Posts about Politics

Journalists’ votes matter

Media have an Obama problem they’re going to have to grapple with now or after the election: They love him. They hate Hillary. And the gap between the two is clearly seen in coverage, which surely is having an impact on the election.

This, to me, only gives more weight to the argument that journalists should be disclosing their allegiances and votes. Reporters are not just covering the story. This year, they are part of the story. The ethic of transparency that I have learned online and that journalists apply to everyone they cover should also apply to them. I say that journalists have a responsibility to reveal their own views and votes — even as they endeavor to report apart from them with fairness, completeness, accuracy, and intellectual honesty — and we have a right to judge their success or failure accordingly as we also have a right to judge their roles in the stories they are covering.

No, I don’t buy for a second that journalists don’t have opinions. They’re human. To say that they are above opinions is just another means for journalists to separate themselves from the public they serve, to act as if they are different, above us. But journalists couldn’t do their jobs if they didn’t have opinions, if they didn’t have a reason to do this story over that, if they didn’t have a goal. Yet this is the fiction some journalists tell when they try to prove they are opinionless by not voting. As far as I’m concerned, that’s only evidence that they are trying to delude themselves or us.

And this year, the media’s role in the Obama wave is an angle of the story that itself warrants reporting. Says Bill Clinton:

The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before. They’ve been active participants in this election.

Don’t you want to know the opinions of the political press? Don’t you want to be able to judge their reporting accordingly? what makes them think that they can and should hide that from us?

* * *

Terence Smith wrote a dead-on column about the delta between negative Hillary and positive Obama coverage:

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. . . .

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.” . . .

And on Obama:

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

On NPR, media watcher David Folkenflik says:

Many reporters admit privately that they feel differently about the two candidates. And there’s a phrase that’s surfaced to described the phenomenon that’s afflicted MSNBC’s [Chris] Matthews: the Obama swoon.

And why should reporters get away with saying that privately? I want a camera in the voting booth with Chris Matthews — he of the too-frequent too-late apologies — to verify the obvious. I want to know how they’re voting.

But some journalists try to evade that legitimate question by not voting, as if that absolves them of opinions and blame. Len Downie, editor of the Washington Post — and by that evidence, a damned good editor he is — has long argued that by not voting he keeps himself pure: “Yes, I do not vote. . . . I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”

Sorry, but I still don’t buy that and I fear that excuse is seeping down to others in his staff. Here is the Post’s Chris Cillizza — a fine political correspondent himself — arguing that not voting makes him objective:

. . . [O]bjectivity in covering these races means that you stay objective before, during and after the contests. As, or perhaps more, importantly, however, is the obsession among some people to sniff out a reporter’s “secret” political leanings. Time and time again, I find people commenting on this blog and elsewhere accusing me of having a pro-Clinton or pro-Obama or pro-McCain or pro-someone else viewpoint. I know in my hearts of hearts that I don’t have any of those biased viewpoints, but if I did vote — even in a local or county election — it would add fuel to the fire of those folks who think I am a secret partisan.

I have to say I smelled some Obama roses blooming in this from Cillizza on Howie Kurtz’ show:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

After a line like that, there is good reason to ask where his heart is. You can stay away from the voting booth but that doesn’t make you into the Tinman.

I agree with John Harris, head of Politico, who calls this a tedious argument — “a subset of the most endless and least satisfying debate in the whole profession: Is true objectivity ever possible?” Harris does vote — sometimes.

It is admirable that [Politico colleagues] Mike and Jim cleave to a scientific ideal of journalistic detachment, the way a surgeon cannot tolerate even the slightest bacteria on his instruments. Their piety on this subject is especially notable in an era when traditional lines governing journalism (or even who counts as a journalist in the first place) have blurred, and many new arrivals to the business don’t care at all about old notions of neutrality and fair-minded presentation.

But Jim is right that I find his obsession a bit silly — and a bit self-deluded. . . .

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

But Harris turns around and says he didn’t vote in the primary because he didn’t want to declare a party and then have readers make assumptions about where he stands. So he’s pulling the same trick: He’s trying to hide his opinions. Isn’t that a form of deception by omission? Isn’t it at least coy?

I like his scientific analogy but I’ll take it a different way: A scientist surely has desires. A doctor studying cancer naturally wants to cure it; she’s against cancer. That doctor has opinions and beliefs, hypotheses to prove or disprove. But intellectual honestly will demand disproving a hypothesis that is wrong even if she believed it to be true. One can have opinions and still be factual, fair, honest, truthful. Indeed, it is easier to judge that scientist’s work by knowing what she’s looking for.

Steve Baker of Business Week goes one step farther:

I think it’s impossible for a person who thinks about politics, and cares about it, not to prefer one candidate to another. It’s fine for journalists not to broadcast our political views, but why pretend that we don’t have them? What’s important is to be fair. And if we want to keep our views secret, well that’s why it’s good that voting booths have curtains.. . .

I don’t think either Harris or Baker goes far enough. I believe that journalists should vote. They are citizens — and some get mad at me when I refer to amateurs as citizen journalists because they demand the label, too. They are human, too — they have opinons. They also have ethics that demand that they try to be — repeating the list of verities — fair, honest, complete, intellectually honest and I believe most hold to that. But now add the ethics of transparency and openness — and trust in the public you serve — and I believe that especially this year, journalists owe it to us to tell us what they’re thinking. The only thing worse than an agenda is a hidden agenda.

: I didn’t think it was necessary to append this to every post on the topic but judging by the comments, it couldn’t hurt: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.

The cult of change

Paul Krugman today on the Obamaniacs:

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

Hands off, Howard

Howard Dean says he is thinking about trying to avoid a brokered convention. How? By brokering a deal between the candidates this summer. The last person I want picking our nominee is Howard “Loser” Dean. That and the disenfranchisement of voters in Florida and Michigan is just too much interference from the party, separating voters from our right to choose. Leave it alone, Doctor.

: LATER: Now I see that Dean is pushing Florida and Michigan to hold second primaries. That’s offensive. The voters in both states already voted. By redoing it, I’d bet Dean would be advantaging Obama, he of the momentum. I repeat: disenfranchising the voters in these two dates is undemocratic and unDemocratic and trying to change their votes is even worse. I knew that Dean as the head of the party would be trouble.

Join the chorus

(This is crossposted from Comment is Free, where the comments are always interesting. It repeats a bit of what I said here yesterday and replaces and expands on an earlier post.)

The contrast in Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns — and their voters — is starkly illustrated in their Super Tuesday speeches.

Obama is the orator, Clinton the manager. Obama’s crowd behaves like a devoted cult Clinton’s like a well-behaved class. Obama has succeeded — with considerable help from media — at portraying his campaign as a movement, while Clinton’s is, well, a campaign.

Obama’s 21 minutes:

My problem with his campaign is also illustrated in this speech. Though he catalogues his issues — Iraq, health care, the standard list — his message is made up of little more than stock marketing taglines. He’s not so much running for office as branding himself.

Listen to last night’s medley of his greatest hits: “Our time has come… Our movement is real… Change is coming to America… We are more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America… This time can be different…. Not this time. Not this year…. This time we have to seize the moment…. This fall, we owe the American people a real choice…. We have to choose between change and more of the same, we have to choose between looking backwards and looking forward. We have to choose between our future and our past…. We can do this… We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek…. Yes we can…. Yes we can….” Cue crowd chanting: “Yes we can…”

His supporters, including many New York friends of mine, buy his image and believe he is less political and that he is indeed different. I think he’s more political and his campaign is the greatest example of the selling of the president I’ve yet seen. To state it harshly, I say that relying on these stock phrases — believing that we are going to swallow empty oratory about “change” punctuated with chants of “yes we can” — is a cynical political act.

But then again, I can’t argue with the fact that it’s working. It’s working with voters and it’s certainly working with the media, which have given Obama more attention through much of the campaign. Here’s a chart from Daylife showing Obama getting more coverage even as they racked up equivalent delegate counts.as Clinton amasses more delegates.picture-30.png

Media like Obama’s story. It’s a better story, they say. That is, if the real story is about personality and oratory over issues and competence. See this discussion about some Kennedys’ endorsement of Obama (note not about other Kennedys’ endorsement of Clinton) between the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, and political correspondent, Chris Cillizza, on CNN:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

You can hear him aching to cover to the Second Coming of the Kennedy. That is obviously a better story than the Second Coming of the Clintons.

Now watch the brief clip of Clinton’s Super Tuesday speech posted on YouTube by her campaign. She delivers the same essential message and about the exact same issues but without the chanting and cheering behind her – without the excitement:

When I complained on my blog that I want to hire a manager not a spiritual adviser for the White House — especially after eight years of grossly incompetent management from someone who thought he had a cause — my commenters responded with their dreamy wishes for an uplifting Obama administration instead. Said one: “I don’t want an executive, I want someone to stoke the fires of political engagement so that the people will be involved in thier government again.” Said another: “We don’t want an executive to lead us – we want someone who will amplify our voices and give us the ability to reach into government.” Nevermind the job title is chief executive.

Indeed, commenter Andrew Tyndall argued that management is a turnoff: “The virtue that many Democrats in the party’s base hail as ‘competent management’ is an attribute that many non-Democrats may see as the vice of being ‘wedded to bureaucracy.’ It may be that a liberal Democrat who talks in generalities, rather than specifics, has an easier time persuading those voters who are reflexively against big government that he does not have the heart and soul of a bureaucrat — or ‘manager’ to use BuzzMachine’s less pejorative term.”

So I appear to be the odd man out. Maybe I should just join the chorus. Ch-ch-ch-changes:

(Disclosures: I am a partner at Daylife. And I voted for Clinton yesterday.)

We’re hiring a manager, not a spiritual adviser

In the interest of blog openness, here’s why I’m voting the way I am Tuesday:

Two things trouble me about the Obama campaign: First, its reliance on empty rhetoric: “Change” and now “yes, we can.” But change how? Can do what? And second, the candidate’s lack of experience is an issue. I fear that we could end up with Jimmy Carter: a well-meaning incompetent, as it turned out, rather than the Second Coming of the Kennedy; there’s just no way to know now. Worse, we could end up with someone who tries to backfill the rhetoric and defines change in ways we didn’t bet on.

I hear people saying that Obama’s impressive oratory gives them something to believe in. That sounds nice. But that, too, is dangerous. I don’t want to hire a spiritual leader for the White House. We have someone now who thinks he stands on spiritual principles and backfilled his definition of them in disastrous ways.

No, I want to hire a manager: tough and experienced and practical. That is what we need, especially now.

We have supposedly disdained the selling of the president, the productizing of politics. But we fall for it, like we fall for celebrity news. The Infotainment Rules blog draws that parallel nicely:

The Obama campaign more and more begins to resemble a celebrity marketing campaign, as I mentioned here:

“The way Barack Obama is being covered by the media and the blogosphere, he’s not a political candidate anymore–he’s a celebrity. He doesn’t have political followers–he’s got fans. He doesn’t have a political platform–he’s got a one-word slogan–“change” [which works, ’cause “change is good,” just like Nissan says, right?]. He makes narcissists feel so good about themselves.”

So: the slogan has changed–now it’s “Yes, we can”–but the marketing pitch is the same: Obama’s the one.

Quoth Oprah.

I am reminded unfortunately of the scene from The Candidate in which Robert Redford sits in back of his car mouthing the words he’s been delivering in random order. I just went out to buy the DVD. Here’s what he says: “Ladies and gentlemen. The time has passed. Got to be a better way. I say to you can’t any longer, oh no, can’t any longer play off black against old, young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless… They’re demanding a government of the people, peopled by people. Our faith, our compassion, our courage on the gridiron… The basic indifference that made this country great. And on election day, and on election day, we won’t run away. Vote once. Vote twice for Bill McCay.”

I am also reminded of the final scene, in which the victorious Redford asks, “What do we do now?”

I have no doubt that Barack Obama is a decent, smart, and well-meaning politician. But don’t forget that he is a politician. And I fear that turning yourself into a slogan is an essentially cynical political act. Since the start of his campaign, except for a brief period in the middle, he has lacked the courage to be specific in his oratory.

Hillary Clinton has been specific, sometimes to a fault. She is, as debate moderators rudely enjoyed pointing out, not as likable. She is certainly not the orator Obama is. But where others see a lack of change because she has lived in Washington and the White House, I see experience and a potential to get things done. I agree with her on issue. I respect her. So I’m voting for her in the morning.

: See also the transcript of Howard Kurtz’s show this weekend on the media’s complicity in wanting to turn the Obama story to Camelot, the Sequel.

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy.

It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline.

You see John F. Kennedy’s daughter and his brother get up and say this person sounds, feels and looks like my brother or my father. It’s a very powerful story. Ted Kennedy is more symbolic. He’s not just a senator from Massachusetts, he’s also the last one of the Kennedy brothers. So…

KURTZ: So you believe basically it deserves all this blowout coverage because of the symbolism involve? Brief answer.

CILLIZZA: You know, I don’t know if it deserved it, Howie, but I do think it was an important story as it related to Ted Kennedy saying, yes, this person resembles my brother.

KURTZ: OK.

CILLIZZA: If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

I’m not going for a fairytale storyline or a rousing slogan. I’m looking for someone to run the government. I want a manager. Managers don’t make good celebrities.