The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Monday, November 26, 2007

You-a Culpa

Yeah, I still feel pretty sheepish when I suggest that American democracy is at a perilous crossroads. I still feel like something of a kook when I argue that our electoral system is such a game of money and marketing that we barely qualify as a republic.

The trouble is, whenever I try to put on a happy face, something goes wrong. Example: the MSM's recent bout of guilt over the way elections are covered. I took that to be a positive thing. Sure, we're seeing the same crap we have for the last decade, but at least big-name journotainmentists (I just know I'm going to cash in on my oh-so-clever neologisms one of these days) are admitting that they're ladling up poop stew, right? Well, I mentioned this to a relative a couple of months ago and she immediately asked me if I'd heard any of them blame themselves for poor coverage. Nope, she said, they always seem to blame unnamed others. Tim Russert is a standout. He's done his share of tut-tutting over the poor quality of campaign coverage, but keeps right on with the gotchas and non-substance. And he was one of the absolute worst when it came to torpedoing Gore's 2000 campaign. No, I've never heard any self-doubt from him.

Then there's Mark Halperin. As founder of ABC News' The Note, widely hailed as a must-read source of the latest DC buzz, he reigned over a fiefdom of smarm. Non-news news items, endless catty asides-- it was a gossip column pretending to be hard journalism, which is exactly the problem with MSM journalism. And one of the major reasons the nation is in so much trouble.

He penned an op-ed for the NYT today, and while it contains the words "I was wrong," they come with a qualifier and it isn't really an admission of shoddy reporting, or helping to foster an environment where issues of national importance are brushed aside in favor of "patriotic lapel pin" debates. And what it appears to boil down to is a journotainmentist version of excusing one's behavior by saying "It was society."

Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has “what it takes” to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.

For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.

But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.

Case in point: Our two most recent presidents, both of whom I covered while they were governors seeking the White House. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are wildly talented politicians. Both claimed two presidential victories, in all four cases arguably as underdogs. Both could skillfully serve as the chief strategist for a presidential campaign.

But their success came not because they convinced the news media (and much of the public) that they would be the best president, but because they dominated the campaign narrative that portrayed them as the best candidate in a world-class political competition. In the end, both men were better presidential candidates than they were presidents.

Okay, I like Clinton well enough, although I wouldn't put him on a list of great presidents. So I'm just going to ignore Halperin's petty-- and frankly asinine-- equivalence of Bill Clinton with his successor. Huh. Actually, it's impossible to ignore. So is the whole "Gee, I was duped" routine. And it's because both are part of the same problem.

Anyone with Web access and five minutes' time could distinguish on-camera Bush from the reactionary, coward, and incompetent boob his record showed him to be. Actually, in addition to Web access and five minutes, you'd have to give a damn. The press didn't. They favored snarky one-liners about cigars and inventing the Internet. No matter that Gore never said that, or that the Texas education bill Bush regularly boasted about "signing into law" on the campaign trail was one he'd actually vetoed.

Another profoundly disturbing indicator of Halperin's obliviousness is this lament over what Bill Clinton did: "squandered a good deal of the majesty and power of the presidency." Monarchs are known for their majesty-- not American presidents. And limiting the power of the American president is built right in to the system. Maybe Halperin thought long and hard about how he could seem objective by giving a blowjob the same stern disapproval as the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, but that's exactly why so much of the MSM's product is useless.

Also worth noting is that Halperin insists that "we" were fooled. Not Beltway journalists, but every last American. To return to 2000, in spite of the MSM's constant hammering of Gore, he won the popular vote. To return to the 90's, a majority of Americans considered Clinton's fling to be getting news coverage ridiculously out of proportion to its significance.

"We" weren't fooled, Mark Halperin. It's your fault. It's your colleagues fault. And you're still serving up the same devil's cocktail of gossip, scandals-that-aren't, and fashion critiques.

Which brings me to another recent story. But since their site is down, it'll have to wait.