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Hoisted from the Archives: Let Us Remember How Awful the American Press Corps That Covers Elections Is: Yes, We Are Looking at You, Washington Post, and at You, Perry Bacon Jr.

January 6, 2008: This Is Brad DeLong's Grasping Reality...: Journalismus als Beruf, or Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?:

Chris Hayes and Ezra Klein watch the toddlers on the bus--the American campaign press corps. The only solution I see is simply to shut them all down: the modern style of campaign coverage started by Teddy White in 1960 with his The Making of the President is pernicious and harmful. Its practitioners should all be sent to do something more useful. Proofreading Google Books comes to mind.

Here's Ezra Klein:

EzraKlein Archive | The American Prospect: THE PRESS CORPS: [I]t is a bit astonishing to watch the real-time narrative construction that went on at last night's debate. I must have heard the term "meltdown" in reference to Hillary 65 times. And I talked to reporters who would literally say, "I thought she did okay, but I just misjudged it" -- the aggregate conclusion of the corps became some sort of objective, or at least agreed-upon, truth that the outliers measured themselves against. Very, very odd. Particularly because the part that much of the press liked least -- her heated recitation of the programs she's fought for -- came off, to me, as one of her best moments. Meanwhile, there is, on some level, an acknowledgment of the weirdness... the folks I talked to happily admitted how unbelievably awful and surreal the spin room is, but everyone was in there.... I asked an older reporter why... and he turned to me and said, "there's no good reason. Reporters are creatures of habit, and all this is now habit"...

Here's Chris Hayes:

Why Campaign Coverage So Often Sucks: [A] quick thought about the psychology of the political press. Reporting at event like this is exciting and invigorating, but it's also terrifying... daunting and the whole time you think: "Am I missing something?... [T]he worst features of campaign reporting emanate from the kinds of psychological defenses that reporters erect to deal with their insecurities.... [M]any critiques of the political press express the belief that what's wrong with coverage stems from the superficiality and venality of those who are practicing it. That's certainly true... but... you need to deal with the structural issues that reinforce these tendencies (Oh, and fire the hacks)...

Chris Hayes's ideas on how to deal with the "structural issues":

Is Good Campaign Coverage Possible?.... The papers’ entire approach to covering campaigns is hopelessly flawed and puts reporters in a position in which they can’t help but produce trivinalia.... [The] reporter spends all day, every day, following the candidate.... It’s an awful existence.... [Y]ou sit through endless, mind-numbing hours listening to the candidate spew the same safe inanities, you inevitably start to snoop around for new “angles”... Al Gore sighed during the debate!... [C]onsider the imbalance in expertise between a campaign and those who cover it. When Obama releases a tax plan, it’s a product of a team of policy experts.... who know the terrain inside and out. But the reporter who has to file the deadline piece about it doesn’t have any expertise on tax policy. So how could their coverage be anything but shallow?....

I would prefer to start with Max Weber (1919), Politik als Beruf (München und Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker & Humblot)--in English at http://www.ne.jp/asahi/moriyuki/abukuma/weber/lecture/politics_vocation.html--and:

There are two ways of making politics one's vocation: Either one lives 'for' politics or one lives 'off' politics.... He who lives 'for' politics makes politics his life, in an internal sense. Either he enjoys the naked possession of the power he exerts, or he nourishes his inner balance and self-feeling by the consciousness that his life has meaning in the service of a 'cause.'... He who strives to make politics a permanent source of income lives 'off' politics as a vocation....

The leadership of a state or of a party by men who (in the economic sense of the word) live exclusively for politics and not off politics means necessarily a 'plutocratic' recruitment of the leading political strata.... [P]olitics can be conducted 'honorifically' and then, as one usually says, by 'independent,' that is, by wealthy, men, and especially by rentiers. Or, political leadership is made accessible to propertyless men who must then be rewarded...

Weber wants to see a world in which the politically active live both "for" and "off" politics. He believes that if the politically active live only "for" politics--well, then we have a political class of rentiers and plutocrats, which is not healthy. It must be possible to not just make a difference but make a living off of politics if we are to have a healthy politics and a good society.

But just as it is bad to have a politically-active class that lives "for" but not "off" politics, so I believe it is probably worse to have a politically-active class that lives "off" but not "for" politics--in which the desires to make a difference and to help America are submerged beneath the desire to keep your paycheck coming." Consider the example of Perry Bacon, Jr., of the *Washington Post, who looks at a webpage[1] that starts:

Email rumor alleges that U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is a loyal Muslim who has lied about his religious background, including his claim to being a devout Christian

Description: Email rumor
Circulating since: January 2007
Status: False

Subject: Fwd: Be careful, be very careful.

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Barack Hussein Obama Sr. (black muslim) of Nyangoma-Kogelo, Siaya District, Kenya, and Ann Dunham of Wichita, Kansas. (white atheist ).... His mother married Lolo Soetoro -- a Muslim -- moving to Jakarta with Obama when he was six years old.... Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim.... Since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when you are seeking political office in the United States, Obama joined the United Church of Christ to help purge any notion that he is still a Muslim...

and transforms it into:

Perry Bacon: Another e-mail, on a site called Snopes.com that tracks Internet rumors, starts, "Be careful, be very careful." It notes that "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim," and that "since it is politically expedient to be a Christian when you are seeking political office in the United States, Obama joined the United Church of Christ to help purge any notion that he is still a Muslim"...

omitting the "Status: False" that comes right before the beginning of Perry Bacon, Jr.'s quote.

How could anyone come to do this? The answer is that they are living "off" poitics and belong to an ethics-free organization also devoted to living "off" politics, and that they think that their editor Len Downie and their editor's boss Donald Graham will be pleased and will reward their smearing of Barack Obama. I do not find it explicable any other way.

Weber reaches a similar conclusion about the journalism of his day. Party officials who live "off" politics can still work for their causes and keep their jobs in the party apparatus whether elections are won or lost. Journalists have a harder task, because the structural pressures tend to squeeze the part that lives "for" politics out of existence. Indeed, Weber says, given the structural pressures on the industry what is remarkable is not that so many journalists are so bad ("failures and worthless men," "disdain and pitiful cowardice") but that there are a "great number of valuable and quite genuine men" in the profession:

Not everybody realizes that a really good journalistic accomplishment requires at least as much 'genius' as any scholarly accomplishment, especially because of the necessity of producing at once and 'on order,' and because of the necessity of being effective, to be sure, under quite different conditions of production. It is almost never acknowledged that the responsibility of the journalist is far greater, and that the sense of responsibility of every honorable journalist is, on the average, not a bit lower than that of the scholar, but rather, as the war has shown, higher.... Nobody believes that the discretion of any able journalist ranks above the average of other people, and yet that is the case. The quite incomparably graver temptations, and the other conditions that accompany journalistic work at the present time, produce those results which have conditioned the public to regard the press with a mixture of disdain and pitiful cowardice....

[T]he journalist career remains under all circumstances one of the most important avenues of professional political activity. It is not a road for everybody, least of all for weak characters, especially for people who can maintain their inner balance only with a secure status position.... [T]he journalist's life is an absolute gamble in every respect and under conditions that test one's inner security in a way that scarcely occurs in any other situation.... The inner demands that are directed precisely at the successful journalist are especially difficult. It is, indeed, no small matter to frequent the salons of the powerful on this earth on a seemingly equal footing and often to be flattered by all because one is feared, yet knowing all the time that having hardly closed the door the host has perhaps to justify before his guests his association with the 'scavengers from the press.' Moreover, it is no small matter that one must express oneself promptly and convincingly about this and that, on all conceivable problems of life--whatever the 'market' happens to demand--and this without becoming absolutely shallow and above all without losing one's dignity by baring oneself.... It is not astonishing that there are many journalists who have become human failures and worthless men. Rather, it is astonishing that, despite all this, this very stratum includes such a great number of valuable and quite genuine men, a fact that outsiders would not so easily guess...

As you can guess, my solutions are quite different from Chris Hayes's. I would suggest:

  • We now have an upward leap in the possibilities for civil society--the possibility of a thick and healthy political class of amateurs who who live, part-time, "for" politics without having to live "off" it. They won't have to rent out their souls--and so won't be subject to the same deformations--and their contempt for those who do rent out their souls cannot help but have a healthy influence. Encourage the growth of this class wherever possible
  • Cut the campaign press corps and the Washington insider press corps off at the knees both intellectually and financially: those who live "off" and not "for" politics and have no professional ethic that their business is to inform rather than mislead--don't encourage them. The sooner the Slates and the Washington Posts and the Times and the Newsweeks and the AEIs go out of business, the better. Encourage the growth and financial viability of those who live for as well as off politics--the American Prospects, the Democracy Journals, the Cato Institutes, the Reasons, the Nations, the Independent Institutes, and so forth.
  • Encourage the growth and financial viability of those who have a solid sense of professional ethics--who are in the business of informing rather than entertaining or misleading: the Atlantics, the National Journals, the Financial Timeses, the Economists--as long as it stops trying to turn sections of itself into the Wall Street Journal editorial page--and so on.
  • The coming of the internet and with it the rise to dominance of Google may well have changed forever the underlying structural finances of the journalism business. Money follows attention, and attention may well follow Google-fu, and Google-fu may well follow the collective voting of the link-writing web-enabled amateur living-for-politics class. Those journalists who don't care about America but want to live "off" politics may find that they can keep making a living only through gaining the approval via link-driven collective Google-voting of those of those who live "for" politics and love America--or so the collapse of TimesSelect suggests.

Complex? No. As the late John M. Ford advised: Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate. If those who are interested in raising the level of the debate use the evolving mechanisms of the internet to read those who don't raise the level of the debate out of the conversation, things could turn around quite quickly.


[1] Note: Bacon claims that the webpage he viewed was at http://snopes.com/. But the only webpage at Snopes that is even close in subject does not contain Bacon's quotes and was last updated on March 15, 2007. The page that does contain Bacon's quotes is at About's Urban Legends page: http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_barack_obama_muslim.htm.

Only seven distinct pages indexed on Google contain Bacon's quotes: "Be careful, be very careful" and "Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim". They are:

http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_barack_obama_muslim.htm http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/28/AR2007112802757_pf.html http://blogrunner.com/snapshot/D/4/3/foes_use_obamas_muslim_ties_to_fuel_rumors_about_him/ http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/person/gG2klh http://www.progressivedailybeacon.com/more.php?id=1751 http://www.rightyblogs.com/national/feed.php?channel=99&iid=24987&y=2007&m=11&d=29 http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2007_01_01_digbysblog_archive.html

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