Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Democratic Convention and the media clones who cover it

The pundits were awful covering the Democratic Convention Monday night. Or is that redundant? It would say about the same if we just said, "The pundits were covering the Democratic Convention Monday night."

It's good that we have C-Span and Internet options to get a direct feed of the convention, for those who have the time and inclination to watch it directly. If we had a real press corps made up of actual journalists, a viewer would get some value added from watching the commentary. Because having some background on the policy and political contexts of speeches helps. Hearing some biographical facts about lesser-known speakers would be good. But it's really come to the point that people who don't hear the TV commentary are likely to be better informed because they can more readily concentrate on what might be substantive and significant in the proceedings.

That's especially true if you're like me and groan in pain and mutter balefully when the TV pundits are chattering. To be fair, last night I only watched CNN and a bit of PBS "quality TV" coverage. The worst groaner of the night for me came from "liberal" PBS pundit Mark Shields. After years now of watching the Republicans and his fellow reporters fawn on Dear Leader Bush as though he were an Imperial Genius, instead of the cruel overgrown preppie and obnoxious fratboy that he actually is, Shields explained eagerly Monday night how this convention shows that the Democrats are a more ideologically conformist party than the Republicans!


Aside from it being a brainless Republican partisan talking point to begin with - remember, Shields is supposed to be a liberal Big Pundit - the explanation he gave was goofy on its face. The Dems are more ideologically conformist because they only have one prominent "pro-life" figure speaking at the convention while the Reps have two or three pro-choice speakers scheduled to speak on their opening night.

It feels almost as silly as trying to engage with a Mad Annie Coulter argument to even say it. But Shields' argument is completely airheaded. Most Democrats support the pro-choice position and so do a large majority of voters. Allowing an anti-abortion speaker a prominent place at their Convention risks damaging their overwhelmingly popular image as the pro-choice Party.

The Republicans' are overwhelmingly anti-choice, a very unpopular position among the public at large. Putting up Schwarzenegger on Monday evening, along with one or two others of what pass for "moderates" in the Republican Party these days, offers an advantage for the Republicans in that it projects an image of the Party as more ideologically diverse than it is. Plus those relatively benign faces on Monday night will help dampen the effect produced by the appearance that same night of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, currently two of the most unpopular politicians in the history of the United States.

I'm thinking Shields should just retire. He used to be a better commentator than that. Now he's just phoning it in. And apparently not even pausing to think what it is coming out of his mouth. Either that or he's another victim of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers attack, in which case our problems are even more serious.

I thought it was a good night for the Democrats. Ted Kennedy appearing at what the odds for his medical condition say will be his last Democratic Convention was moving. Michelle Obama gave a good speech and came off as a likable and decent person. Which she needed to do to compensate for weeks now of the Obama campaign letting the Republicans slime him without an vigorous enough counterattack.

The only thing of redeeming value about the CNN commentary was their interview with Caroline Kennedy, in which she shot down their vapid, gossipy questions. All they wanted from her was gossip about Hillary Clinton and the Vice Presidential choice, of which Caroline K was a major part.

They had their scripts. Gloria Borger commented that "people" only wanted to see Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama and that "people" didn't care about Jim Leach or those other speakers. We don't have to indulge in press-style mindreading to recognize that our press corps has certain conventions of language that we need to understand to translate what they say. Pretty much anytime a celebrity pundit refers to what "people" think, or what "most people" are wanting, or what "the American people" are saying, it almost invariably means what the national press corps are thinking, wanting or saying. Only on the rare occasion when they cite a very specific opinion poll is it likely to mean something other than that.

John King came in a close second to Shields for the most idiotic comment of the evening that I saw. At one point, he cited a poll that apparently asked people questions like, if you needed a third person in the car to be able to use the carpool lane, would you prefer to have it be John McCain, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?" There were a couple of other similar items in the poll - I think he mentioned something about going on a picnic with them - and King drew the deep conclusion that the results showed that the American people still didn't feel like they know Obama well enough to vote for him. Which, of course, pretty much echoes the main Republican line of attack, which the press corps seems to have largely adopted as a basic framing for the election up until this point.

If we're going to give credence to a poll constructed in such a silly way, it would be more accurate to apply Occam's Razor and come up with the simplest explanation that accounts for the data in the poll: that most participants thought the question was so hopelessly dumb they had no idea what to say.

Here is Borger reciting the McCain talking point at CNN.com today. Notice that she cites only vague, unnamed polls as she pronounces on what "the American people" think:

I think what the Obama campaign was trying to do was introduce Barack Obama in a different way to the American people. They are looking and the polls, and (the polls) show that some Americans ... are uncomfortable with Barack Obama. They're not sure that they understand his values, and the big question in this election is" "sure you want change. But is Barack Obama safe enough for you? Or is he too much of a risk?" [my emphasis]
A spokesperson for the McCain campaign came on at one point and pretty much echoed the pundit line of the night as they wrung their hands in concern that Obama might not have overcome the doubts that "people" have about him yet. She sounded like any other pundit. And that's pitiful.

Tuesday and Wednesday night, the TV pundits will no doubt be excited. They're no doubt sharpening their rhetorical knives for Vile Hillary and Vile Bill, who they will declare to be horribly destructive to the Democratic Party and to decency, honesty, and cute helpless puppies, as well.

In some things, the pundits' gullibility for Republican spin is easy to detect. But when it comes to the Clintons, the press corps attitude is generally downright pathological. As Eric Boehlert writes for Media Matters in Hillary Clinton speaks at convention. The press concocts a story 08/26/08:

Even after all these months, I still don't completely understand why Clinton's essentially centrist campaign for the White House ginned up so much open contempt from the press corps, which has felt completely comfortable addressing her in an openly derogatory and condescending manner. The issue of her convention involvement simply allowed the press to whack her around like a piƱata one more time, regardless of the facts.
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