Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Quote of the day: Giants and such

Matt Bai has a piece in the New York Times Magazine that fills in the last missing detail about the tectonic shift in American political journalism, from the analysis of Policy and Great Men to the back-alley chasing after markers of "character," and the event during a fateful week in 1988 that locked that shift in place, apparently forever: The decision by the Miami Herald to cover presidential candidate Gary Hart's womanizing as "news," rather than to ignore it, for better or worse, as most political reporting had done with such private information since the days of FDR.

When giants like [presidential historian Theodore] White came up through the news business in the postwar years, the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. [...]
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
Bai's sense of history gets a little iffy, the farther he goes back in time; when I read his early-on claim that Nixon's fall from grace was "more personal than political, a result of instability and pettiness rather than ideology," I was able to guess his age within fifteen months, as confirmed by Google.

Much of his reminiscence is built on Richard Ben Cramer's definitive account of the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. But Bai has uncovered – if not the smoking gun, certainly a shell casing with the finger prints on it – that establishes the exact moment when political journalism remade itself in such an unlovely way, to such an extent that an unqualified goof like George W. Bush could make his way into the White House only twelve years later.

But I'm awarding the final word – and QOTD status – to Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog, for his rejoinder (in a piece about the gun lobby and the disapproval felt by the editorial board of The Arizona Star about that whole facts-have-a-liberal-bias thing) to Bai's claim about "post-Hart journalism."

No, "the cardinal objective of all political journalism" is not to reveal politicians' character flaws. The cardinal objective of all (or at least most) political journalism is to define the political center on any issue, usually with the assistance of entrenched conservative political interests. That's what's going on here. The GOP wants to frame the response to this ad so the public ignores the message and is outraged at the attack on a Republican candidate. And the press is all too happy to help the GOP do the framing.

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