporting that, after more than a week, sussed out important points, including the fact that Republicans from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney had supported such policies in the past, that the policy itself was broadly supported (including by Catholics) and that even so, relative to other issues of the day, it was barely a blip on the collective radar screen of the American people.  But instead of calling out Republican hypocrisy, or, even better, not feeding the story the oxygen it needed to survive, media outlets gorged on the story by reporting on the conflict it created far more than they did on the policy itself. 

In this way, the chattering class has largely absolved itself from doing any actual reporting, and instead has become a combination Greek chorus, high school clique and professional wrestling angle where everyone is in on the joke and knows that the outcome is predetermined - the spokesperson for candidate "x" you are questioning in the afternoon will be the same guy you are socializing with at that evening's book release party.  Rare is the journalist equipped to ask, or express interest in, drilling below the canned talking points of politicians who are generally given free rein to hit their marks with little in the way of interruption or contradiction by their supposed interrogators.  It's all very incestuous because those same journalists rely on those same politicians to appear on their programs.  Cut too quick in your questioning and your booker is unlikely to receive a call back the next time a guest slot is open.  On the other hand, push just hard enough to create acceptable tension, without making things too uncomfortable, and everyone goes home happy. Everyone has their role to play in the staged performance of political theater, but rarely are any blows struck, reputations harmed or straw men debunked.  Instead, it is all just get fed into what Jon Stewart aptly called the "conflict-in-ator" with Americans serving as the lazy Roman audience collectively lifting or lowering their thumbs.  

This might seem like small potatoes in a media environment that has become ever more consolidated, but the deleterious effect on our national polity is far greater when reporters and journalists are not skeptics and instead become too close to the stories (and people) they cover.    For many years, the trope of a "liberal" slant in the media was either taken as an article of faith among conservatives or, if you are a bit more cynical, was one of the most effective means of, as then-RNC Chairman Rich Bond admitted in a moment of candor in 1992, "working the refs," a phrase that is familiar to any sports fan as a means of influencing future calls by coaches through pestering of the referees to show them how they screwed up prior calls.  The signal achievement, in many ways, of the modern Republican Party is not that they have successfully worked the refs to get "fair" treatment (that term long ago lost its meaning and became quite elastic) but rather, that the refs stopped being impartial a long time ago and are now fixing the game for the benefit of the combatants.  


  1. Excellent piece. I've been fishing these waters myself, but not with so much detail as you have put into this. It reminds me of one TV commentator saying that politics has become like 'professional wrestling'. My only thought was, then, if so, the media is the ref who is always looking in another direction when the GOP picks up a folding chair to bash liberals, POTUS, the media themselves and anyone else who is kool-aid intolerant, yet insisting it's a fair fight. Once again, great article...

    1. Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog. You can also follow me on twitter @scarylawyerguy.