Saturday, October 25, 2008

How has the press malfunctioned this year (so far)?

Once and future press darling McCain with his beloved Dear Leader

As we move into what could very well be an Obama Presidency, it's worth reflecting on the particular form that the dysfunction of our dysfunctional national press has taken during this campaign year.

The most telling measure of the state of our national press was the obsessive hatred directed against Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign. That phenomenon has a variety of roots. But it's beyond purely rational explanation. It got to be downright nutty. And it very much included those who count as liberals in the press and punditocracy. PBS' Mark Shields faithfully repeated the conventional press wisdom on Vile Hillary. Chris Matthews, who is considering running for a Pennsylvania Senate seat as a Democrat, and liberal TV icon Keith Olbermann both had to apologize for some of their more egregious frat-boy comments about Clinton. Olbermann worked himself up into a faux-outrage froth worthy of Pat Buchanan when Clinton made a reference to Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968.

It was the entrance of Bill and Hillary Clinton into national politics in 1991-2 that provided the occasion for the "quality" press to drive itself off the cliff known as Whitewater, probably the greatest pseudo-scandal in American history. The fact that the press - including the alleged liberals - so widely embraced the same crackpot practices in relation to Clinton's Presidential candidacy this time around shows that they are very far from reforming, or even recognizing that they're badly in need of reform.


For all candidates all year, the national press has demonstrated its huge concern for the show-business aspects - the most frivolous show-business aspects - of the campaign. From Clinton's clothes to Palin's clothing, from McCain's body-language to Obama's label pins, from zingers to gotchas, the pundits have sought to interpret the election they only way most of them can perceive it: as entertainment and as a chance to market themselves (the pundits), not as serious business that affects the well-being of the country and the world. Not that they totally ignored policy. Charlie Gibson got quite worked up moderating a debate between Obama and Clinton over what he considered the burning issues of capital gains taxes, an issue which is dear to the hearts of wealthy pundits but which doesn't directly touch most voters.

I'm fine personally with the White Princess getting bad publicity because of her expensive, Party-provided wardrobe. There may have even been some financial impropriety involved. But in itself, it's an issue of zero significance on a substantive level. What the mainstream media needed to report more thoroughly were her ties to the extremist, neo-Confederate Alaskan Independence Party (AIP) and the theocratic aspects of the "Third Wave" Pentecostalism in which she has been deeply involved. Both are substantive in understanding her approach to government. And either of them on their own are a thousand times more disturbing than how much her make-up person gets paid.

This McCain ad from the spring suggesting Hillary Clinton as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz was mild compared to the hysteria coming even from "liberals" among the punditocracy

But to get solid, original, professional reporting on her AIP ties, you have to go to David Neiwert and Max Blumenthan at Salon.com, FireDogLake, the Orcinus blog and the Huffington Post. (Dave did get a few minutes on CNN about the story.) To get good reporting and analysis on Palin's crackpot brand of Pentecostalism, you have to go to places like the TalktoAction blog or to Sarah Posner's reporting at The American Prospect Online. If those had been the focus of mainstream media reporting on her, the public might have learned a lot about the ties between far-right extremists (real existing present-day ties to real existing present-day extremists) and today's authoritarian Republican Party. Even casual or not-so-casual adherents of the Christian Right might have been jolted into thinking more carefully about just what that political and religious trend actually involves.

Instead, the White Princess has become identified in the press scripts as a charmingly dumb clothes-hound. Not a flattering portrait, true. But far more benign that what she and her hardcore supporters actually represent in politics and religion.

It's not that the Establishment press is completely incapable of handling such things. They were pretty aggressive about investigating the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, although the reporting focused on the sensational sound-bites that the Republicans gleefully highlighted. Neither McCain's Christian Right backers like John Hagee nor the White Princess' extremist religious associates got even that much scrutiny.

Obama has generally gotten more favorable treatment than either Al Gore or John Kerry received from our broken press corps. That much of the Republicans' complaints about the media has some coincidental basis in reality this year. That's in significant part because Obama was the anti-Clinton during the primaries. The press corps was so busy bashing Vile, Awful Hillary that Obama was bound to look good by comparison. But the Jeremiah Wright flap occurred during the primaries, too. So it's not like Obama got a free ride. But Obama's theatrical flair has had its appeal for the press frat boys and sorority girls.

McCain has benefited enormously over the years from the adoring press coverage he has received, though during the 2000 campaign the press seems to have generally been more impressed with that "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush. And thoroughly concerned about the Villainous Al Gore, later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The romance with McCain cooled during 2008 as the ugliness of his campaign became increasingly hard to reconcile to the preferred press "script" about St. McCain the Maverick. Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby has been doing great work analyzing the disappointment of the Establishment press with what Somerby calls The Man They Loved.

But the way in which they've expressed that disappointment shows how fixed most Big Pundits are on their groupthink. It's not that McCain suckered them for years, you see. The problem is that the deeply honorable McCain has stopped following his own deeply honorable instincts and has gone along with the bad advice on his dastardly advisers. And they assure us that the Great American himself must be deeply disturbed by what he's doing, being such a deeply honorable man and all.

I fully expect that soon after the election, whether the Maverick wins or loses, he will make some statement that his press fans can assimilate as being an apology for his less-than-honorable campaign conduct. And they will then return to their favorite template about the Deeply Honorable Great American McCain, telling this portion of his story as the dark night of the soul for St. McCain.

And despite this departure from their regularly scheduled McCain adoration, the mainstream press has still been very willing to let Republican campaign pitches (e.g., Bill Ayers) drive their own coverage. They haven't cleaned up their act. But the multiple catastrophes of the last eight years of Republican rule have overwhelmed their idiotic narratives.

Specifically, the alarming turn of the economic crisis in mid-September focused the minds of voters on some very practical issues of economic health and opportunity. Eric Boehlert has a good analysis of this in Drudge unplugged: How his campaign influence has collapsed, Media Matters 10/21/08.

That mid-September lurch toward the catastrophic has meant that Obama will likely be able to get through the last week or so of the campaign without doing two things that otherwise could very well have been necessary: hitting hard on McCain's support of the Iraq War, and confronting the press dysfunction head-on. Both will haunt him during his Presidency.

On the Iraq War, he and Biden did not make a strong case that Cheney and Bush had created the disaster in Iraq and that it's still a disaster. Obama in particular often sounded as though he were more-or-less conceding that The Surge had "worked". This will make it easier for the pundits and the Republicans to spin a stab-in-the-back theory of why the Iraq War became such a disaster.

I doubt that Obama and his people are expecting terribly favorable press. But there is every possibility that the Establishment press will treat him eventually like they treated the Clintons. Especially if he fails to follow the prescription that the pundits are already reciting as Accepted Wisdom: that he will have to abandon his health insurance plan and pretty much everything else because of "the financial crisis". And that instead he'll have to slash the domestic budget and concentrate on balancing the budget.

I'm hardly the first to notice it. But the fact that we take it for granted now that comedy shows are more likely to confront political figures with substantive questions than "quality" news organizations are is a sign of how bad the press situation is. One of the most telling pieces of commentary on this I've seen came from Alec Baldwin, who appeared with Sarah Palin in her Saturday Night Live debut, in Palin on SNL: What Did You Expect?Huffington Post.

The "quality" press has been treating the SNL skits as news. So apparently some confused people complained that SNL was exercising bad news judgment having Palin on the show when they did. Baldwin writes:

Saturday Night Live is a comedy show. It's not Meet the Press. It doesn't "ask the tough questions" or "set the agenda." It attempts, with varying degrees of success, to make people laugh. That's it. ...

Several people decried SNL for giving her a spot on the show. You're kidding, right? The woman is the Vice Presidential nominee of one of the two major parties in this country. Don't put her on SNL? With all of her exposure and the Tina Fey performance? What reality are you in? [my emphasis]
At least the comedians can remember the difference between the news business and show business!

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