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Print view: Describing the press corps' obscene money culture, Milbank at last gets it right
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INSIDE THE PRESS CORPS’ LUSH GARDEN! Describing the press corps’ obscene money culture, Milbank at last gets it right: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 2, 2011

Who will challenge us the people: Paul Krugman’s new column starts with a deeply important fact. Krugman moves on to other points, but let’s stop to consider this:

KRUGMAN (5/2/11): Last year the G.O.P. pulled off two spectacular examples of bait-and-switch campaigning. Medicare, where the same people who screamed about death panels are now trying to dismantle the whole program, was the most obvious. But the same thing happened with regard to financial reform.

As you may recall, Republicans ran hard against bank bailouts. Among other things, they managed to convince a plurality of voters that the deeply unpopular bailout legislation proposed and passed by the Bush administration was enacted on President Obama’s watch.

People don’t know who enacted the bailouts. Krugman doesn’t cite a particular survey or poll, but here’s a Pew survey from last July in which this problem was recorded.

For the record, there was no partisan difference in Pew’s responses. Democrats as well as Republicans tended to think that Obama, not Bush, had enacted the TARP bank bailouts.

Krugman went on to make other points. But the ignorance of we the people was also featured in a report in yesterday’s Washington Post. What does the federal budget go? John Norris did the reporting:

NORRIS (5/1/11): In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget—10 times the current level.

Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since.

We Americans are amazingly clueless. We think that 25 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. Real answer: One percent.

Sometimes, our ignorance is the result of design. Disinformation campaigns have existed for decades, misleading the public about major issues. And sometimes, individual journalists and/or their editors seem to make a point of keeping us barefoot and clueless. In yesterday’s Washington Post, a news report by Amy Goldstein seemed like a case in point.

Goldstein wrote a rather tortured piece, arguing that Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan has roots in both major parties. Her general work seemed tortured enough, but eventually Goldstein and/or her editor simply refused to let Post readers know a basic fact. How much would Medicare recipients have to pay under the proposed Ryan plan? No one can say with certainty, but a basic fact was quite strangely withheld:

GOLDSTEIN (5/1/11): Eliminating Medicare as it was originally conceived is a major, controversial difference from earlier proposals. James Capretta, a conservative budget expert on health care whom Ryan consulted, said that fee-for-service Medicare “is a big part of why we have fragmentation and inefficiency in health care.” But Rivlin says it is important to preserve the original program as the default alternative.

Another difference involves the subsidies. [In their 1999 proposal,] Breaux and Thomas had wanted them to keep up with the price of insurance premiums, with the government typically paying 88 percent. Ryan would adjust subsidies based on consumer prices, which rise more slowly than health-care prices. He has not described the portion of premiums the government would pay but contends that the arrangement would slow the growth of insurance prices.

Rivlin, Aaron and the Congressional Budget Office predict that older Americans would end up paying for ever more of their care. “Unless history turns on its head, there is no way” medical costs will slow to the pace of consumer prices, said Stuart Altman, a Brandeis University health economist who was on the 1999 Medicare commission. Back then, he voted against the panel’s proposal, in part because of “ambiguity” over how much the government would pay.

The hackwork there is astounding. According to Goldstein, earlier proponents of Medicare change wanted the government to pay 88 percent of costs. According to Goldstein, Ryan hasn’t said what portion the government would pay under his proposal. Goldstein notes that the CBO has said that older Americans would end up paying more. But she fails to give a number.

Sad. The CBO has estimated that the government will be paying just 32 percent by the year 2030, as opposed to that 88 percent. It’s stunning to think that this jarring number was withheld from this lengthy report. (In Sunday’s Post, Glenn Kessler cited that CBO number in a “fact-checker” piece. So does Robert Pear in today’s New York Times.)

Whatever the reason, we the people are often amazingly clueless. But journalists and politicians tend to skip past that fact. No one likes to tell us we’re clueless. Our cluelessness is one of the most important aspects of modern American politics. But it is rarely discussed.

It’s a citizen’s duty to be well informed; it’s a journalist’s duty to tell us that we’re not. It is also a journalist’s duty to tell us who is misinforming us. In the last few weeks, Donald Trump gave journalists the chance to perform that basic function.

Trump paraded around for weeks, making a string of bizarre suggestions based on what he “had been hearing” or what “they’ve been saying.” (Another key source for the giant buffoon: “The story is...”)

Journalists should have stopped him right there. But very few “journalists” did. On CNN, Anderson Cooper largely fumbled and flailed his way through two nights’ worth of “special reports.” At the New York Times, the editors didn’t dare say boo through weeks of this ludicrous conduct.

Someone should have told the people: This is how you get played.

Who will challenge us the people about our sacred duty as citizens? Who will tell us we’re being deceived? Who will names the names of deceivers? Very few analysts, liberal or mainstream, seem to have such ideas.

Our cluelessness is hugely important. Who will discuss this key fact?

INSIDE THE PRESS CORPS’ LUSH GARDEN (permalink): As readers may know, we’ve patiently worked with Dana Milbank for a good long time now.

Progress with Milbank has been very slow—but yesterday, we did get results! We refer to Milbank’s scathing, highly accurate portrait of the insider press corps’ big-money culture, a straight-on portrait which appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post.

With one main exception, Dana Milbank got it right with his portrait of this gruesome culture.

Milbank began with a gruesome fact: Donald Trump appeared at Saturday’s Correspondents’ Association Dinner as a guest of the Washington Post. Given Trump’s recent disgraceful conduct, this is a truly remarkable fact, as Milbank sadly noted. But soon, Milbank started describing the money culture of the upper-end press corps as that culture swims into view through this annual event.

He described this culture in rank detail. We don’t think we’ve ever seen a journalist do it better.

As we’ve tried to explain for years, what follows is a basic part of the cultural framework within which major journalists function. Remember one fact as you scan this portrait: This gawdy, Gatsby-era excess was staged as part of a press corps event. This represents the squalid context within which your press corps functions:

MILBANK (5/1/11): Awkward though the Trump invitation is, it is just one of the many problems with the annual dinner and its satellite events.

The fun begins, appropriately enough, at the offices of the American Gas Association, where White House reporters are feted by the lobbyists of the Quinn Gillespie firm. More lobbyist-sponsored entertainment comes from the Motion Picture Association. Along the way, journalists wind up serving as pimps: We recruit Hollywood stars to entertain the politicians, and we recruit powerful political figures to entertain the stars. Corporate bosses bring in advertisers to gawk at the display, and journalists lucky enough to score invitations fancy themselves celebrities.


The correspondents’ association dinner was a minor annoyance for years, when it was a “nerd prom” for journalists and a few minor celebrities. But, as with so much else in this town, the event has spun out of control. Now, awash in lobbyist and corporate money, it is another display of Washington’s excesses.

There are now no fewer than 20 parties, plus a similar number of receptions, at the Washington Hilton before the dinner. A pre-dinner brunch, once an intimate affair in a TV producer’s backyard, was moved this year to the Georgetown mansion of multimillionaire Mark Ein. Democratic and Republican consultants shell out five figures apiece to join the Cafe Milano owner as hosts. (Cafe Atlantico’s owner, by contrast, is cooking for the Atlantic’s party.)

Time Warner booked the St. Regis for the People and Time fete; Conde Nast has the W Hotel for the New Yorker and the French ambassador’s residence in Kalorama for its Vanity Fair party done with Bloomberg. The MSNBC party is in the Italian Embassy, while others choose the Hay-Adams, the Ritz-Carlton or the Ronald Reagan Building. A few sponsors, generally Hollywood-oriented nonprofits, hold cocktail parties masquerading as charity benefits.

Hungover hobnobbers reconvene Sunday morning at Politico publisher Robert Allbritton’s Georgetown manse to “nosh on hand-rolled sushi and dim sum prepared by Wolfgang Puck’s The Source.” The news release continues: “The Allbrittons’ lush garden, filled with 200-year-old poplar trees, will feature a white century-style tent adorned with blue-and-white ceramics”—not to mention Ashley Judd and Janet Napolitano.

Before dinner, they have “a pre-dinner brunch?” By the way: How can Democratic consultants pay five figures for such an event? Where does that money come from?

Moving on, let’s ask an obvious question:

Is it surprising when a vulgar buffoon likeTrump gets so much respect from the upper-end press? Is that really surprising when the press is owned and underwritten by vulgar buffoons like the Allbrittons?

Who but a vulgar buffoon would issue a press release like that?

For years, we’ve tried to explain the noxious effects of this big-money culture—the role this culture has played in creating the Millionaire Pundit Values which have driven so much press coverage—including the type of work you never see because “journalists” know to withhold it. Make no mistake: Many people exposed to such wealth will want to acquire such excess for themselves. Few will end up with a Georgetown manse, of course. But by any normal standard, they can end up extremely well-off, with an enormous amount of celebrity. But such rewards will only come to those who play by established rules; excessive pay and celebrity are used to help guarantee silence. And please note: the gruesome influence of these rewards is not restricted to mainstream or conservative journalists. The liberal world has routinely been played for fools by its “intellectual leaders”—by people who are themselves in the thrall of these upper-class bribes and values.

For the record, it is virtually impossible to get liberals to understand this fact. In large part, this is true because many of our favorite liberal heroes are mired in this culture up to their necks, while other famous fiery liberals are cover for their bought-and-sold friends. We liberals just don’t seem to get this. Our simple minds work by a golden rule: If the journalist doesn’t work for Fox, the journalist surely must be On Our Side. It’s especially likely that she’s on our side if she smiles at us as she says so.

Let us take a few wild guesses about the role played by this culture—a culture in which excessive rewards go to those who agree to play by the rules:

Does this explain why Joan Walsh never ordered a serious profile of Chris Matthews in her years as head of Salon? Does this explain why she instead kissed his ass for a decade, eventually becoming a cable star on Hardball?

Does this explain why David and Josh sit at Matthews’ right hand, having kept their traps shut tight through all the years of his gruesome misconduct?

Is this why “liberal intellectual leaders” ignored Gene Lyons’ Fools for Scandal when it emerged in 1996? How about Lyons’ later book with Joe Conason, The Hunting of the President? Those books emerged at a time of rising conservative power in Washington—and they savaged the work of the big news organs at which young “liberal” writers go on to make their careers?

Is this why Milbank himself said nothing about Ceci Connolly’s astonishing work in 1999, when he was chief election correspondent for the New Republic? After ignoring the Washington Post’s misconduct all through that year, he then took a new job—at the Washington Post! Might a future reward of this type have colored his real-time judgment?

We’re just asking, of course. In the case of individuals, there’s no way for us to explain the ways they have played the game in the past several decades, as “liberal journals” gazed away while Big Democrats got slaughtered. (This pattern only began to change in the summer of 2003, after things went wrong in Iraq.)

Having praised Milbank, let’s note his shortcomings. The gentleman does a brilliant job describing this Gatsby-esque press culture. He does fall short, although only a bit, in this later part of his column:

MILBANK: I don’t fault any one host for throwing a party or any journalist for attending. Many of them are friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with savoring Johnnie Walker Blue with the politicians we cover.

But the cumulative effect is icky. With the proliferation of A-list parties and the infusion of corporate and lobbyist cash, Washington journalists give Americans the impression we have shed our professional detachment and are aspiring to be like the celebrities and power players we cover.

My late colleague David Broder once recalled how, when he began newspapering in mid-century, journalists embraced the credo that “the only way a reporter should ever look at a politician is down.” He said they “prided themselves on their independence, their skepticism, and they relished their role in exposing the follies and the larceny of public officials.”

Milbank’s focus is wrong in this passage.

We largely agree with one point—there’s nothing automatically wrong with a few hours of fraternization. To adapt an old political adage, some journalists can drink Johnny Walker Blue with a pol, then tell the truth about him.

But in reality, this fraternization shouldn’t exist, certainly not at this level of splendor. Milbank’s presentation is way off here: He says that, because of these squalid affairs, average people might get the impression that journalists have shed their detachment. But the actual problem is quite different: It has become rather clear, down through the years, that many journalists actually have lost their professional detachment. Just here at THE DAILY HOWLER, we’ve discussed that problem in the following instances:

Gwen Ifill fails to challenge her dinner companion, Condoleezza Rice. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/03.

Tim Russert boasts about his silly conduct at Rummy’s Christmas party. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/03.

Ted Koppel attends a lavish dinner to praise his great good friend, Colin Powell. Later that night, Koppel goes on the air, plainly unprepared, to interview the leading swift-boater. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/19/04.

Bob Schieffer takes trips to spring training with George W. Bush, part of a leading political family. Later, Schieffer defends Bush’s conduct in Campaign 2000 in the most ridiculous ways, while trashing Bush’s opponent. He even moderates a Bush-Kerry debate in 2004. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/04.

Duh! Koppel shouldn’t be palling around with Powell. Ifill shouldn’t be dining with Rice. Schieffer should never have gone within a hundred miles of spring training with Bush. Does this conduct merely give the impression that these people may have lost their detachment? In our view, their subsequent conduct strongly suggested that they actually had.

Final point: The late David Broder always talked a good game about refusing to fraternize. (Milbank’s quote: “The only way a reporter should ever look at a politician is down.”) For all we know, Broder mostly abstained from such conduct. But in one of the most remarkable episodes of his career, he formed a negative judgment of a major White House candidate while playing poker with him and the boys. Broder then went out and concocted a story which played a large role in ending that candidate’s White House campaign—a story he later semi-renounced. This is one of the most remarkable cases of fraternization in the whole insider press corps canon. It’s also never discussed.

Did Broder “look down” on Edmund Muskie? Actually, the pundit dean looked at him from over his cards! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07.

Overall, Milbank does a very good job describing a highly poisonous culture. Donald Trump hobnobbed with the Post, but his big-money values have long been around. This Gatsbyesque culture should be discussed.

Milbank gets 2.5 cheers.

Woe be unto us liberals: For Digby’s take on Milbank’s column, click here. We’ll recommend the comments.

Milbank described the big-money culture quite well. But Digby failed to tell her readers. In turn, they failed to notice. We just don’t see the point.

Needless to say, career players hurried away from this topic. You know what to do—just click here.