Monday, September 19, 2016

Yes, things are better

A lot of my Democratic friends (especially those over 40) had a bad feeling about the nomination of Hillary Clinton, not because they had a problem with her, but because they felt the press corp did. Memories of Whitewater and particularly the 2000 election remain strong. The moment her candidacy was announced, these people started having flashbacks of Vince Foster rumors and Maureen Dowd columns explaining why Al Gore's choice of sweaters disqualified him from the presidency. Their concerns sound a great like this excerpt from a recent Paul Krugman post.
No, it’s something special about Clinton Rules. I don’t really understand it. But it has the feeling of a high school clique bullying a nerdy classmate because it’s the cool thing to do.

And as I feared, it looks as if people who cried wolf about non-scandals are now engaged in an all-out effort to dig up or invent dirt to justify their previous Clinton hostility.

Hard to believe that such pettiness could have horrifying consequences. But I am very scared.

My advice to my friends (and please feel free to pass this along to Professor Krugman) is not to worry because things are different. Don't get me wrong, they may still turn in a very ugly direction, but things won't turn ugly the same way they did sixteen years ago.

If you have time, you should take a break now and read this essential Vanity Fair piece by John Russell from 2007. You should go through the whole thing but this will give you a taste:

Al Gore couldn't believe his eyes: as the 2000 election heated up, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other top news outlets kept going after him, with misquotes ("I invented the Internet"), distortions (that he lied about being the inspiration for Love Story), and strangely off-the-mark needling, while pundits such as Maureen Dowd appeared to be charmed by his rival, George W. Bush. For the first time, Gore and his family talk about the effect of the press attacks on his campaign—and about his future plans—to the author, who finds that many in the media are re-assessing their 2000 coverage.

Eight years ago, in the bastions of the "liberal media" that were supposed to love Gore—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, CNN—he was variously described as "repellent," "delusional," a vote-rigger, a man who "lies like a rug," "Pinocchio." Eric Pooley, who covered him for Time magazine, says, "He brought out the creative-writing student in so many reporters.… Everybody kind of let loose on the guy."

How did this happen? Was the right-wing attack machine so effective that it overwhelmed all competing messages? Was Gore's communications team outrageously inept? Were the liberal elite bending over backward to prove they weren't so liberal?

Eight years later, journalists, at the prompting of Vanity Fair, are engaging in some self-examination over how they treated Gore. As for Gore himself, for the first time, in this article, he talks about the 2000 campaign and the effect the press had on him and the election. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my father, Martin Peretz, was his teacher at Harvard and is an ardent, vocal Gore backer. I contributed to his campaign in February 1999. Before reporting this article, however, I'd had maybe two passing exchanges with Gore in my life.) Gore wasn't eager to talk about this. He doesn't blame the media for his loss in 2000. Yet he does believe that his words were distorted and that certain major reporters and outlets were often unfair.

Building on the narrative established by the Love Story and Internet episodes, Seelye, her critics charge, repeatedly tinged what should have been straight reporting with attitude or hints at Gore's insincerity. Describing a stump speech in Tennessee, she wrote, "He also made an appeal based on what he described as his hard work for the state—as if a debt were owed in return for years of service." Writing how he encouraged an audience to get out and vote at the primary, she said, "Vice President Al Gore may have questioned the effects of the internal combustion engine, but not when it comes to transportation to the polls. Today he exhorted a union audience in Knoxville, Iowa, to pile into vans—not cars, but gas-guzzling vans—and haul friends to the Iowa caucuses on January 24." She would not just say that he was simply fund-raising. "Vice President Al Gore was back to business as usual today—trolling for money," she wrote. In another piece, he was "ever on the prowl for money."

The disparity between her reporting and Bruni's coverage of Bush for the Times was particularly galling to the Gore camp. "It's one thing if the coverage is equal—equally tough or equally soft," says Gore press secretary Chris Lehane. "In 2000, we would get stories where if Gore walked in and said the room was gray we'd be beaten up because in fact the room was an off-white. They would get stories about how George Bush's wing tips looked as he strode across the stage." Melinda Henneberger, then a political writer at the Times, says that such attitudes went all the way up to the top of the newspaper. "Some of it was a self-loathing liberal thing," she says, "disdaining the candidate who would have fit right into the newsroom, and giving all sorts of extra time on tests to the conservative from Texas. Al Gore was a laughline at the paper, while where Bush was concerned we seemed to suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations." (Seelye's and Bruni's then editors declined to be interviewed for this article.)

I would argue that the worst decade in modern American journalism started sometime in the early 1990s (and yes, I am including yellow journalism and the red scare in the period we're discussing). It was largely defined by three major stories:


The 2000 election;

The build up to the Iraq war.

A number of commentators such as Charles Pierce have noted that the New York Times and a handful of other players seem determined to follow exactly the same path with this election. Normally, that would be a profoundly frightening turn of events, but as I mentioned earlier, this time things are different.

We previously brought the idea of cognitive dissonance into the discussion. One of the implications of this framing is that challenging believes will tend to produce one of two more or less opposite outcomes. People will either back away from a discredited idea or will double down on it.

As you work your way through the Vanity Fair piece, it becomes obvious that even as far back as 2007, many if not most of the journalists involved had come to question their previous beliefs and approaches, and those were the people deep in the bubble. The generation of journalists and satirists who emerged since then mostly see Bush v Gore and the Iraq War build-up as huge journalistic
debacles. It is worth noting that Talking Points Memo started during the Florida recount.

This is a good time to take another page from the social psych book and talk about social norming. When you read the accounts of the more self-aware members of the group like Margaret Carlson, you will see that, even at the time, they knew what they were doing was, on some level, wrong but they still went along with the group. There were smart, independent voices pointing out the absurdity of the coverage but they were then-obscure outsiders like Josh Marshall who were easy to ignore.

The landscape has changed radically and what was the norm is now an unpopular, even besieged position. Consider the case of poor Matt Lauer. The pre-debate played out much like something from 2000. The Democrat was pestered about pseudo-scandals and discouraged (“be brief”) from discussing substantive issues; the Republican sailed unchallenged through a string of questionable statements including some that were demonstrably false.

The aftermath, though, was an entirely different story. Social media's treatment of Lauer was brutal and by the next morning, instead of a disparaging narrative about Clinton's body language/facial expression/whatever, everyone had converged on this.

Along similar lines, there are still numerous players in mainstream journalism trying to play by 2000 rules only to find themselves in a very lonely place. The best example is, of course, the New York Times, which was clearly the leader of the pack sixteen years ago with the Washington Post and the rest of the press corps following in lockstep. The NYT's coverage today looks very much like it did then, but the response could hardly be more different. The same sort of work that once merited praise and respect now prompts derision and punchline status.

Josh Marshall has a good thumbnail of the situation:
We've had a number of looks recently at how The New York Times appears to be revisiting its 'whitewater' glory days with its increasingly parodic coverage of the "Clinton Foundation" - I'm adding scare quotes to match the dramatic effect, even though of course the Clinton Foundation is a named legal entity. Beyond the 'clouds' and 'shadows' TPM Reader AR flagged to our attention, as Paul Glastris explains here, the latest installment from the Times explains how Bill Clinton's request for diplomatic passports for aides accompanying him on a mission to secure the release of two US journalists held captive in North Korea constitutes the latest damning revelations about the corrupt ties between the Foundation and the Clinton State Department.

The Times uniquely, though only as a leading example for the rest of the national press, has a decades' long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy - especially when it comes to the Clintons. But here, while all this is happening we have a real live specimen example of direct political and prosecutorial corruption, misuse of a 501c3 nonprofit and various efforts to conceal this corruption and the underlying corruption of Trump's 'Trump University' real estate seminar scam. It's all there - lightly reported here and there - but largely ignored.

The core information here isn't new and it's definitely not based on my reporting. Much of it stems form the on-going and seemingly indefatigable work of Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold who's been chronicling Trump's long list of non-existent or promised but non-existent charitable contributions. In this case, it goes to a $25,000 contribution Trump made to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013. The neglected story has only popped up again now because Trump was penalized by the IRS for a relatively technical part of the corrupt act.

It's that part about the Washington Post that has to sting the most. Throughout Whitewater and the 2000 election, the two papers functioned as a tag team. Now, rather than lending support to the besieged New York Times, the Washington Post is leading the assault both through declaration and example.

As the inimitable Mr. Pierce recently put it,

Washington Post declares war on New York Times

We've opened up a lot of questions here, certainly more than can be answered in a single post (this one is already running twice the length I'd intended). For now, though, let's leave it at this:

You have every reason to be concerned about a possible Trump victory. You have every reason to be angry about the role that bad journalism is playing in the process. But if you're having flashbacks of Bush v Gore, you should relax. Things really are different, and I mean that entirely in a good way.

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