Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Obama and the Establishment press, Week 11

James Walcott has a piece in Vanity Fair called What’s Wrong with Washington? (May 2009; accessed 04/08/09) that gives a good description of some of the Beltway Village mentality that dominates our national political press corps. He approaches the subject with his usual biting sarcasm and clear analytical insight. He cautions against simplistic comparisons of the current media environment to the recent past:

With the election of Obama and the identity branding of MSNBC as an anti–Fox News Justice League, there is some evidence of rewiring taking place, certain clusters of once-firing neurons falling dormant. Webmeister Matt Drudge’s bugle calls no longer send the media swinging from the monkey bars; hardy and unrepentant, radio host Rush Limbaugh has been re-inflated for one last hurrah, hogging the spotlight until the glow of his fancy cigar is finally extinguished; Ann Coulter has whittled down into a novelty act; the neoconservatives, whose virile rhetoric helped dig so many graves in the Bush era, grace us by their absence; the policy wonks fielded by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute give off less of a power hum. (If anything, it’s Wall Street rather than Washington, D.C., that seems wired Republican down to the slightest twitch, with CNBC serving as the conning tower of supply-siders, flat-taxers, Laffer-curve zealots, Reaganauts, hedge-fund ringmasters, and deposed Masters of the Universe who defend corporate interests and decry labor to the last drop of their protein shakes.) As Tucker Carlson pointed out at this February’s annual cpac (Conservative Political Action Conference), in Washington, D.C., so much of the tomahawk fever mobilizing the conservative movement since 1992 was raw, unrefined Clinton hatred—a visceral loathing that transcended doctrinal differences and fused Billary into a burning focal point. Obama doesn’t rouse the same foaming action, except in fringe, nativist, gun-toting-Jesus blogs buried so deep in the reeds of the Internet swamp that even Fox News bookers wouldn’t handle them with sterilized tongs. The trillionaire spending sluicing through the system will flood the defenses of the permanent lobbying-consulting-appropriations apparatus, shifting the sandbars and the magnetic fields of Washington influence. (In 1993, Clinton couldn’t get a $16 billion stimulus bill passed through Congress.) To be wired Republican when the agenda is being set by the Obama–Rahm Emanuel muscle machine is to risk being dial-up in a broadband era, a dinky holdover.
As useful as his article is, I think he's being overoptimistic here. Yes, the media will pander to the Obama administration at times. But, as the ever-alert Dave Neiwert has been pointing out at his Crooks and Liars blog, black-helicopter paranoia is getting much greater respect and encouragement in the Establishment media today than was the case in 1993. There is a class element involved, as well. Many of the star pundits and even reporters seem to feel a stronger attachment to the narrow concerns of the wealthiest people than was the case once upon a time. Charlie Gibson obsessing over the capital-gains tax while he was moderating one of the Democratic primary debates is a memorable example, though such examples are not especially rare.

And there's the old truism that the millionaire and the person living under the bridge both have freedom of speech. But their ability to exercise it effectively isn't the same. Though the Democrats as a Party are remarkably timid in their responsiveness to the economic needs of their core constituents and remarkably solicitous of the tender feelings of investment bankers, the fact that they are the majority party in Washington right now is not going to mean that all the news is going to start sounding like Rachel Maddow. And beyond those considerations, our pres corps suffers from an astonishingly strange groupthink that requires more of a psychological explanation than an economic or sociological one. My favored explanation is still the Pod People from Formalhaut b theory.

Wolcott puts it this way:

As the traditional news business collapses around them like glacier walls, Beltway illuminati are executing tighter and tighter spirals of self-referentiality as they pursue the tweet smell of success. Chris Matthews's antsiness used to be a comic novelty. Now it’s the studious norm. Is it any wonder the big picture has shrunk into a handful of pixels?
With a Democratic administration in office and large Democratic majorities in Congress, there is more of a split, or at least a more clear distinction, between the liberal/left media critic role and the Democratic partisan role in their responses to the mainstream media, though one person can certainly play both roles at different times. The conservative criticism of the mythical bogeyman of the Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press! is essentially a work-the-ref procedure. Though, in the stopped-clock-is-correct-twice-per-day sense, they occasionally do make valid points. Their criticism of Gwen Ifill's potential conflict-of-interest as the moderator of the Biden-Palin debate last year, because Ifill had a book about Obama being published and might therefore be thought to have a personal stake in an Obama win, is one of those fairly rare examples.

Democratic elected officials, their campaigns and staff members, and pandering journalists positioning themselves for "access" all have some interest in attacking unfavorable press coverage and encouraging the favorable on a more-or-less straightforward partisan basis. Liberal media critics, on the other hand, want journalist to do their job as journalists. Perhaps unrealistically, they even expect TV "reporters" to be journalists instead of infotainers. That's a different goal than a purely partisan working-the-ref approach. So if Chris Matthews or Keith Olberman are taking Dem-friendly positions but committing bad journalism, Democratic partisans have little incentive to object. But liberal media critics do.

Which brings me to Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby. He is a professional comedian. So he has something of an expert opinion on humor and snark. He's been focusing on MSNBC's liberal stars Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow the last couple of weeks. In his April 8 posting, he gives a good explanation of his concerns about snarkiness on news programs. He praises Maddow in that post for doing some good reporting after what he has viewed as a couple of weeks in which she let her infotainment schtick overwhelm the quality of her news reporting. In particular, he's criticized her for a couple of instances in which her aggressive liberal framing of issues has collapsed during interviews with prominent politicians. In Colin Powell's case, for instance, she wasn't especially aggressive in her questioning, though at least not as worshipful as most Big Pundits. But she failed to use the word "torture" in the segment with Powell that she broadcast.

That post of Bob's also has an excellent example of what he calls Millionaire Pundit Values. Also in the post, he says that Digby Parton, Eric Boehlert and Jamison Foser are the three commentators whose "sensibility" is describing events are the ones he most values on the Web.

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