The blogosphere knows three things about mainstream media political coverage. It’s frivolous (yes, Maureen Dowd, they’re talking about you); it’s clueless about substance; and it’s obsessed with the horse race. And this week the bloggers were handed plenty of confirmation.
To stage its Nov. 28 CNN/YouTube Republican debate, CNN had only to sift through and choose a useful handful of video questions submitted by voters. It made a botch of this seemingly simple task, to bloggers’ instant and bipartisan scorn.
“Not a single second on the economy, which may well be on the verge of collapse, with the middle class potentially more vulnerable than its been at any point since the 1920s,” Rick Perlstein writes at Common Sense. “Not one question about health care, the central domestic issue for this election,” Paul Krugman adds at Conscience of a Liberal “Not a single question about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the powder keg in Pakistan or Iran,” Walter Shapiro rues at Salon’s ‘08 Roadies.
Instead CNN offered a freak show. “Is this what running for president of the greatest democracy in the world has become?” Richelieu asks at CampaignStandard. “Standing in front of CNN's corporate logo in a hall full of yowling Ron Paul loons and enduring clumsy webcam questions from Unabomber look-a-likes in murky basements?… America got to see a vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet causes.”
Except, of course, when they were “plants” from the other side. On the night of the debate it took the right blogosphere only minutes to discover that YouTube debate questioner Ret. Gen. Keith Kerr, who asked about gays in the military, serves on a committee of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (It seems these bloggers have cool investigative tools not available yet at CNN, like that Google thingamajig and those profiles doohickies at YouTube.) The result was a cascade of attacks on CNN, for both bias and incompetence.
But that was nothing compared to the pasting given to Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine, for his Nov. 25 mea culpa essay in the New York Times. In a decade as political editor for ABC News and founder and editor of The Note, its online political tip sheet, Halperin unseated Cokie Roberts as Washington’s fount of poll-obsessed, process-driven, horse-race-consumed, mindless conventional wisdom. And now he confesses he’s had it all wrong.
By his telling, Halperin is that most mythical of creatures –– someone actually ruined by a book. The book was What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s exhaustive (and exhausting) account of the lives of six candidates running in the 1988 presidential primaries. It taught him, Halperin writes, that the best campaigner makes the best president. Now, after Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he thinks that’s wrong. “We should examine a candidate’s public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance.” (Coverage of policy will apparently await Halperin’s next revelation.)
To which Alex Massie responds at Debate Land, “Chutzpah, thy name is Halperin.…To read this preposterous column you might think that Halperin was but an innocent bystander rather than a major player in a media climate he did as much to foster as anyone else.”
Just how preposterous? To begin, Halperin offers what Clint Hendler of CJR’s Campaign Desk calls “a gross misinterpretation of the book.” Cramer’s account drips with disdain for consultant-driven political journalism, whose practitioners he calls “Priests of the Process.” “Who the candidates were, what drove them, and what they were like as people…. that’s the hole he set out to plug.” Hendler notes. Cramer was antidote, not poison.
Others find Halperin’s command of facts as shaky as his reading comprehension. For example, Halperin argues that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were “arguably” underdogs in their reelection races. “An incumbent President with a strong economy who never trailed in a meaningful poll was an underdog in 1996?” Robert Farley asks. “And a wartime incumbent who also never trailed was an underdog in 2004? I don't know if Halperin is confused about the word ‘underdog’ or the word ‘arguably’, but there's clearly something not quite right going on."
But when the complaining is finally done, many are happy to see Halperin “come over to the side of light,” as Matthew Yglesias puts it at The Atlantic.
And Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake offers a constructive suggestion: “How about going out there and doing the jobs that the Fourth Estate used to do well — digging into the substance, the facts, the original sources on speeches and actions and legislation and such and doing some down and dirty real world comparisons on actions speaking louder than words? Now THAT would be something worth paying attention to — and it would be useful for all of us, wouldn’t it?