Changiness & Journalimism

2 comments January 19th, 2008at 03:21pm Posted by Eli

Yeah, Matt Taibbi is a scab and kind of a jerk sometimes, and he seems to bear some deep personal grudge against Hillary Clinton (my deep grudge against her is purely political), but he’s absolutely right that our political system has become a farce, and the media are largely to blame:

…[W]hen Hillary finally arrives, her speech turns out to be the same maddeningly nonspecific, platitude-filled verbal oatmeal that every candidate has spent the last year slinging in all directions — complete with the same vague promises for “change” we’ve heard from every last coached-up dog in this presidential hunt, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney.

“Some people think you get change by demanding it,” says the former first lady. “Some people think you get change by hoping for it. I think you get change by working hard for it every single day.”

(…)

In a vacuum, of course, this is the most meaningless kind of computer-generated horseshit, the type of thing you would expect to hear coming out of the mouth of a $200-an-hour inspirational speaker at a suburban sales conference. But in this tightest of presidential races, Hillary attacking “hope” amounts to a major rhetorical offensive. “Hope,” after all, is Barack Obama’s own personal spoonful of oatmeal, and by disparaging it, Hillary has given this gym full of political hacks tomorrow’s sports headline.

And the hacks deliver, right on cue. AN OBAMA-CLINTON TEMPEST BREWS roars The Los Angeles Times, noting that Hillary’s shot at “hoping for change ” is directed at Obama, while “demanding change” is code for John Edwards.

The next stage in this asinine process is the obligatory retorts. Obama responds by crowing, “I don’t need lectures about how to bring about change.” The “change-demander,” Edwards, stakes out his own platitudinal turf, insisting that change isn’t about work or hope at all, but about “toughness” and “courage.”

Reading all of this crap the next day, I’m amazed. Here we are, the world’s lone superpower, holding elections at a time when we’re engaged in a catastrophic war in Iraq, facing a burgeoning nuclear crisis in Pakistan, dealing with all sorts of horrible stuff. And at the crucial moment, the presidential race turns into something from the cutting-room floor of Truly Tasteless Jokes #50: “Three change-promisers walk into a bar. . . .”

I mean, is this a joke, or what? What the hell is the difference between “working for change” and “demanding change”? And why can’t we hope for change and work for it? Are these presidential candidates or six-year-olds?

(…)

And while it’s tempting to blame the candidates, deep in my black journalist’s heart I know it isn’t all their fault.

We did this. The press. America tried to give us a real race, and we turned it into a bag of shit, just in the nick of time.

EVERY reporter who spends any real time on the campaign trail gets wrapped up in the horse race. It’s inevitable. You tell me how you can spend nearly two years watching the dullest speeches known to man and not spend most of your time wondering about the one surefire interesting moment the whole thing has to offer: the ending.

Stripped of its prognosticating element, most campaign journalism is essentially a clerical job, and not a particularly noble one at that. On the trail, we reporters aren’t watching politics in action: The real stuff happens behind closed doors, where armies of faceless fund-raising pros are glad-handing equally faceless members of the political donor class, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars that will be paid off in very specific favors over the course of the next four years. That’s the real high-stakes poker game in this business, and we don’t get to sit at that table.

(…)

Give an army of proud professionals nothing but a silly horse race to cover, and inevitably they’ll elevate even the most meaningless details of that horse race to cosmic importance.This is how you end up getting candidates bludgeoned to death on the altar of such trivialities as “rookie mistakes” and “lack of warmth”; it’s how you end up getting elections decided because candidates like John Kerry are unable to overcome adjectives like “looks French” and “long-faced Easter Island statue.”

That’s what happened in Iowa. For once, voters tried to say that they were perfectly capable of choosing a president without us, that they could do without any of this nonsense. But they were wrong. Nonsense would have its day!

(…)

Locked in a tight race with Mitt Romney, [Mike Huckabee] has so far taken the high road, refusing to mention his opponent by name, even though Romney has been whaling on Huckabee’s tax record in recent days with a series of savage negative ads.

For that offense against the unwritten laws of campaign-trail horseshit, Huckabee, the one-time media darling of this race, has lately been taking a beating in the press. Reporters aren’t interested in the real story line — Huckabee the innovative economic populist against Romney the unapologetic Wall Street whore, the Republican who mortified party leaders by talking sympathetically about the poor versus the coifed speculator for whom injustice means the capital gains tax. What the press wants out of Huckabee isn’t more detail about his economic ideas, but evidence that he is willing to “fight back” against Romney. “Can Mr. Nice Guy go on the offensive?” wondered Politico.com, a weirdly aggressive torch-waving newcomer to the media witch-hunt game. “That’s the question facing the surging Mike Huckabee. . . .”

…Previously smiling and Muppet-like in most of his stump addresses, Huckabee today is positively monomaniacal in his fixation on Romney — he sounds like a late-stage Lenny Bruce ranting about cops and Francis Cardinal Spellman. “I did not grow up privileged,” he croaks. “I did not grow up with a last name that opened the door. In fact, my last name probably closed a few. Never in my life did I ever remember somebody asking my dad would he be willing to come out and endorse a candidate.”

To me it’s Huckabee’s worst performance, but the press reviews the next day are exultant. NICE-GUY HUCKABEE FIRES BACK IN IOWA shouts the Baltimore Sun. HUCKABEE DROPS ‘R-BOMBS’ IN IOWA seconds a satisfied Politico.

This scene is a perfect example of the dynamic that dominates virtually all campaign coverage. No matter which issues or grass-roots support elevate a candidate to the limelight, in order to stay there he ends up having to play this game, a sort of political version of Fear Factor in which candidates must eat bowl after bowl of metaphorical worms to prove their worthiness.

(…)

How did one of the most genuinely interesting primary contests in American history devolve into a Grade-D smack-down that even Vince McMahon would be ashamed to promote? The real story of the campaign has been its unprecedented unpredictability — and therein lies the problem. On both tickets, the abject failure of media-anointed front-runners to hold their ground was due at least in part to voters having grown weary of being told by the press who was “electable” and who wasn’t. Both the Huckabee and Ron Paul candidacies represent angry grass-roots challenges to the entrenched Republican party apparatus, while the Edwards candidacy is a frank and open attack on his own party’s too-cozy relationship with corporate America. These developments signaled a meaningful political phenomenon — widespread voter disgust, not only with the two ruling parties, but with a national political press that smugly enforced the party insiders’ stranglehold on the process with its incessant bullying of dissident candidates.

But there was no way this genuinely interesting theme was going to make it into mainstream coverage of the campaign heading into the primary season. It was inevitable that different, far stupider story lines would be found to dominate the headlines once the real bullets started flying in Iowa and New Hampshire. And find them we did.

A month ago, I was actually interested to see who won these first few races. But now that this whole affair has degenerated into a mass orgy of sports clichés and celebrity catfighting, I find myself more hoping that they all die in a fire somehow. And something tells me that most of America would hope that my colleagues and I burn up with them.

The media have their own ideas about how the game is supposed to be played, and any candidate who doesn’t want to play that way risks being dismissed as weak or non-viable. The media also clearly have preferred candidates that they want to see do well, and uncool candidates that they wish would just go away. Have you noticed how many times political pundits and “analysts” have called for Edwards to drop out, yet no-one ever calls for Rudy or Fred to drop out, even when they finish in single digits and behind Ron Paul?

Also, I emphatically agree with Taibbi that the argument about “change” is ridiculous, especially since I really can’t see Obama or Hillary doing much to shake up the status quo, or even making an attempt to. I worry that Obama will compromise rather than fight; and I worry that Hillary will fight for the wrong things.

(h/t Caro Kay at Make Them Accountable)

Entry Filed under: Democrats,Elections,Media,Politics

2 Comments

  • 1. Carolyn Kay  |  January 20th, 2008 at 2:11 am

    Thanks for the acknowledgement!

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

  • 2. Multi Medium » I Ca&hellip  |  January 24th, 2008 at 7:47 am

    […] As I understand it, the presidential primaries are supposed to be all about demonstrating to the voters of your party that you have the leadership qualities necessary to be President of the I-think-still-just-barely most powerful nation on Earth. We’ve heard all kinds of back and forth between the top three candidates about who can best effect Change. […]


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