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By Matt Davies, via Make Them Accountable.

The politics of politics

I wish someone other than William Kristol had said that and that he had gotten his facts straight:

The more you learn about him, the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign. But there’s not much audacity of hope there. There’s the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit — all covered over with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different. . . .

With no particular dog in the Democratic fight, many conservatives have tended to think it would be good for the country if Obama were to win the Democratic nomination, freeing us from the dreary prospect of the return of the House of Clinton. Now I wonder. Might the country be better off with the cynicism of the Clintons than the conceit of Obama?

* * *

Peter Daou, Clinton’s online adviser, sent an email to a bunch of bloggers arguing that Obama’s playing the negative game, too:

I want to address a pervasive misconception, namely, that Senator Obama hasn’t run a negative campaign against Hillary. I think it’s time to put that misconception to rest.

The truth is that for months, the Obama campaign has been attacking Hillary, impugning her character and calling into question her lifetime of public service. And now the Chicago Tribune reports that Senator Obama is preparing a “full assault” on her “over ethics and transparency.” To those who contend that Senator Obama is the clear frontrunner, I ask, to what end this “full assault” on Hillary?

On CNN last Tuesday, Senator Obama said, “Well, look, Wolf, I think if you watch how we have conducted our campaign, we’ve been very measured in terms of how we talk about Senator Clinton. … I have been careful to say, that I think that Senator Clinton is a capable person and that should she win the nomination, obviously, I would support her. You know, I’m not sure that we have been getting that same approach from the Clinton campaign.”

The facts of this election stand in stark contrast to that statement. Senator Obama and his senior campaign officials have engaged in a systematic effort to question Hillary’s integrity, credibility, and character. They have portrayed her as someone who would put her personal gain ahead of the lives of our troops, someone who would say or do anything to win an election, someone who is dishonest, divisive and disingenuous. They have adopted shop-worn anti-Clinton talking points, dusted them off and unleashed a torrent of unfounded character attacks against her. Among other things, they have described Hillary – and her campaign – as: “Disingenuous” … “Too polarizing to win” …’Divisive’ … “Untruthful” … “Dishonest” … ‘Calculating’ … “Saying and doing whatever it takes to win” … “Attempting to deceive the American people” … “One of the most secretive politicians in America” … “Literally willing to do anything to win” … “Playing politics with war” [Each of those lines is a link in his email to the quote; I’m too lazy to copy them all over -ed]

To top it off, they have blanketed big states with false radio ads and negative mailers — ads and mailers that experts have debunked time and time again. They have distributed health care brochures using Republican framing. They have tried to draw a nexus between Hillary’s votes and the death of her friend Benazir Bhutto. And one of Senator Obama’s top advisers (who has since left the campaign) recently called Hillary “a monster.”

This “full assault” on Hillary comes from the very top of the Obama campaign, not surrogates and supporters.. . . .

This is a hard-fought campaign – as it should be. Like any candidate for elected office, Hillary has made clear why she thinks she would do a better job than her opponent. She has laid out comprehensive policy proposals, put forth her 35-year record of accomplishment, and spent countless days introducing herself to voters across the country. She has said that she is far better prepared to take on John McCain on national security. She has contended that she is the candidate with the experience to confront the GOP attack machine. She has argued that she is more electable. She has said that Senator Obama’s words are not matched by actions. And she has challenged him to live up to core Democratic values and goals such as universal health care. . . .

* * *

I look forward to hearing Obama’s speech today about race. I hope he will say that criticism is not racism. And questions are not all negative. I hope he will urge a return to substantive discussion of issues, not personality and victimhood.

Playing the race ace

The New York Times op-ed page has now crossed the line I was hoping would not be crossed in a piece by Orlando Patterson that makes criticizing Barack Obama or questioning his qualifications — both the essence of campaign debate — tantamount to racism. We have crossed into a land where political discussion is politically incorrect. He says:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

Oh, for God’s sakes, the images could also remind me of Peter Pan and children being protected from the youthful scamp by the shaggy dog.

Oh, and what would solve this problem in Patterson’s view? Not casting a blonde child. Being blonde is a problem.

He concludes:

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Yes, and as I read this sorry piece again and again and saw its clear intention of painting Hillary Clinton as a racist, I could not help but think that it is a sad day when a Harvard professor and the New York Times sink to playing the race card in this election, turning political debate into victimization.

In this, the age of offense, let me say, I’m offended.

Questions are not attacks

Hillary Clinton’s ringing phone commercial has been called an attack ad. It’s not. Since when is questioning a candidate’s qualifications and comparing them to your own an attack? If even discussion of experience and ability becomes politically incorrect, our politics are in deep trouble. Qualifications and policies should be the essence of a campaign.

I heard that commercial referred to as an attack ad when I was interviewed the other night for More 4 news in London and I see it again in David Brooks’ column today. No, an attack ad is one the goes after character instead of qualification, one that tries to create scandal as political leverage, one that’s nasty rather than informative. We know attack ads when we see them. This is no attack ad.

Brooks is arguing that Obama’s campaign faces a fundamental choice: to continue to argue that he can bring a politics of reconciliation to Washington or to lose that, the essence of his campaign, and go on the attack. If, indeed, the Obama camp launches attack ads, that’s true.

But let’s not mistake substantive debate for attack. It’s legitimate for Clinton to question Obama’s experience and abilities in foreign affairs. And it’s legitimate for Obama to question various of Clinton’s qualification. And I do wish they’d discuss differences on issues and policies at every opportunity. Out of that debate comes a better election.

I’ll define the Obama campaign’s problem a bit differently from Brooks: They will be drawn to specifics on both qualifications and policies now, specifics they have masterfully avoided so far in their puffy clouds of rhetoric.

Brooks argues that the lesson here may be that you can’t change politics. That may well be true. But I don’t think Obama is teaching us that lesson. I’ve been saying that he has been running the ultimate political campaign, one built on political rhetoric and style over substance. But Brooks comes around to nearly this view at the end:

In short, a candidate should never betray the core theory of his campaign, or head down a road that leads to that betrayal. Barack Obama doesn’t have an impressive record of experience or a unique policy profile. New politics is all he’s got. He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him.

Besides, the real softness of the campaign is not that Obama is a wimp. It’s that he has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona.

If he can’t explain that, he’s going to lose at some point anyway.

So if he is forced to explain that and if he does it well, it could actually be good for him. Depends on what he has to say. And now we have five months to hear it. I think that’s a good thing for the campaign.

(Repeated disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

Don’t bet on them

It’s amazing that reporters love horse-race coverage since they’re so damned lousy at it. Hillary Clinton has the nomination locked up. Rudy Giuliani is the sure nominee. Mike Huckabee is surging for the long haul. John McCain’s campaign is dead. Mitt Romney’s the one to beat. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is dead. Everything’s over last night.

Any idiot can bet on a horse and lose. And there’s a word for them. Losers.

Finally covering Obamedia

Well, at last, attention is being paid to the hand job that news media have been giving Barack Obama. Howie Kurtz was pretty much alone in questioning Obamedia (here he was on their slathering over the Ted Kennedy endorsement that did Obama little good in Massachusetts, and here I am complaining about their fawning). Now Saturday Night Live has taken up the story, followed at long last — and way too late, I’d say — by On the Media.

On Kurtz’ show this week, former Mitt Romney spokesman Kevin Madden called media coverage of Obama an “infomercial.” (With emphasis on the mercial, of course.) And former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers shamed media critics and editors for missing their own story: “I think it’s interesting that it took pop culture to make the country focus on the question of whether Hillary Clinton is being treated unfairly, and that was Saturday Night Live.”

Here’s where SNL started, a week ago, with a debate skit. A wonderfully exaggerated Jorge Ramos of Univsion questions Obama: “Oh, my God, I’m so nervous. I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you…. I’m sorry to go on so long, I just really, really, really, really want you to be the next President. And not just because you’re a fantastic human being and the only person who can turn this nation around…. So my question is, are you mad at me?… I was afraid you might be mad at me because, you know, all the shilling for you in my campaign coverage has been so obvious.”

Obama replies: “As I travel around this country, I’ve been hearing the same sentiments from every journalist I meet…. For too long in this country, the press has been hearing the same old refrain: Just give us the news and not your personal opinions. And they’re tired. They’re tired of being told, you journalists have to say neutral, you can’t take sides in a political campaign. And they’re saying, yes, we can. Yes, we can take sides. Yes, we can.”This week, the well-deserved skewering of puppy-love press continued with another debate skit, this one making fun of the MSNBC Barackfest debate. Clinton: “Maybe its just me but once again it seems as if (a) I’m getting the tougher questions and (b) with me, the overall tone is more hostile.” Cue Russert and Williams playing violins.I’ve said it before: I think this is a failure of media. It is also a failure of media criticism. Media won’t cover their own failings. Indeed, it’s frightening to hear the logic of political correspondents — this week’s Kurtz show is only the latest example — when they blame the campaign for getting bad coverage because they’re not being nice to the press.

So I’m glad to finally hear On the Media take on the story. Though fat lot of good that will do since we’re only days away from what the horse-race correspondents say is make-or-break Tuesday. Said Brooke Gladstone: “The media heart Obama.”

On OTM, media critic Bill Powers says that Obama has “an amazing ability to deflect bad press and move on.” I think that’s criticizing the event from the wrong direction: The press has an amazing ability not to press. Even in OTM’s criticism, we hear more wet kisses for Obama. Says Powers: “The way he keeps is cool is remarkable for someone under fire, particularly someone relatively young running for president…. It is something we haven’t seen the like of since Kennedy.” Just once, I want to hear reporters talk about what Obama does not say. Just once, I want to see reporters to go into a crowd of Obamaniacs and ask 10 of them — or a pollster 1,000 of them: “What does change mean?” Let’s hear whether, indeed, they are one or whether Obama is an empty vessel for his supporters as he is for media.

On both On the Media and Kurtz, guests predict that once Obama wins and Hillary is out of the way — which they all eagerly predict — the press will start attacking him. I don’t believe that. They’ll continue to slather over him until he gets into the White House. And then we’ll just see whether they finally start doing their job.

(Disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

: LATER: I post this and then pick up the New York Times this morning, which twice mentions the media’s slathering over Obama. Here they are mocking US magazine, of all journalistic paragons, under a journalism heading, of all places, for treating Obama’s wardrobe better than Clinton’s (though the Clinton feature was one in which she quite gamely made fun of her own outfits and got points for being so game). And here’s a feature on the SNL writer of the debate skits. Not a mention, though, of the Times’ newsroom’s own incurable crush. Reporters, report thyselves.

: But at least on the op-ed page, there has been acknowledgment of the media’s issue. Here was David Brooks’ mockery of it a few weeks ago. And Paul Krugman today:

What we do know is that Mr. Obama has never faced a serious Republican opponent — and that he has not yet faced the hostile media treatment doled out to every Democratic presidential candidate since 1988.

Yes, I know that both the Obama campaign and many reporters deny that he has received more favorable treatment than Hillary Clinton. But they’re kidding, right? Dana Milbank, the Washington Post national political reporter, told the truth back in December: “The press will savage her no matter what … they really have the knives out for her, there’s no question about it … Obama gets significantly better coverage.”

: LATER: I missed Jacques Steinberg’s story in the Times on Saturday that did, indeed, start to cover this, though I’d say it’s a much bigger story than this. See also Rachel Sklar’s complaint with his piece.

What is the Times thinking?

The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I’m not sure whether he’s isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.

I was gobsmacked reading the story when it came out. I didn’t blog on it because Jay Rosen did a great job succinctly dissecting its issues and implications and so I linked to him.

But I was even more astounded reading later that Times Executive Editor Bill Keller is surprised at the reaction to the story. In the paper’s effort to respond to its many, many critics, Keller says they “expected the reaction to be intense” and he tries to dismiss and discredit that reaction as “a time-honored tactic for dealing with potentially damaging news stories” rather as than righteous denial. But then he goes on:

Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site). I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing….

How could he possibly be surprised at the reaction to the Times all but accusing John McCain of having an affair with a lobbyist? How could he credibly be amazed at the reaction to the Times doing this without evidence except for the views of anonymous and admittedly disgruntled former aides saying they were convinced — convinced is the word the Times used — of an affair without them giving evidence? Can the editor of the Times possibly be this blind to the implications of what the paper did?

But Keller tries to tell us that we’re concentrating on the wrong thing here, that we don’t see what the real story is. He says it’s a narrative about McCain’s life. Keller’s deputy, Jill Abramson, also lectures us about missing their point:

Documents are always useful in reporting, but they are not required. The Times story was not about a romantic relationship. It was about a senator who had been embroiled in scandal, then rebuilt his career as a reformer and concern among his aides that his relationship with Ms. Iseman was putting that career at risk.

Do they have no news judgment? The lede in this story was obvious to everyone but the Times:

Paper of record hints that Republican presidential candidate has affair with lobbyist with no evidence other than statements attributed to anonymous sources, who the papers admits are disgruntled former associates of the candidate.

That is the lede. That is the story. That the editors of the Times don’t see that is incredible — that is to say, not credible. They can’t be that clueless, can they? They can’t be that bad at understanding news and politics, public opinion and media, surely. So are they merely trying to spin us? Are they embarrassed at what they did? Are they trying to convince themselves as well as us that this sex story — the sort of thing these high-fallutin’ journalists would usually insist is the stuff of Drudge and blogs and tabloids — is just an illustration in their bigger point about the life and times of John McCain? Surely, they can’t thing we’re that dumb. Surely, they’re not that dumb.

That’s what throws me about this story. I can’t figure out what these Timesmen are thinking.

In any case, there can be no doubt that the Times doesn’t just cover the story, it is part of the story. Its coverage of not only McCain but also of Clinton (whom the editorial page and publisher may have endorsed but whom the newsroom clearly can’t abide) is material to the story itself. So we deserve to know more about how the Times is covering the campaign. We need to know what they’re thinking.

: LATER: In Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s appraisal of the metascandal, Keller once again tries to tell us what the story is when what he really has done is tell us what the story isn’t. Keller:

If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members. But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.

Hoyt:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap….

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

The real elephant in the room: This was bad journalism.

: LATER: JigSaw sees some silver in the cloud over the Times (I’m rush, so please follow the link for more links):

I think some the impact of the Siegal Reports can be clearly seen here.

* When, in the history of the NYT, has it been held publicly accountable by thousands of readers using its own publishing tool (web site)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, has its editors and journalists engaged their readers in near-real-time two-way conversation?

* When, in the history of the NYT, could any interested reader engage its editors and journalists authoritatively using the NYT’s own publicly available Reader’s Guide, Confidential News Sources Policy, internal memos (Assuring Our Credibility) and accounts of their internal debates (More Flexibility and Reality in Explaining Anonymity)?

* When, in the history of the NYT, was there a NYT insider who would publicly tell its readers that the Executive Editor got it wrong?

The NYT should be embarrassed by the McCain story, but take pride in their public engagement.

Times whispers

Damned good post from Jay Rosen about the Times’ odd effort to imply and not report a McCain affair.