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Daily Howler: While we wait for the juice to come on, we flesh out Judis' piece
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IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING! While we wait for the juice to come on, we flesh out Judis’ piece: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 23, 2008

IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING: Darn it! Electrical work has kept us from posting our planned essays today. They will be posted later today or tomorrow, dated Saturday (preview below). In the meantime, a brief review and an amplification of our reaction to John Judis’ TNR piece.

THE CLASSIC DOUBLE STANDARD: Partisans often accuse the press of maintaining a “double standard.” It’s an easy claim to make—and usually, a hard claim to establish. But sometimes, journalists step right up to the plate and announce that they’re running a double standard. That’s what Judis seemed to do in this part of his remarkable piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/08):

JUDIS (5/21/08): Clinton's second great political mistake lay in how she dealt with Obama's challenge. Sometime in December, having realized that Obama was going to be a genuine rival for the nomination, she and her campaign decided to go negative on him. They did the usual thing politicians do to each other: They ran attack ads taking his words somewhat out of context (Obama calling Reagan a "transformative politician"); they somewhat distorted old votes (voting "present" in Illinois on abortion bills); and they questioned old associations (Obama's connection with real estate developer Tony Rezko).

John McCain and Mitt Romney were doing similar things to each other—and Obama did some of it to Clinton, too. But there a was difference between her doing this to Obama and McCain's doing it to Romney—a difference that eluded Clinton, her husband, and her campaign staff. My friend David Kusnet, Bill Clinton's former speechwriter, explained the difference to me by citing what ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson had once said about Muhammad Ali. "I was just a fighter," Patterson had said, "but he was history." Obama, too, was, and is, history—the first viable African-American presidential candidate. Yes, Hillary Clinton was the first viable female candidate, but it is still different. Race is the deepest and oldest and most bitter conflict in American history—the cause of our great Civil War and of the upheavals of the 1950s and '60s. And if some voters didn't appreciate the potential breakthrough that Obama's candidacy represented, many in the Democratic primaries and caucuses did—and so did the members of the media and Obama's fellow politicians. And as Clinton began treating Obama as just another politician, they recoiled and threw their support to him.

In that passage, Judis describes a classic double standard. Clinton, McCain and Romney proceeded under one set of rules. But a second standard obtained for Obama—and Judis says that “members of the media” put it into practice. They “recoiled” when Clinton treated Obama the same way everyone else was being treated. Result? In Judis’ astounding account, they then “threw their support to him.”

Let’s be frank: It has been abundantly clear, in the past twenty years, that your “press corps” really does function this way. But it’s rare, and historic, when someone like Judis comes forward and says that it does. We can think of one clear precedent—the admission by a string of reporters about the coverage of McCain back in Campaign 2000. When McCain would say dumb or inappropriate things, they would “take him off the record,” a list of reporters publicly said. It was fairly clear that Candidate Bradley was getting a very similar treatment—but they openly copped to this groaning double standard in their approach to The World’s Greatest Man.

Judis’ statement was astounding. Astoundingly, he seemed to say that, due to journalists’ private assessments, one of the candidates has been playing under a different set of rules. You could treat Romney/McCain/Clinton one way—but if you treated Obama that way, “members of the media” would strike back. We’ll ask again what we asked in 1999: When “journalists” openly cop to such conduct, why aren’t they instantly fired?

In 1999 and 2000, most voters had no way to know that McCain was being favored this way. If Judis’ assessment is right (and he should explain what he’s talking about), a similar situation has obtained with Obama. Let’s be clear: This is the doing of journalists (people like Judis), not of candidates (people like Obama). But it’s your democracy that gets fried in the process—unless, of course, you believe in rule by a group of journalist kings.

IS THIS HOW THE “RECOIL” LOOKED: Members of the media recoiled and threw their support to Obama? Again, this wasn’t Obama’s doing. But let’s ask ourselves how “reporting” looks when journalists engage in such recoil.

As we noted yesterday: Even in his current piece, Judis is still misstating the contents of a Clinton ad in South Carolina (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/22/08). To its credit, the Washington Post quoted the ad in real time, on January 24. But Alec MacGillis and Anne Kornblut could hardly have been more argumentative. Here’s the first paragraph of their “news report.” Is this how “news reporting” looks when journalists “recoil and throw their support” in the way Judis seemed to describe?

MACGILLIS AND KORNBLUT (1/24/08): Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign aired a new radio ad here Wednesday that repeated a discredited charge against Sen. Barack Obama in what some Democrats said is part of an increasing pattern of hardball politics by her and former President Bill Clinton.

Truly, that’s gruesome “reporting.” MacGillis instantly stated his view—the charge in question had previously been “discredited.” And of course, “some Democrats” said the ad was hardball, he said—failing to note that “some Democrats” thought different. In our view, Clinton’s ad made an underwhelming complaint; we doubt that it changed many voters’ minds. But as MacGillis and Kornblut plowed ahead, their thumbs pressed down hard on the scale:

MACGILLIS AND KORNBLUT (continuing directly): The ad takes one line from an Obama interview—"The Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last 10, 15 years"—and juxtaposes it with GOP policies that Obama has never advocated.

"Really?" a voice-over says. "Aren't those the ideas that got us into the economic mess we're in today? Ideas like special tax breaks for Wall Street. Running up a $9 trillion debt. Refusing to raise the minimum wage or deal with the housing crisis. Are those the ideas Barack Obama’s talking about?”

The Clinton campaign argued that it was simply quoting Obama. But in the original context, Obama was describing the dominance of Republican ideas in the 1980s and 1990s, without saying he supported them, and asserting that those ideas are of no use today.

This “news report” was pure propaganda—gruesome, glaring advocacy. The claim that Obama was really “describing the dominance of Republican ideas in the 1980s and 1990s” was pure poppycock—an absurd attempt to reinvent the (relatively innocuous) thing he had actually said. (In the interview from which his statement was drawn, Obama said one thing about President Reagan—and he said this second thing about the past 10-15 years.) Obama “has never advocated” the positions in question, MacGillis said—but the ad didn’t make such a claim, and the instant resort to this rebuttal was another bit of lightly-varnished advocacy. As a “news report,” this was pure propaganda. For ourselves, we thought Clinton’s ad was underwhelming. But again, our question: Is this the way journalism starts to look when “members of the media recoil and throw their support?”

In fact, they’ve behaved this way for a very long time. Most dramatically, they have favored McCain and favored Bradley, disfavored Gore and Hillary Clinton. (Until he had nearly destroyed the known world, Bush was mostly molly-coddled.) But simply put, that piece wasn’t news reporting. One has to ask if Judis’ piece explains what it actually was.

How they simplify the game: MacGillis quoted what Clinton’s ad said. Then, he absurdly tried to claim that Obama was really discussing the 1980s. In yesterday’s piece, Judis made the game easier: As so many of his colleagues did in real time, he simply misstated—misstated again!—what Clinton’s ad actually said.

They’ve played you that way for a very long way. When will you force them to stop?

TOMORROW: Aw what the heck, maybe it’s all for the better! In tomorrow post, we’ll offer a grisly companion to Judis’ piece. And we’ll finish our report from Wednesday: How does the world start to look when journos start taking your side?