Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Press whackodoodlery

I like to watch the PBS Newshour because it's supposed to be the leader in "quality" TV News. Lately, every week is a downer reminder that "quality" doesn't mean that the program always discards press scripts and does solid journalism.

And every week increases my embarrassment that I once in my early days of blogging did a post praising Mark Shields. Well, he was against the Iraq War. So that alone did make him stand head-and-shoulders about the other Big Pundits. Not that such a comparison is much of a complement in itself. But I give him credit for having more sense than most pundits about the invasion of Iraq.

On Friday, the David Brooks/Mark Shields commentary was introduced by Jim Lehrer. The three "quality TV" journalists opened by a discussion of what our press corps considers probably the most burning need in American politics, which is the Holy Grail of High Broderism, "bipartisanship". If I had heard Shields say one more time how badly we needed legislators who would "reach across the aisle", my head would have exploded.

Meanwhile, Maureen Dowd is keeping her laser-like focus on the most pressing public issues of the day in Keeping It Riell New York Times 08/10/08. MoDo is so obsessed about politicians having sex but is so weirded out about sex and about gender roles that it's become emotionally disturbing to read her. Usually I don't worry that creepiness in a text will wear off on me somehow. But with MoDO, I do. And, yes, MoDo is still taken to be High Punditry!

And we wonder why a blithering old warmonger like McCain is polling as close as he is to Obama in a year when Republicans are about as popular as malaria.

I like to think I'm reasonably alert to the general dysfunctionality of the press. But I still manage to be surprised at some things. Like the press obsession with Edwards' admitted love affair, which is scarcely confined to MoDo, although I haven't seen anything else that approaches the level of weirdness in her Sunday column.

The Los Angeles Times ran a piece by a writer who was loosely acquainted with the Other Woman, Edwards' affair? My fault by Sarah Miller 08/10/08. She frames it as cynical-New-Yorker-meets-California-ditz story. When she encountered Rielle at a cocktail party, Miller became "extremely tense" because Rielle ... touched her on the wrist with two fingers. You know, lady, there are medicines you can take that will help with such anxieties.

Conservative columnist Debra Saunders weighs in along the same lines as MoDo in The not-so-pretty boy San Francisco Chronicle 08/12/08. Though Saunders lacks the bizarre creativity that comes with whatever afflicts MoDo when it comes to Democratic politicians and anything remotely to do with sex. Saunders does manage to mention the disparity in the press treatment of Edwards' liaison with Rielly and John McCain's conduct during his first marriage that didn't entirely conform to the official Southern Baptist standard. Saunders says it shows press bias ... against McCain!

The liberal Web bastion of the Huffington Post has been running over with columns from people rushing to condemn Edwards with various degrees of pseudo-sophistication. Even Elizabeth Edwards comes in for blame.

I mean, just for the sake of ritual, let me wonder aloud here if these great pundits bother with the most minimal fact-checking when they write their garbled ruminations like those of MoDo and Saunders. Saunders, for instance, tells us in her second paragraph that Edwards was "boffing an overpaid campaign aide".

But what facts do we actually know about this event of such overriding importance to our "press corps"? We know that the National Inquirer got a photo of Edwards going to visit Rielle at a hotel this year. We know that Edwards has admitted to an affair of some sort with Rielle in 2006. We know that Rielle is unmarried and has a child under a year old, which both she and Edwards say is not his.

I'm not sure that a contract film-maker counts as a "campaign aide". Nor do I have any clue if she was "overpaid". Did Saunders bother to check on either?

More to the point, so far as I'm aware, what's in the public record doesn't tell us squat about the interaction between the two that Edwards confessed to being an affair. Saunders has no problem assuming it involved "boffing". But does anyone other than the two of them actually know that? Maybe they held hands and talked about energy fields. Maybe they smooched a lot now and then. Maybe she touched him on the wrist with two fingers.

And with all the pop psychology going on about the effect of this on Elizabeth, what do we really know about that other than her very general and conventional standing-by-her-man statement on it?

Here's an alternative scenario. Edwards and Rielle had an affair that consisted mostly of conspiratorial visits and minimal physical contact. Elizabeth knew about the fling at the time and didn't care. Maybe even encouraged it.

Not the most likely scenario, perhaps. And certainly not as entertaining as the one everybody is fantasizing about in their writing. But is there anything in the public record that wouldn't also fit that scenario? And there are other variations that come to mind.

But when it comes to sex and Democratic politicians, worrying about what actually happened when you report on it is like, so 1980s. Remember Gennifer Flowers, who made all sorts of wild claims about an extended affair with Bill Clinton and even claims about him being involved in murdering people? Under sworn testimony in the Ken Starr witch-hunt, Clinton admitting to having had sexual contact with Flowers on one occasion under the broad definition of such contact used by Starr's inquisitors, though Clinton specified that the contact was not intercourse. (That weird definition of Starr's also excluded oral sex. And maybe Debra Saunders definition of "boffing" is more expansive that what I assume.)

But after that, Establishment journalists considered Flowers' claims about her affair with Clinton to be credible, even though Clinton's very limited admission of one encounter that did not involve "boffing", was the only remotely credible collaboration for any her claims about the affair. And, as the Daily Howler has repeatedly noted with disgust, the "liberal" Chris Matthews afterwards invited her onto his show where she made even wilder accusations about the alleged murders Bill Clinton had committed.

But the business trend that has made news organizations, including newspapers, parts of entertainment conglomerates that are expected to not just make a profit but make a level of profit that shareholders of entertainment companies expect, have made politicians into celebrities. And so they are encouraged to speculate freely about their sex lives with less regard to facts than tabloids!

(To see how a news organization being part of a diverse corporate "family" can work to the detriment of good reporting, check out Sam Zell's Deal from Hell by Emily Thornton, Michael Arndt and Ronald Grover Business Week 07/30/08.

While I'm on a rant about this, how did the conventional wisdom arise that John Edwards' political career is finished? How does this disqualify him for a Cabinet post, for instance? In less enlightened times, there was a saying: "Nothing is fatal in politics except being found in bed with a live man or a dead woman." I don't know if anyone has come up with a contemporary wording. It might be kind of difficult. We'd have to include a Rick Santorum clause these days, I suppose.

But this is a big reason why we have the absurdity over the last week of a public discussion where Serious Foreign Policy experts talk about the need to defend our long-standing, passionate American commitment to keep Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of Georgia without being laughed off the set. A week ago, most Americans (including me) couldn't have said where either of those places were, if we'd heard of them at all, without a quick consultation with Google. But our news organizations are far more focused on the latest sex gossip about famous politicians than they are about covering events that could well involve us in more wars and even more likely add to the justifications for insane levels of military spending.

No wonder Paris Hilton is a player in Presidential politics. And no wonder a blustering, mean old warmonger like John McCain has a serious chance to become President and invade Iran. The press obsession with their own sex fantasies about Democratic politicians has real-world consequences.

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