Partial Admission of Centrist Media Sins of Omission and Commission   Leave a comment

Who knew there would be a nice simmering boil of political news after the election, eh? The Petraeus/Broadwell/who the fuck knows who else will crop up story is like manna from heaven for news divisions.  And not that old bland manna, no, this has garlic and oregano and a slut everyone can shame.  Plus there’s all the drama of who will replace Petraeus at the CIA, and who will be put up for which position in the cabinet reshuffle.  Exciting times for a news outlet.  Too bad they’re so fucking terrible at it.  Both of the dominant strands in political news coverage at the moment can serve as case examples in the ways the media fucks up in covering political events.

If there’s one essential piece of Petraeus analysis everyone needs to read it’s Spencer Ackerman’s absolutely brutal dissection of the kinds of media coverage Petraeus garnered over the past few years.  Several subtle interlocking mechanisms provided Petraeus with his golden-boy image: he gave longer and more courteous interviews to reporters; cultivated an image with reporters and colleagues of being a different kind of military thinker, “intellectual” instead of “blood ‘n guts”; had a stock bag of tricks to structure interviews in order to generate sympathetic coverage, including the infamous “going for a jog with the interviewer”; and had a staff that was trained and competent in re-enforcing all of the above.  It all resulted in nigh-universal proclamation that He Was The One We Had Been Waiting For, a new type of general for a new type of war, with a new strategy and a new way of running combat operations.

This image was so robust that even as it started to become obviously false, when Petraeus started to lord over air strikes and commando raids and use criteria completely incompatible with counter-insurgency doctrine like “count every male in the vicinity as a terrorist”, the golden halo around Petraeus as the counter-insurgency guru fighting a different smarter kind of warfare continued to shine in the media.  (Ackerman doesn’t spare himself any embarrassment, by the way; he even recounts how the ol’ “go for a jog while you interview me” tactic worked about as well on him as it did on Broadwell . . . no, nah, let’s not even go there.)

This is an important piece, not only for popping the bubble around Petraeus but for illustrating the basic dynamics among political coverage more generally.  Every single thing Ackerman describes occurs at every level of political reportage; even the workout trick is adapted into stuff like holding interviews in exotic locations, or during downtime while waiting for conferences with foreign leaders, or in-between phone calls with high-level officials.

And so we get the same results.  We get Newt Gingrich the ideas man, Jeb Bush the bold reformer, Rudy Giuliani the not an absolute disgrace of a human being.  We get Larry Summers the wise sage, Michelle Rhee the uncompromising savior of American students, Erskine Bowles the not an idiot who can’t read actuarial tables.

*                    *                    *

Of course, it’s not all due to seduction by political operatives.  A lot of the inane and wrong coverage comes from other factors.

Laziness is always a good one.  Right now political coverage has got more buzz than a honeybee whorehouse about who will get which cabinet position.  Will they nominate John Kerry for Defense Secretary as a consolation for giving State to Susan Rice?  Will the GOP use Rice’s confirmation hearings as a battleground in the shadow war over Benghazi?  Who will step into the (quiet in order to avoid people hearing him sneak around) shoes of Petraeus at the CIA over from Petraeus?

These staff positions shape an administration’s policy enormously, so it’s important to treat them as a big deal.  But, um . . . the fuck was this coverage during the election?  If it’s important to know who’s going into which position, why weren’t the campaigns asked about it when they were running for the right to make those staffing decisions?  Jennifer Rubin is an intellectual Paraquat who must be so releaved she can take a breather after holding down jobs both as a Washington Post opinion writer and Mitt Romney’s press secretary, but she’s right about this one thing: this stuff wasn’t gone into during the campaign, and that’s a tremendous failure.  She frames it as a failure of the media to let the American people know they would have a faggy VC peacenik as Defense Secretary, but the general point is a good one.

Everyone knows what the media coverage of the campaign did instead of actual reporting: horse-race coverage!  Who’s up, who’s down, who’s spending money where.  It’s easy, sure, but it also avoids rocking the boat; it’s just a stenography job writing down what each campaign is doing and what the polls are saying, can’t really lose access over doing that, can I, what do you mean I’ll be sitting in the back of the press plane from now on oh please don’t do this no please please I’ll do anything you want yes I will put your press flackey’s words in the mouth of an Ohio mother of two yes I said yes I will Yes.

And those dynamics don’t stop once the campaigns over.  There’s a tremendous amount horse-race aspects of the jockeying for cabinet positions.  Kerry was an early front-runner for State, but fell behind Rice, now he’s “in the mix” to lead the Pentagon, although he seems to be losing momentum.  Although why is he in the running at all, since the political implications are dire?

This is happening while allegations of the number 2 House Republican coerced the FBI into bringing down the CIA Director by continuing an investigation that was winding down, remember.  Horse-race coverage provides reporters with access since everyone’s spinning like mad, it doesn’t open yourself up to accusations of bias, it’s easy.  It’s just not very useful.

Ah well.  Maybe Ackerman will end his long journey through the wilderness and be hired by an actual paper.  And maybe I’ll marry Pippa Middleton.

Posted November 13, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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