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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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The Worst Part of the Post-Election Analysis   Leave a comment

No, it’s not the cascade of bland cliches pouring forth from every media orifice.  This is just as good as any.  We’re a divided nation!  Colorado legalized pot while Oklahoma’s getting rid of affirmative action!  Truly America is the new Habsburg Empire.  I also love that the piece just peters out with a dozen random quotes from people in swing states.  One of them, in its entirety, is someone from New Hampshire saying “I have two moms.” And they say journalism is a dying industry.

No, it’s not the “won’t someone PLEEEZE think of the children” scolds complaining about America finally moving toward some semblance of sanity on marijuana. Harmless, if annoying. (Although for tickles and giggles, it’s fun to see “I’m a lifelong partisan Democrat, but I’ve also spent 25 years as a doctor treating drug abusers, and I know their games. They’re excellent con artists.” in the New York Times.  The New York Times: where Newt Gingrich is an ideas man but people who get high are never to be trusted.)

No, it’s not even the absolute bollocks of “the voters in their wisdom voted for the Republicans to retain control of the House of Representatives, which means there’s a mandate for deficit reduction that rejects tax increases” peddled by David Brooks and other organ grinders.  That’s stunning in its mendacity but it can’t do much harm.  It’s wrong for so many reasons that even fairly comprehensive take-downs of it can avoid the dark shade of gerrymandering which played a slightly more real role in the Republicans retaining power in the House, which is not helpful.

But my stars, that’s not even close to the worst thing.  The absolute worst thing is people crowing about how hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by billionaires and companies, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, didn’t seem to deliver any of the races that got showered with gold.  Our political system has shown itself able to repel the onslaught of trucks full of plutocratic cash, and we’re all the better for it.

The Times ran a story headlined “Little to Show for Cash Flood by Big Donors”, choosing to pull its “focus on people instead of news” routine on this topic and documenting how very sad the billionaires who spent all that money were that it did not usher in the Randtopia.  Rachel Maddow was less restrained and pranced about last night with a fife, going on about how if that money were lit on fire it would have at least provided heat; Kevin Drum was more circumspect but also concludes that the “flood of SuperPAC” money ultimately won’t amount to much.

No.

“They didn’t win so it doesn’t matter” is the exact wrong lesson to take away from the first Citizens United presidential election.

– “Pandora can’t put all that money back into the box.”  Find one single person thinking about running for office in the United States who is not going to try and out-do the fund-raising efforts of this election.  You can’t.  No one has ever heard of a one-sided arms race, because people tend to forget a one-sided arms race after the absolute annihilation that inevitably comes afterward.  This money is now baked into the political cake, a disgusting cake full of plums and sawdust, and that means fundraising will take even more of a central role in American politics.  That is the story here, and that is what needs to be focused on, not “hurf durf rich people”.  Two billion dollars were spent in 2008; six billion were spent this year, all told.  Money in politics just became a much bigger problem.  But go ahead and laugh at how Sheldon Adelson lost a month’s worth of upkeep for his fleet of private jets gambling on politics.  That’s what’s important.  Speaking of,

– “The horse-race is over.  Shut up about the fucking horse-race.”  Comparing totals of money spent and by whom is just an extension of the “who’s up, who’s down” mentality that drives election coverage at the expense of things that actually matter.  Meanwhile areas in which that money makes an enormous difference are left quietly untended.  The amount of money spent in Michigan on non-presidential campaigns about doubled, and almost $150 million was spent on ballot proposals.  What a fine and glorious democracy we shall have when it’s routine for a few people to drop one or two dozen million dollars and get voters to approve their pet political agendas themselves, without wasting all that time having to fart around with politicians.  Even if God starts to give a fuck on what happens on this pale blue marble and prevents that from happening, the postdiluvian political landscape is one where state legislatures are going to wear NASCAR suits with their benefactors’ logos on them.  This is the way that a conservative movement faced with the grim specter of electoral irrelevance will retain an enormous policy influence: drowning state races in cash, which lets them gerrymander districts even further, so they can spend even more money.  It’s beautiful, in a way, like looking at the springs of a cuckoo clock that uses racial epithets instead of bells on the hour, and its enormous potential ramifications which are beginning to play out should be treated with the respect they deserve.  Finally,

– “Please just stop trying to deflate momentum for every good government initiative under the sun.”  The media tries to present itself as above the tug and pull of politics, but of course everything they do is political.  The way they cover stories, the anecdotes that get press about different personalities, etc.  But one of the more powerful and subtle ways media coverage affects politics is by feeding narratives of which political issues are important, alive and kicking, and which are insubstantial, dead, and just sitting there doing nothing like David Gergen.  Deficit reduction is a live issue because the media allows it to be instead of rejecting en masse as an utterly inappropriate response to one of the worst economic disasters in history.

And in the same way, the political effort to restrict the effects of the Citizens United ruling is given short shrift by this kind of coverage.  It can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment, which not only requires supermajorities in the House and Senate but votes of 3/4 of the state legislatures.  Such a political effort is starting to pick up steam, but a goal of that scope requires the media to recognize its existence; portraying Citizens United as “fizzling out” because a couple billionaires didn’t hand-pick the president undercuts the momentum of that project and helps make unlimited corporate spending a background and unremarked feature of our system.  The impression that is set now soon hardens to concrete, and will make future efforts that much more difficult, requiring even more effort, time and money.  And why?  Because some media folk have an inaccurate understanding of the scope and mechanisms unleashed by that Supreme Court decision, because they have airtime and space to fill, and it’s easy.

No.  It’s not ok.  It’s the worst part of the post-election analysis.

Posted November 8, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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It’s a Great Day For America, Everybody!   1 comment

Minute-by-minute update resources: NYTimes, Google

BREAKING: Some podunk New Hampshire town has split its votes evenly for president, five to five, in the first time in its history.  Obviously this is good news for John McCain.

The best news feed to watch is, of course, Al Jazeera.  Network coverage by NBC and CBS will probably have the highest “factual news to absurd punditry” ratio.  Fox’ll be good for schadenfreude at some point.  CNN is right out, unless you want to see Wolf Blitzer strapped into the mechanical suit from Aliens interviewing a hologram of what Obama and Romney’s baby would look like.

Funny stuff to read to stay sane: Wonkette, the twitter feeds of Jim Newell, Alex Pareene, and when you just have to have a snarky joke about Republicans, LOLGOP

Of course whatever else you do you should read everything Charlie Pierce ends up posting today.

What to watch for as the night progresses:

– New Hampshire will have its votes in fairly quickly and will be an important indicator.  If Obama wins New Hampshire and any other Eastern time zone swing state, it’s over; if he wins NH and Iowa, Wisconsin and Colorado, it’s over, even if Romney dominates the rest of the Eastern states like Hank Scorpio.

– IF Romney doesn’t get Virginia, THEN he has to pick off New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado,  AND at least one other state, which he ain’t gon’ do.  So pour a non-alcoholic, non-caffienated, lukewarm-at-the-hottest beveridge to the curb for the hopes of a fallen Mormon if he doesn’t win Virginia.  And pop the champagne for everyone else.

Virginia being “close” and the networks taking their sweet time to declare a winner there is a better sign for Obama than Romney, since Obama has larger leads in states like Ohio and Colorado; a “close” Virginia probably means a win for him in those later states.

– If Romney takes Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire, it’s gonna be a long night.  Then Obama has to take at least one of Iowa, Wisconsin or Colorado in order for the election to come down to Ohio.

Other things to watch besides the Presidential election:

The Senate and House results aren’t supposed to be in danger of flipping control of either chamber to a different party.  If the news coverage starts yipping excitedly about a Senate race, it’ll probably be a big deal.  There are also a bunch of state level proposals folks’ll be votin’ on that are fairly important.  Among them are

Outlawing the death penalty in California (there are currently 733 people on death row in California, more than any other state)

Washington continuing and Michigan adopting the same insane requirement that any tax increase requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of the state legislature which has turned California into the paragon of responsible government it is world-renowned for

Colorado, Oregon and Washington all have proposals limiting marijuana prohibition to varying degrees

Michigan putting the right to collectively bargain in its state constitution

Michigan also has a measure to determine “financial criteria” allowing the governor to appoint an “emergency manager” that can override the decisions of towns and school districts and rejigger contracts if finances are “found to be in emergency condition”.  In a sign that God cares about the upkeep of Her creation, it looks like this proposal is going down.

It’s great that these are put in front of voters, but the process to get them on the ballot is yet another indication that voting is the most useless and feeble political action.

Finally, a word on the clucking that’ll be on the networks.  At some point there will be talk of a “mandate”, the notion that the size of a politician’s victory has an effect on her ability to govern.  Don’t listen to it.  Even besides the fact that Obama’s vote total will be depressed by the hurricane, the concept just doesn’t have any validity to it.  As James Carville so eloquently put it, the only politician with a mandate is Jim McGreevey.  Legislators aren’t swayed by that stuff in tranquil times, and with the House continuing to be a herding pen for mad cow disease, that is not likely to change in Obama’s second term.

Any discussion of long lines to vote in Florida and Ohio without the next clause in the sentence being “which were explicitly engineered by the Republican governors and state legislatures who control those processes to depress Democratic vote totals” is not a serious discussion among adults.  Which will be all of those discussions.  The NBC folks might mention it, though.

And, most importantly: Grape or Grain, but ne’er the Twain; Vine with Corn, Beware the Morn.

Go vote and have fun, see you on the other side.

Posted November 6, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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Don’t Vote   1 comment

Get out the vote.  Rock the vote.  Jay Z wants you to do it.  Errol Morris does too.

This is as close as America comes to having a broad and active civic culture.  Moving money is how we primarily express engagement in our communities, with charity concerts and commercials and ads giving a number to text to give a quick couple of bucks.  The news does its part by treating a billionaire showering tax-exempt gold on some project as the most involved anyone can ever hope to become with the people around them.  Even coverage of the most public and explicitly political causes, like the campaign for gay marriage rights, breathlessly tracks the movement of money while ignoring the details of the hard work and volunteer time that go in to them.

But come that sacred Sunday once every four years, ahh, everyone is recognized as having a solemn responsibility, as a citizen, to have their input into the process.  Fliers go up, signs sprout, ads from the campaigns and interest groups and corporations echo through the crisp fall air, everyone with a modicum of celebrity urges everyone who can hear them to do their part.

It’s bullshit.

Voting is the mechanism by which leaders are chosen, but as a way to express preferences for political issues it is completely inadequate.  Does a vote for Romney indicate support for lower tax rates?  Or a balanced budget?  Or a larger military?  Which one of those issues is going to be dropped when push comes to shove and they can’t all be achieved?  To say nothing of the many issues that the two parties agree on that a majority of Americans do not – nationalized health care, environmental protection, financial regulation, etc. – that voting cannot signal a preference one way or another.

Voting is less than useless at trying to control the political process.  Is a Grand Bargain which lowers the deficit by cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare more likely to happen under an Obama or Romney presidency?  Romney probably wants it more, but will be more constrained by public opinion since it re-enforces the notion of Republicans being heartless businessmen, but he’ll probably be more likely to work with the Republican House of Representatives, but he’ll be more likely to be driven to an extreme position by those same people . . . on and on and on.

As a way to influence the political decisions that get made, voting just doesn’t work, while it is universally treated as both the single occasion to think like a citizen and the single responsibility a citizen has to influence those decisions.  This deification of the voting process has interwoven itself into the American national myths.  America!  Founded on the premise that everyone should have a say in the governance of their lives, the noble experiment of self-governance, and the mere act of voting is enough to fulfill that ideal.  Instead, like so much else, in excessively fetishing an act we cause it to betray what we want it to uphold.  For self-governance to work ordinary citizens have to attend county-level party meetings, bitch to their representatives, to contribute time and effort to working with special interest groups, to contribute and raise money.  Voting is the most tenuous and inconsequential act of political participation, the most ineffective, the most worthless.  And yet it’s the only thing that gets talked about.

This massive cognitive dissonance shows up elsewhere, of course.  If indeed voting is something that is so sacred and so heavy a responsibility, why. the. living. fuck. aren’t Republican efforts at voter intimidation and restricting ballots and outright fraud more of a media story?  If the national myths about voting are true then attempts to interfere with it should be treated as a disgrace, as near-treasonous, or at least as something akin to shooting a bald eagle or burning books or other fundamentally un-American activities.  And yet, no, it’s just another “both sides do it” story that gets mentioned in the c-block after the latest tech stock news, if at all.  The careerist ambitions of people causing them to sacrifice accuracy and honesty in an effort to not rock the boat are definitely at work here, as they are in every other facet of national news media, but there’s also something else.

The national myths of voting are hollow and unserious, but they keep getting re-enforced through a complex web of interlocking interests and tendencies.  The campaigns themselves pump out metric tons of GOTV ads, many of which are dripping with guilt and civic responsibility.  (If not more . . . turgid . . . methods.)  Corporations, other groups and celebrities are guaranteed to at least get a jolt of public awareness as they try to bathe themselves in the backwash of civic responsibility with GOTV efforts.  But there are more subtle and abstract reasons, too.  The same trends which have atomized American culture into a frenzied rush of consumer choices and caused community engagement to atrophy are at work here, too; fetishizing voting is all that’s left, really, of a broad national sense of civic participation.  For people hoping to revive that spirit, or who just want to at least experience it, it’s probably the only game in town.  There’s a psychological factor there, of feeling good about participating in massive public civic functions that only voting can now provide, but also less noble motivations: feeling superior, shaming outsiders, etc.

The conspiracy-inclined might find that a public ginned to civic frenzy around the most vague, abstract and inconsequential political act and ignorant about the real ways to influence the political process suits the powers-that-be just fine, they can go around structuring things to their overwhelming advantage and marking the bounds of the politically possible all they want without much of a bother from the sleeping masses, all while presenting the illusion that they are actually controlling things, almost couldn’t draw up a better system . . . but we needn’t dwell on that here.

It’s understandable that the national hysteria around the act of voting exists.  But for fuck’s sake don’t buy into it.  Go out and vote, but do it with clear eyes and a full heart, as Mitt Romney would say, with full knowledge of what you’re doing.  Then after the election start actually engaging with the political process.

Posted November 1, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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On Eve of Election, Centrist Pundits Turn to Ghosts of Politics Past, Present and Future, Scary in Their Ignorance and Mendacity   Leave a comment

This close to an election, actual analysis and prediction is too risky for the centrist pundit.  People might actually remember what they wrote and judge them according to whether they’re right.  (They’re not, usually.)  Much better to preserve reputations of being a serious figure worthy of respect by reveling in some fairy dreamland, admiring political landscapes that didn’t, don’t, or will never exist.

Richard Cohen’s Kennedy nostalgia is probably the most nauseating, just because it absolutely refuses to even acknowledge that national political dynamics have changed since the 60s, and then fucks up recounting those 60s dynamics just for good measure.  Shameless.

[Robert] Kennedy brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy, and was determined — you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I’ve never seen that look on Barack Obama’s face.

Instead, I see a failure to embrace all sorts of people, even members of Congress and the business community. I see diffidence, a reluctance to close. I see a president for whom Afghanistan is not just a war but a metaphor for his approach to politics: He approved a surge but also an exit date. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Forget Cohen’s trying to do psychology through a telephoto lens.  Try and explain that last sentence.  You can’t.  Because it makes no sense.

Kennedy had huge causes. End poverty. End the war. He challenged a sitting president over Vietnam. It could have cost him his career. […]

Obama never espoused a cause bigger than his own political survival. This is the gravamen of the indictment from the left, particularly certain African Americans. They are right. Young black men fill the jails and the morgues, yet Obama says nothing. Bobby Kennedy showed his anger, his impatience, his stunned incredulity at the state of black America. Obama shows nothing.

And here’s the nub.  Kennedy believed in stuff, man, he was working towards things, was angry at the status-quo, had vision.  And Obama does not.

There are two problems here (besides the absolutely stunning doublethink required to praise a man as a political pariah in the wilderness for doing the politically expedient thing of denouncing an unpopular and unnecessary war that he himself had helped turn into a clusterfucking orgy of destruction).  The first is willful ignorance about the gulf in political and social contexts between now and the late 60s.  Johnson used supermajorities of Democrats in both chambers of Congress to pass enormously ambitious social safety net programs, and the numbers in both chambers didn’t change for about a decade.  The war party ran a presidential candidate who had a “secret plan to end the war.”  I hope the contrast between then and now is too obvious for me to have to make.  To anyone besides Richard Cohen, I guess.  And even with Obama “not caring”, he still passed the most ambitious social safety net programs since the ’60s.  It isn’t ludicrous to argue that, comparing the relative contexts, Obama showed more political skill and determination to accomplish the same goals than Johnson.  It is ludicrous to argue what Cohen argues.  Or dreamily reminisces, would be a better term.

But the second problem is even more pig-ignorant, if anything.  Cohen wonders why Obama hasn’t shown “anger/impatience/stunned incredulity” at the “state of black America”.  Even if you had no idea who Jesse Jackson was, or the nature of his several dismal attempts at running for president, or were completely clueless about the state of race relations in the US circa the 21st century, there’s no excuse for this.  Imma just leave this here.

Cohen’s attempts to garble political history beyond all recognition take first place, but Michael Gerson’s re-hashing of the politics of Obamacare is a close second in the race to use ignorance and mendacity to avoid saying anything about the election.

In late 2009, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate had both passed health-reform legislation and were proceeding with reconciliation talks. But in January 2010, Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat — as well as their filibuster-proof Senate majority — in a protest against Obamacare. It was a remarkable revolt, in the bluest of states.

Democrats lost that Senate race because they ran a candidate who didn’t know what Fenway Park was.  And in any event only 7% of Brown voters cared about the effect on the process of the health care bill.  And in any event Massachusetts elects state-wide Republicans fairly often nudge nudge wink wink.   So the majority of factual claims in that paragraph are silly.  But it gets worse.

The president went ahead, saying, “I feel lucky.” In March 2010, Obamacare was passed without a serious recalibration or a single Republican vote. […]

Obama achieved all of this with a quick and dirty legislative shove that further discredited the political process. The final bill was passed through a maneuver — the reconciliation process — that embittered opponents and assured that a future GOP majority would engage in retribution. […]

The evidence is found in the current campaign. Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment is a relatively minor theme of his reelection effort. It is hard to crow about a law that presidential scholar George Edwards calls “perhaps the least popular major domestic policy passed in the last century.” So Obama’s closing argument on health care is mainly a divisive, unqualified defense of abortion rights.

The Republicans in 2009 must have been prescient, only allowing Obama to staff about 40% of positions requiring Senate approval and breaking the record for number of filibusters in a session ten times over.  They were forced to do so by Obama’s underhanded tactics they knew he was going to pull in the future regarding healthcare reform, such as adopting a Republican plan for healthcare reform, and allowing Republican Senators on relevant committees enormous influence in the crafting of the bill in exchange for yes votes (which of course had to become no votes, because of the lack of bipartisanship displayed by Obama).

The only way to explain this is if Gerson thinks he can educate the public by showing them a world in which Republican talking points actually came true.  This world ignores the above and doesn’t acknowledge Obama talking about Obamacare in every single speech he’s given in 2012, and running ads exclusively about Obamacare on the tv.  What Gerson hopes to get out of this, I don’t know; showing some tyrant editor what the world would be like if he continued to disregard honesty and accuracy?

Of course we all know David Brooks’ game by now, hopefully.  Proclaiming the bright, moderate, bipartisan Republican administration just around the corner, sure to be here any minute now:

To get re-elected in a country with a rising minority population and a shrinking Republican coalition, Romney’s shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate. To get his tax and entitlement reforms through the Democratic Senate, Romney would have to make some serious concessions: increase taxes on the rich as part of an overall reform; abandon the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget; reduce the size of his lavish tax-cut promises.

As President Romney made these concessions, conservatives would be in uproar. Talk-radio hosts would be the ones accusing him of Romneysia, forgetting all the promises he made in the primary season. There’d probably be a primary challenge from the right in 2016.

But Republicans in Congress would probably go along. They wouldn’t want to destroy a Republican president. Romney would champion enough conservative reforms to allow some Republicans to justify their votes.

The phantasm Republicans of Brooks’ future will agree to tax increases.  On the rich.  Because they care more about Romney’s political career than their own.  This is more likely to happen than getting two or three asshole centrist Democrats to vote for the same kind of spending cuts they always vote for and always are seeking as preconditions for voting for anything else.

Brooks’ rendition of the ghost of politics future is a good illustration of why these jerkass centrists aren’t talking about the election.  Try and call a race or two, or provide analysis on election trends, and you’ll be wrong, as always, but people will be able to remember you were wrong.  If, Colbert forbid, Romney actually gets elected, Cohen and Gerson don’t have any paper trial to worry about, and by the time Brooks’ prediction is shown by events to be the mendacious hackwork it is, no-one will remember it.  On the exceedingly small chance someone does dig it up in a desperate effort to make something, anything, in the current political media ecosystem accountable to reality, it will be a trivial exercise for Brooks to point out that, gee, the details of the election / hyperpartisanship by Democrats / the dissolution of the Euro / the dissolution of Syria / whatever happened to have been in the news a few days ago kind of makes that analysis moot, now, doesn’t it.

Good work, if you can get it.  And you don’t mind comparing unfavorably to the most famous villain in Western literature.

Posted October 30, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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The Perfect Soundbite of Analysis for Last Night’s Debate, Which Of Course Went Unsaid   1 comment

Over the course of these four recent debates, the scope of the failure of the national media to adequately inform the public cannot possibly be conveyed in a blog post or magazine article.  (Maybe the only way to do it would be through an epic poem, recited over a fortnight by campfire, in a remote and dangerous piece of wilderness).  But tracing a specific example of mediocrity on its route to the Sea of Failure would be instructive, I think.

Trying to gauge a future administration’s performance based on Presidential debates is a mug’s game, especially on foreign policy.  Statements in debates are spun by a limited public attention span and lack of accountability mechanisms into the thinnest gossamer anyway, and the event-driven reactive nature of foreign policy means that the fluid terrain in which a president has to conduct the nation’s affairs makes pinning a campaign statement or two on one a strained exercise.

. . . You would expect media folk to understand that, right?  And not peddle obfuscatory bullshit that ignores the above and treats each new campaign turn as the candidate assuming her true form?  You’d be wrong, right, Joe Scarborough?

The former Massachusetts governor’s tone was nearly perfect and he abandoned the hard neoconservative line that had concerned more traditional conservatives like myself. Call it flip flopping if you like. I actually believe that realist approach fits Romney better and will be his governing philosophy if he ever becomes commander-in-chief. It’s hard to imagine a man so driven by data being swept up in a Wilsonian worldview. Unlike George W. Bush, I seriously doubt President Romney would promise the end of tyranny across the globe anymore than he would vow to stop the rising of the oceans.

Funny that he would invoke Dubya.

(Here’s three more minutes of him making various campaign and debate statements which do not exactly indicate a plan to, for example, eradicate Iraqi society)

And it’s not as if events beyond his control forced Bush into invading Mesopotamia.  His foreign policy team made that a deliberate goal; within a day of the towers going down Rumsfeld was drawing up plans to amass troops on the Kuwaiti border.

Even though foreign policy is the area in which advisors have the most influence and a vote for a candidate is most truly a vote for that candidate’s team, this analysis works well for domestic policy areas too.  Candidate Obama’s ’08 advisors were Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and other charter members of the fat cat banister gang, and any hope that the concerns of main street would not be trampled by those of wall street was an audacious one indeed.  Bush’s environmental advisors in 2000 were oil men (and a prominent oil woman).

The advisors don’t lie.  Well, they do.  You know what I mean.

GIVEN THESE broad facts about how the US system works, and the recent history which is remarkably on point about this stuff, the obvious thing to look at are candidates’ campaign advisors and probable appointees to a future administration.  Even a president with a black belt in bureaucratic in-fighting is only one person and will rely on staff to shape most of an administration’s policy; and if she isn’t, if she’s a neophyte with no real views or experience in managing a foreign policy team, that wider group will have even more power.

So, Mitt Romney’s campaign advisors and future administration staff: cool-headed moderates with reputations for calm and reasoned analysis?  Oh Charlie Pierce, take me away:

And nowhere in his campaign was Romney firmer in his resolve than he was to a modernized version of the neoconservative agenda that so thrilled the world under the leadership of C-Plus Augustus. A full 17 of his 25 primary foreign-policy advisers had been deckhands on that particular plague ship, Sailing Master Bolton chief among them.

(If you like reading political analysis and you’re not reading Pierce, ur doin it wrong, as the kids say).  Seventeen out of twenty-five is sixty-eight percent, in case you’re playing along at home.

The Bolton referred to is John, the mustached terror whose career before being a Bush caporegime spans hiding documents during the Iran-Contra scandal to helping form the Project for a New American Century, a think tank formed in the ’90s with the purpose of encouraging regime change in Iraq.

Other highlights of the Bush-Romney murderers row include the architect of Bush’s torture regime, Cofer Black; the original warrantless wiretapper, Michael Hayden; and Dan Senor, who’s just an all-around dick.

GIVEN THAT a Romney administration will have more foreign policy advisors from Bush’s first term than Bush’s second term did, and as a result his foreign policy will likely look very different than the screen he threw up in the last debate, and while this is a fairly easy piece of analysis to make it’s also fairly powerful: is there a single reason on Oprah’s green earth that national media outlets wouldn’t include this in their post-debate analysis?  Isn’t this the bare minimum of due diligence to perform when a candidate flips from the flops he’s already flipped on once and is now embracing a foreign policy framework he’s literally never articulated before?

You’d think so.  And yet,

Did NBC talk about it? No.
PBS? No.
ABC? No.
CNN? No.

Worse, there was more white-washing than a Tom Sawyer punishment:

Mark Shields, PBS: “”There’s nothing neocon about [Romney], he’s not talking about going to war.”

David Gergen, CNN: “By coming at Obama occasionally from his left, he avoided that trap of being painted as the war-monger.”

Alex Castellanos, CNN: “Mitt Romney was making change safe, being a reasonable Republican.”

George F. Will, ABC: “Both candidates understand that the foreign policy most Americans want involve far fewer troops overseas. . . Tonight we saw two men who don’t really disagree all that much.”

Christiane Amanpour, ABC: “On all the huge issues, there doesn’t seem to be a difference.”

Jonathan Karl, ABC: “There was a little George McGovern coming out of Romney tonight that I recognized from my time covering him way back when.”

On and on and on.

SO EVEN IN THIS BASIC INSTANCE, the national media proves its incompetence.  There is the clearest contrast there could possibly be between a candidate’s statements and his probable actions.  It’s expressible in a soundbite, and it’s easy to understand: “Romney’s words tonight do not match up with the foreign policy team he will install as President, and so does not match up with what his foreign policy would look like.”  It’s in the public’s interest to know.  Desperately so.

And yet: not just silence, which is bad enough.  White-washed obfuscation.  So it goes.

There are signs that the long arc of media political coverage is bending towards being barely acceptable.  Romney’s most recent turnaround in his worldview was at least marked as such.  Perhaps with a few more election cycles, and ever increasing consumption of non-traditional media, media coverage of politics will no longer read as if written by sociopaths.  But before then, it’s pretty bleak out there, and about the best we can do is to gather around small circles of light and tell ourselves they’ll outlast the immense gloom that surrounds them.

Posted October 23, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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Is Your Debate Coverage . . . Profit Driven? Eh, Eh? Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink, Say No More   Leave a comment

The most useful mantra to block out the deluge of shitty political analysis between now and the election must be this: “the debates don’t matter.”

The debates don’t matter.

The debates don’t matter. 

(The author of the latter contributes to a group blog called The Monkey Cage, which may have the most consistently astute and data-driven political analysis of any source off- or on-line and should be checked at least daily; let it not be said I shut doors on political media consumption without opening a window.)

The debates don’t matter! For a whole host of reasons.  Fer instance: people tend to only pay attention to or remember things that re-enforce preconceptions; the types of people who pay attention to them have for the most part already made up their minds about their political choices; there’s just not a lot of content in them that hasn’t been widely available for months and months.  Etc.

Of course what’s true for presidential debates goes quintuple for vice presidential debates, the vestigial tail of the campaign season.

And yet, in The NYT: “After Mitt Romney’s momentum-shifting performance in the first presidential debate, the stakes were raised for the matchup between their chief surrogates.”

And yet, from Reuters: “U.S. vice presidential debates usually don’t matter much, but the October 11 showdown between Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan could be an exception. Democrats are counting on Biden to blunt the momentum of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has gained ground after a strong debate performance against President Barack Obama last week.”

And yet, from The Boston Globe: “Once anticipated as an entertaining sideshow between two feisty candidates, the vice presidential debate Thursday night has taken on higher, unexpected importance in the wake of President Obama’s listless performance last week in Denver.”

The previous debate wasn’t exactly equal, so this debate’s importance is magnified! Even though we explicitly acknowledge the debates don’t matter, this debate matters, for some reason!  Even Nate Silver, l’enfant terrible of sober stat-based analysis of polling trends, falls prey to the disease by just leaving this lump at the end of a post breathless in debate anticipation: “Political science research is divided on the impact of presidential debates — the one in Denver clearly seemed to matter quite a bit — but there is even less evidence that vice-presidential debates can sway voters.”

So . . . why?  Why obsess over triviality?  In some sense it answers itself: in order to get money you need viewers and readers and eyeballs.  Rage in the Cage II: The Vice-Presidenting ain’t gonna hype itself.  But there are less obvious undercurrents that carry debate coverage away from the Platonic ideal as well.

Take a look at those links again.  “Six Things to Watch For in Biden-Ryan Debate”; “Five Things to Watch in the U.S. Vice Presidential Debate”.  Those things are either issues that have been a part of the campaign for the past eighteen months (“medicare”; “foreign policy”) or utterly insubstantial wisps of banal gossamer (“zingers”!).

This is the work of lazy lazy people.  These columns do not inform anyone of anything.  There’s nothing here.  If the authors gave a crap about informing the public, they could write about the issues that each campaign needs to address to clear up ambiguity, statements that have contradicted each other, statements that have contradicted their professed ideals or values, etc.  But that would take, y’know, work, and couldn’t be crapped out in fifteen minutes by distilling the milquetoast and toothless coverage of the past eighteen months in five or six “things”.  One of which is “zingers”.

To be fair there are broader trends that interact with the laziness to produce this tripe.  Staffs are being reduced by forty, fifty, sixty percent.  As fewer and fewer people have responsibility for more and more content, the kind of coverage that consists of coating the most banal narratives of the campaign in beige paint becomes more and more the only kind of coverage that people can possibly make.

That also re-enforces another huge tendency of profit driven media: the obsession with “balance” and eliminating any hint of “bias”.  Because once actual reporting and analysis goes out the window the expedient thing is to act as stenographer for the campaigns.

“Mr. Ryan is prepared to vigorously set the record straight when he thinks the vice president is distorting, such as the charge that Mr. Romney has proposed $5 trillion in tax cuts directed toward the wealthy. “He’ll be in full attack mode,” Mr. Ryan said of Mr. Biden in an interview last week with The Weekly Standard, “and I don’t think he’ll let any inconvenient facts get in his way.”

And

The Romney campaign has stepped up its critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy after last month’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East.

And

Obama campaign officials predicted that Biden, who spent time this week preparing at his Delaware home, would be focused and effective.

THANK CHRIST we now know that the Obama campaign thinks Biden will be focused and effective.  And once that stenographer’s hat gets put on, concerns about balance and bias start to take care of themselves: quote a little from campaign A and a little from campaign B and call it a day without actually informing anyone of anything.

Just as a further illustration of this, because it needs to be said: the NYT cheerfully lets its readers know that “Mr. Ryan has been studying for the debates under the tutelage of Dan Senor, an adviser to Mr. Romney on the Middle East.”  Why this Senor fella must be a pretty unobjectionable and respected guy if the Times is making a point of indicating his debate involvement.

You can guess what’s coming, I hope:

MENTORED BY BILL KRISTOL: “Beginning with Kristol, who is almost two decades his elder, Senor has flourished under the watch of a succession of father figures,” Tablet reported in a recent profile. Kristol, who led the charge into the Iraq war, has been so eager to bomb Iran that even George W. Bush mocked him as a “bomber boy.”

FLACKING FOR THE U.S. IN IRAQ: Remember those famous “rose-colored glasses” through which the Bush administration viewed the Iraq war — or, rather, used to present the Iraq war to the public? That was Senor, who flacked for the Coalition Provisional Authority through its disastrous reign over Iraq. Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in his book on the CPA that Senor, who was just 31 when he joined up, did “a masterful job of spinning the media.” He reported that Senor once told reporters: “Well, off the record, Paris is burning. But on the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.”

There’s a lot more, like Senor declaring Romney’s support of an Israeli strike on Iran during the candidate’s trip there over the summer.

Now I’m just a small-town lawyer, but seems to me that this kind of information is pertinent when name-dropping advisors, and to not include any context like this when name-dropping advisors is to white-wash them and provide them unearned stature and gravitas to the uninformed reader they should not have.  But oh wait that’d be “bias”, wouldn’t it; much better to just provide a name with no context and not make waves.

To sum up: debates don’t matter.  They’re hyped as if they do for ratings; for laziness; for budget cuts; and for faux-objectivity.  Love of money is the root of all evil, and so necessarily also the root of the current disgraceful state of political coverage.

Posted October 11, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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Reading Digest – 11 October 2012   Leave a comment

“Well, I’m going to take advantage of this rare opportunity, even if you children aren’t interested.  Um, which do you think is more important, hard work or stick-to-itiveness?” – Principal Skinner
“Are there any real questions?” – C.M. Burns

CNNlogo & PoliticoLogo The two dumbest “news” sources in America square off in competition to see whose “5 things to watch in VP debate” is more vacuous.  First CNN:

5 Dumb Things (CNN)

Then Politico:

5 Dumb Things (Politico)

CNN certainly gets things started stupidly:

1. Will Biden go where Obama didn’t?

You mean, Kentucky?  I can’t imagine why he’d have been there lately.  Politico?:

1. Can Biden draw blood?

Ooh, good one.  Let’s hope he doesn’t, Ryan looks like a fainter and that wouldn’t do anyone any good. 

Things get worse from there, and while CNN wins a lot of stupid points for things like “Can Ryan be seen as commander in chief?”, I think this one goes to Politico.  Not only does the Village rag score points for “Will Ryan let his feel-your-pain- flag fly” (which doesn’t even appear to be English) and “Good Joe v. Bad Biden”, but after it gets to all of those it asks:

5. How will foreign policy play?

This is a triple play of stupid.  Not only are they a) viewing the entire thing through who reminds them most of the dreamy lead from high school drama club, but they’ve also b) reduced the grand scope of American foreign policy down to a single question of less importance than “Can Biden draw blood?” all while c) managing not to raise a single actual issue except whether or not Ryan will be mean to Biden over last month’s attack in Libya which, while tragic, isn’t exactly a pressing concern of the utmost importance.  Politico wins the morning! 

FNLogo You can’t help but admire FOX’s tenacity in being outraged, even years later over something nobody cared about in the first place:

Ancient Grudges

So the AP issued an apology for publishing a goofy picture, and FOX’s immediate reaction is to demand another one from four years ago!  (And to rerun the picture in question!)  That’s how you get an inch and take a mile; well done, FOX.

DailyCallerLogo Carlson’s House of Wingnut Welfare just keeps on keepin’ on:

They Love the 90s!

So Obama was in favor of something in 1994 that he’s still in favor of now?  I’m not even sure that they know why they’re doing this anymore.  It might just be a reflex at this point.

Posted October 11, 2012 by Charlie Sweatpants in Uncategorized

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Network Media Coverage of the First Presidential Debate was Fucked Up and Bullshit   Leave a comment

“The place where you put your money is a pretty good indication of where your heart is”

– Mitt Romney, First Presidential Debate

That was about the only truthful thing Romney said during the first presidential debate last night.  He lied about his proposals, Obama’s policies, the state of the economy and health care spending, and most everything else.  It was so blatant that multiple realtime fact-checking efforts read like they’re written by people laid-off by Bain.  Like this one from the LA Times:

Romney B. Lyin

Platonic truth doesn’t exist, but even so: goddamn, son

So Romney lied, objectively, a lot. Continuing his record pace. The other objective thing that happened was that Romney treated the moderator Jim Lehrer like a piece of shit.  Constantly interrupting someone, arguing over rules previously agreed to, and raising hand or voice to silence someone is to treat them like shit.  I hope civilized people can agree on at least that much.

Were these important things which objectively happened discussed on the broadcast networks in their post-debate analysis?  Of course not.  Obviously. What was discussed instead?

Diane Sawyer: “There they are . . . they must be breathing big sighs of relief.”

Chuck Todd: “Romney came across as someone who knew his stuff, who knew the President’s proposals . . . Everything Mitt Romney had to accomplish tonight, he did . . . he looked like a credible alternative.”

Tom Brokaw: “Romney knew his brief . . . He had a cycle of themes . . .”

David Gregory: “Romney was someone who was feisty, who was long on ideas and vision.”

George Stephanapolous: “Romney was able to be aggressive without being offensive.”

Matthew Dowd: “A very close race just got a lot closer.”

This was all fairly predictable.* And for obvious reasons. Mitt’s on a downward slide a month before the election, and that month’s worth of ratings and ad revenue ride on people tuning in to a close race.  It doesn’t take a slide rule to calculate what’s in their interest.

All that’s fairly well-trod ground that’s been true for decades.  But a more subtle examination of the network’s interest, where they put their money, reveals how far away from serving the public interest their hearts are. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted October 4, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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Centrist Media Outlet Creates Cute Little Game Which, Shocker of Shockers, Hides a Narrow Corporate Political Agenda Under a Thin Veneer of “Objectivity”   Leave a comment

Well my stars isn’t this the most goddamn perfect thing in the entire world

American Public Media, the institution that produces most of your favorite NPR programming (more on that later), has provided a helpful, colorful, cheeky little game that lets you play out different choices in the federal budget.  It’s called “Budget Hero”, because Guitar Hero came out only a few months ago and totally still has that edgy youth cache so valuable in making things go viral.

There are cartoon skyscrapers whose height reflects the commitment of the federal budget to different groups of programs (defense, housing, infrastructure, etc.) You play the game by selecting different options that affect the budget (like “simplifying the tax code”, “increasing foreign aid”, and my favorite, “increasing DARPA spending”).  At any point you can see during what year your choices make the budget “go bust” in the future.

Harmless, right?  There’s a cartoon beaker on the “science and nature” skyscraper! Adorable.  And the goal of the game couldn’t be more benign:

[The game] seeks to provide a values- and fiscal-based lens for citizens to examine policy debates during this election year.  Partisan messages tend to cloud the real issues at play during campaigns, and most candidates are loath to attach detailed financial impacts to solutions which make up their platform.  Budget Hero provides an interactive experience involving policy options that have been extensively researched and vetted with non-partisan government and think tank experts to enable players to objectively evaluate candidates.

Actually playing the game, though, reveals a strict set of political priorities limiting a player’s choices and hiding a specific agenda under the guise of “objective”, “non-partisan” analysis.  Which makes it the perfect illustration of the general dynamics going on in centrist media.

Let’s take a look: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted September 20, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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