Friday, September 05, 2008

Punking the Press

One of the central dynamics of our political age -- and one of the central analytical insights returned to in the left-wing blogosphere again and again -- is the degree to which the mainstream press has been cowed by the right over the past decades. This is the dynamic underlying the "opinions on the shape of earth differ" style of journalism that is such a bane in our country. It is most importantly expressed in the by-now familiar, even banal, pairing of explicitly conservative pundits with supposedly objective reporters as ideological balance -- or, on a broader level, the fact that we now have two types of media in this country: cowed, "balanced" supposedly objective media, and overtly conservative propaganda (FOX).

This has been so essential to the success of the conservative movement because, of course, reality has a well-known liberal bias: so that, however tepidly, objective journalists will end up supporting liberal analyses if they do their jobs. But if this is balanced against lies and distortion from the right, then we end up not with fact-based journalism, but two views on the flatness of the earth which the public has no way of evaluating (having neither the time nor the expertise to do so -- while those with it are busy pairing lies and truth as balance).

But of course the successful working of the refs goes far beyond this; this is why the right can throw hissy fits when subjected to a hundredth of the sort of political questioning they themselves throw at the left. (Reasonable questions about Sarah Palin are shocking, shocking, after a summer of pure mud-slinging at Obama -- to take just the most recent example.)

Another aspect of this is the shedding of the traditions and practices of journalism, traditions and practices which developed to ensure accuracy and fairness (and thus support liberal positions if followed through on). Thus reporters will now endure a choreographed circus, with a prearranged list of reporters who will be called on and no follow-ups as the main Presidential meeting of the press days before a war -- and pretend it was a real press conference.

Now they're shedding the next tradition -- the idea that major candidates for national office, such as the Republican candidate for Vice President, should have to actually answer questions from the press and appear in non-scripted settings:
Sarah Palin will, after a brief stretch on the trail, head back to Anchorage and away from the national media.... She also seems unlikely to do many major media interviews between now and then, and the campaign seems to feel no urgency about putting her on the Sunday shows.... According to Nicole Wallace of the McCain campaign, the American people don't care whether Sarah Palin can answer specific questions about foreign and domestic policy. According to Wallace -- in an appearance I did with her this morning on Joe Scarborough's show -- the American people will learn all they need to know (and all they deserve to know) from Palin's scripted speeches and choreographed appearances on the campaign trail and in campaign ads.
Steve Benen, my source for those quotes, notes that "this really isn't a vote of confidence in Palin's readiness". And that's true enough. But it is a vote of confidence in the press's willingness to roll over for anything the Republicans however ludicrous their actions.

Now, if a Democrat had made such a weak VP pick, and then followed it up by burying them away from the press without a single press conference, every newspaper, every TV show, every web site would be running headline stories daily about how ludicrous this was, quoting the outrage of Republicans at how laughable this was and the right of the people to see candidates for national office, displaying clocks showing the time since Palin's last press conference, and so on.

But the Republicans have punked the national media so much, over and over, for the past decades that they expect they to just take it. And, of course, having been punked, over and over, for decades, it's hard to imagine the press will call the McCain campaign on this. (After all, they were just punked in the last week, drawing back from their genuine questions about Palin when the McCain campaigned threw the by-the-number Republican hissy fit). The press has learned fear and compliance against the right-wing machine.

But over the summer we saw some small signs of life from the SCLM in the face of McCain's onslaught of negativity and lies. Long-time tools such as Joe Klein found their journalistic backbone, and called on their colleagues to do likewise.

So now the question is: will the media swallow this? Or will they create such a storm that the McCain campaign is forced to change course and let their VP candidate hold a few (unrestricted) press conferences?

The Republicans have just come up to the media and said: "Get gone, suckers. This corner is ours now."

Will the media come back? Or will they, once again, slink away?

C'mon, you cowards: are you really going to just take this? This?

We're about to find out.

Update: Kevin Drum argues that rather than being punked the media is being played:
Howard Fineman, Ben Smith, and Chuck Todd are all reporting the same thing: the McCain campaign is going to whisk Sarah Palin back to Alaska and then have her hole up for a good long while until they think it's safe for her to talk to the press.... But I say: don't believe it. These guys are being suckered with misinformation so that the McCain campaign will have yet another excuse to pretend that the media is bent on making up egregious lies about Palin. I don't think she's going to be talking to a horde of serious national journalists, but they'll pick some spots and do a few remotes. Maybe Larry King, despite pulling out of his show a few days ago. One or more of the morning shows. Some simpatico outlets like Fox News or the New York Post or the Wall Street Journal edit page. That kind of thing.
Sounds plausible: no real interviews, but lots of fake ones, and complaining about media bias on top of it.

And yes, if the media is being played, I just walked right into it. Played along with the rest of them. (Since leftie outrage will be part of the story, essential to the success of the disinformation, if indeed it is such.) Great. Well done, Frug. Hats off to that one.

Update 2: ...although it occurs to me that, if this is their strategy, they're taking an awful risk: leaking this story, then having her give any interviews, even to fake news outlets like Fox, might look like the McCain campaign is giving in to any outrage over this. And while the SCLM is usually cowed, nothing gets them going like signs of weakness: if they sense this, they'll pile on. So if this is the plan, it's a risky one, and it might not work.

(This, perhaps, is why the media is so often so easily punked by the right: they're bullies, and like many bullies, are only interested in weak targets, and are themselves easily scared and pushed around by bigger bullies. -- Whereas the left, cowing before both the media and the right, have been, for decades more than willing to grovel before both. As many bloggers (particularly Digby, although I don't have specific links at hand) have noted, it is this, and not any actual stances on any issues (national security or otherwise) that makes the left look so weak: their willingness to be so often punked not only by the right but by the media, beaten up by both bullies and the bullies of bullies. God, what a political culture we have.)

Update 3: So Digby, who is a very acute observer of the contemporary political scene, thinks that yet a third thing is going on:
They are going to work themselves into a frenzy over this. And the right will hold Palin off just long enough for the outcry to become deafening. And then Palin will appear in front of a gargantuan television audience (again) on something like 60 Minutes --- and do quite well. They are already working the media hard to make sure they don't go for the jugular -- and they won't. People need to get over the idea that Palin's some kind of Britney Spears bimbo. She's a professional politician and from the looks of it, a pretty good one. She's not going to fall on her face on TV. They will build the expectations accordingly.
In other words, it's an expectations game. Certainly also plausible. But her co-blogger, Tristero, has an interpretation more in line with mine, that this is "part and parcel of a campaign to terminate unscripted, uncontrolled situations."

Digby also sneers at the notion that "submitting to Chris Matthews' questions ever told voters anything meaningful about the candidates." And I get her point. The political journalists in this country are, well, sorrowful. But for Pete's sake, is only showing choreographed sessions or puff pieces better? If I -- and Tristero -- are right, then the basic principle of having no "unscripted, uncontrolled situations" is terrible enough to fight, even if the unscripted situations are with journalists like Chris Matthews.

Incidentally, FWIW, Kevin Drum seems to have changed his mind -- due to a confirmation of the story by Marc Ambinder, if I read Drum correctly -- and now thinks that "The McCain campaign is scared to death.... So they're keeping her in the deep freeze."

Finally, Drum says that "it's sort of a test of just how gullible the American public really is," while Tristero wonders "Will the Democrats scream bloody murder about this outrageous attempt to run a presidential campaign without the opportunity actually to question one party's candidates in a frank manner?" -- two different candidates for challenging this than the media, as I suggested above. Frankly, I'd hope for all three. But it seems to me that the Dems screaming will just make this sound like yet another partisan pissing match, while the base of the public's information is what's at issue here. So yeah, both -- especially the public -- but I still hope that the media will step up to the plate on this one.

'Cause, y'know, I'm idealistic, starry-eyed and naive that way.

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