This week White House foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes committed a cardinal sin: he criticized the news media. Circle the iPhones! (More)
“They literally know nothing”
The New York Times Magazine’s David Samuels profile of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, is worth reading in full. It offers excellent insights on the Iran nuclear deal – and how the White House pushed that agreement through Congress – and on President Obama’s foreign policy worldview. It’s a fascinating, inside peek at the president’s policy team, and how the White House uses digital media and relationships to shape the public debate.
So of course the hottest take in the story turned out to be this quote:
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
How dare he?!?
“They are trying to issue a warning”
Cue Judith Miller, that pillar of journalistic integrity, courtesy of Heather Digby Parton:
“They are trying to issue a warning. That the media, an indispensable component, a pillar of our democracy – the media are not doing their jobs. And I think it’s a really important and I know that David Samuels was trying to warn all of us, because he and I covered national security – we’ve seen this happen again and again.”
“What happens when the next person comes along and tries to peddle lies, which is really what is starting to happen now. We’re not only entitled to our own opinions, we’re increasingly entitled to our own facts.”
Miller is apparently incensed because the Obama White House doesn’t bother to spin the old-fashioned way, by offering exclusive leaks to Big Media reporters, courtesy of John Amato:
In the run-up to the Iraq war, Judy Miller was one of the biggest paid shills for the Bush administration as she dutifully copied down whatever Dick Cheney’s henchmen wanted her to report so their boss could go on Meet The Press, and use her stenography as actual, sourced reporting.
“Lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings”
Instead, as Rhodes’ assistant explained to Samuels, courtesy of Kevin Drum:
Ned Price, Rhodes’ assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people….And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”
….In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.
Yes, it was so hard for the Bush administration to sustain the Saddam Was Behind 9/11 And Has WMDs So The Next Warning Will Be A Mushroom Cloud “narrative” for 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Because no shameless sycophant was “carrying water for the White House” back then!
“Return to J-school basics”
Of course, Rhodes’ critique of the media became the hottest take in Samuels’ story because the media’s favorite topic is … themselves, courtesy of John Cassidy:
On Thursday, the Times’ media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, took journalists to task for underestimating Donald Trump’s prospects of winning the Republican nomination. “Wrong, wrong, wrong – to the very end, we got it wrong,” Rutenberg wrote. He singled out data journalists, particularly Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, who for a long time was down on Trump’s prospects. Admonishing the profession to return to J-school basics in the months ahead, Rutenberg concluded that “a good place to start would be to get a good night’s sleep, and then talk to some voters.”
It is certainly true that many commentators were too quick to dismiss Trump’s chances. (Last summer, I was one of them.) And because, in the past, Silver has been scathing about the value of traditional newspaper and television commentary, it wouldn’t be surprising if, now that he has come a cropper, some old-school journalists were taking pleasure in his misfortune. But let’s be clear about where he and others erred. To portray this as a case of data journalists getting it wrong and shoe-leather journalists getting it right would be misleading. The truth is more complicated.
As Cassidy explains, Silver’s mistake was not overreliance on polling data, which showed Trump leading the GOP field for months. Instead, Silver’s mistake was discounting that polling data based on a flawed assumption that GOP elites would not let their party nominate someone as manifestly unqualified as Donald Trump. And to his credit, Silver has admitted as much.
The solution was not to “get a good night’s sleep, then go out and talk to some voters.” Instead, the solution was to pay more heed to people – pollsters – who already talk to voters every day.
“What can and probably will go wrong in coverage”
So let’s talk about what can and probably will go wrong in coverage – but doesn’t have to.
First, and least harmful, will be the urge to make the election seem closer than it is, if only because a close race makes a better story. You can already see this tendency in suggestions that the startling outcome of the fight for the Republican nomination somehow means that polls and other conventional indicators of electoral strength are meaningless.
The truth, however, is that polls have been pretty good indicators all along. Pundits who dismissed the chances of a Trump nomination did so despite, not because of, the polls, which have been showing a large Trump lead for more than eight months.
He then pivots to the second, more serious mistake:
A more important vice in political coverage, which we’ve seen all too often in previous elections – but will be far more damaging if it happens this time – is false equivalence.
You might think that this would be impossible on substantive policy issues, where the asymmetry between the candidates is almost ridiculously obvious. To take the most striking comparison, Mr. Trump has proposed huge tax cuts with no plausible offsetting spending cuts, yet has also promised to pay down U.S. debt; meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton has proposed modest spending increases paid for by specific tax hikes.
That is, one candidate is engaged in wildly irresponsible fantasy while the other is being quite careful with her numbers. But beware of news analyses that, in the name of “balance,” downplay this contrast.
If that theme sounds familiar, it’s because we discussed a similar article at Vox a couple of days ago. And if you borrow the Official BPI Googlizationalizator, you can quickly find lots of other articles on how the media has screwed up or will screw up their election coverage.
Because, again, the media’s absolute favorite topic is … themselves.
And now I’m gonna go look at my navel.
Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.gov
Good day and good nuts