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Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

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Digests & Round-ups:

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Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

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Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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August 14, 2007

Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press

"Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain."

Conservatives think the ideology of the Washington press corps is liberal. Liberals think the press is conservative in the sense of protecting its place in the political establishment. Karl Rove once said that the press is “less liberal than it is oppositional.” (A fascinating remark coming from Rove, since it apppears to put him at odds with the conservative base.)

Whereas I believe that the real—and undeclared—ideology of American journalism is savviness, and this is what made the press so vulnerable to the likes of Karl Rove.

Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.

Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain.

What is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Everyone knows that the press admires an unprincipled winner. (Of a piece with its fixation on the horse race.) Josh Green, a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly who actually took the time to understand Rove’s career, totaled up his winnings in a 2004 article (“Karl Rove in a Corner”) that I highly recommend.

“As far as I can determine, in races he has run for statewide or national office or Congress, starting in 1986, Rove’s career record is a truly impressive 34—7.” This record, he notes, “would be impressive even if he used no extreme tactics. But he does use them.” Again and again, Green observes. Rove tries to destroy people with whispering campaigns. He makes stuff up. He transgresses and figures no one will stop him. He goes further than others in the game. These are things you would think journalists would recoil at, or at least observe with regularity.

But Karl Rove: political extremist is not what I read in the press yesterday as word of his resignation got around. Green in ‘04:

Having studied what happens when Karl Rove is cornered, I came away with two overriding impressions. One was a new appreciation for his mastery of campaigning. The other was astonishment at the degree to which, despite all that’s been written about him, Rove’s fiercest tendencies have been elided in national media coverage.

Elided: to omit, leave out, or strike from consideration. Green is saying that they overlooked how vicious he has been. My explanation: they admired how savvy he has been.

Have you noticed, in all the press coverage of Rove’s announcement yesterday, how no one spoke of knowing Karl Rove as a source? Matt Cooper is one we know about because of the trial of Scooter Libby. (“Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation …”) There are many others we do not know about because they agreed to keep his name a secret. But make no mistake: they are also the ones writing the “balanced” non-committal retrospectives, the ones with 50-50 headlines like “Rove bows out despised and deified.” (Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in the Politico.)

Green’s colleague at the Atlantic, Mark Ambinder, marveled at it: “Boy, did Karl Rove get in his gut the biases, predilections, worldviews, habits, ticks and insecurities of the national media.” I agree with this. And with Ambinder’s observation that part of Rove’s “realignment theory” was to “delegitimize, decertify and discombobulate the press; control it with psychological power; reduce its influence on the political process,” while simultaneously seducing reporters with his credentials as a winner and his savvy take on American politics. (See my posts on press rollback and decertification, policies for which Rove was “the architect.”)

Green was all over the talk shows yesterday because of his recent article in the Atlantic on what went wrong with The Rove Presidency. (Subscribers only) But it’s his study from three years ago that tells the tale about Rove and the press. He noted that close readings of Rove’s methods are relatively few. “Yet as I interviewed people who knew Rove, they brought up examples of unscrupulous tactics—some of them breathtaking—as a matter of course.” Rove had the “he said, she said” press figured out, according to Green:

He seems to understand—indeed, to count on—the media’s unwillingness or inability, whether from squeamishness, laziness, or professional caution, ever to give a full estimate of him or his work. It is ultimately not just Rove’s skill but his character that allows him to perform on an entirely different plane. Along with remarkable strategic skills, he has both an understanding of the media’s unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others.

That’s the real Karl Rove. But you wouldn’t know it from the “despised and deified” coverage we saw yesterday.

(Also see my new post (Sep. 4) When We Try to Explain the Rout of the Press under George W. Bush. It’s in reply to Glenn Greenwald.)

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 14, 2007 1:48 AM   Print


How do you know Green is right?

And how do you know the folks writing 50-50s on him were seduced when the very records of such seduction or its lack are nonexistent?

Got any facts?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 14, 2007 10:58 AM | Permalink


Those sounds like skeptical questions on the surface, but did you even look at the linked sources?

Posted by: Eric Ferguson at August 14, 2007 12:15 PM | Permalink

I salute your sagacity.

I gather the press has not yet figured out that they are the ones making themselves irrelevant.

Wasn't it in high school that it was more important to be "cool" than anything else? And isn't this an attitude best left in high school?

Posted by: WereBear at August 14, 2007 1:05 PM | Permalink

I've been looking for analysis of the Rove resignation that gets to the sense I had that the wheels of most of the commentary are just spinning in the mud. This notion of "savviness" has real purchase because savviness has the appearance of being an amoral quality that can be universally admired in isolation from the ends to which it is deployed. Isn't this exactly the red meat of centerist journalism?

A journalist who is trying to be centerist loves savviness, not just because he thinks of himself that way, but because it is his object par excellence. In discussing Rove's legacy centerist journalism is not interested in whether he did "good", just the savviness with which he performed. This 'value free' analysis of Rove ends up making the same judgements about him as those who share Rove's political aspirations for permanent Republican majority - he used to be great, but now he doesn't look quite so clever.

The problem with the centerist reading of Rove is that, just as you can admire the skill of a chef who dices onions with his knife, you can also admire his facility in embedding the knife in the back of a waiter from twenty paces. Both are skillful. At some point, however, skill with a knife (like savviness in politics or journalism) has to be evaluated with reference to an external criteria of judgement. I guess the challenge Rove/Bush presents is whether there are any values beyond political victory?

Posted by: Richard H at August 14, 2007 1:10 PM | Permalink

You're not talking about savviness at all, Jay. You're talking about power. The "mainstream" media in this country is the loyal and faithful servant of the powerful. That's why its been such a reliable conduit of disinformation. Utilizing the scam of unnamed sourcing Rove and his ilk can easily feed the presumably credulous masses every lie they cook up. And the "reporters" who spread said lies see themselves as lucky, privileged "insiders" who can get bigwigs to return their calls -- and thus impresss the bosses at the various "news organizations" (ie. propaganda machines) they work for.

Consequently they can't attack Rove becuase the NEXT Rove won't give them their "unnamed insider" fake "scoops."

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at August 14, 2007 1:35 PM | Permalink

I have a few examples:

1) When running Governor Bush's reelection campaign for governor against Ann Richards, Team Bush (Rove) started two whisper campaigns: one that she was a lesbian and the other that she was a drunk.

2) When running Governor Bill Clements camapaign in the late 80's in Texas, Rove planted a bug in his own office to try and deflect attention from Clements (and his own) flagging campaign.

3) His involvement with the Swift Boats against Kerry

4) The powerpoint presentation he left in the park that said to use 9/11 as a political axe to wield against democrats. Very classy.

Should I continue?

Posted by: marshall at August 14, 2007 2:18 PM | Permalink

You're saying "savvy", but (IMO) you mean sociopathic. Sociopaths admire him, for his "effectiveness" at what matters to them - winning.

As for journalists who aren't sociopaths - what's the upside, to crossing him? What's the downside?
Maybe they don't admire his 'savviness'; I suspect they're just wary, and unwilling to risk too much. And 'too much' could be quite a lot.

From the Dec 2006 Vanity Fair article on Rove -

[quote about Rove the omniscient]
"I kept thinking," Orr recalls, "How does he know? Because it's under heavy plastic tarp in our driveway."

[quote from Rove on strategy]
"[Lincoln] said, to win the election 'we've got to make a perfect list of voters, ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote, have the undecideds talked to by someone that they hold in confidence, and on Election Day make certain that every Whig is brought to the polls.' And Abraham Lincoln had it right: the key on that is to **have the undecideds talked to by someone that they hold in confidence.** "

Posted by: Anna Haynes at August 14, 2007 2:51 PM | Permalink

This speculation is unsatisfying. I want to know what the journos themselves think. And we can't ask them to bare their souls about this if what they're baring might be unsavory - since they (and I, were I in their position) won't be candid about it.

So - IMO - what you'd do is poll the involved journos about why KR got the coverage he did, but ask them why they think *other journos* covered KR as they did - leave the askee out of the equation.
(and since they tend to be pack-oriented, they'll likely have a pretty good idea of their cohorts' mindsets)

Who has the clout to do this and get answers, Jay?

Posted by: Anna Haynes at August 14, 2007 3:04 PM | Permalink


Right, but how does a revulsion for Rove's tactics definitively trump the notion that the examples you list are just political "savviness" or, from a Republican perspective, that they are means justified by the quest for a permanent Republican majority?

Another way of asking this is i) what are the criteria you used to make this list of Rove's practices ii) how might the same criteria be translated into really insightful journalism about Rove that punctures the notion that his savviness is all that counts. I say "really interesting" because, so far as I can tell, there has been very little damage done to Rove in an critical/moral sense - the trouble he and Bush are in has been because of their own mis-steps, not because of any meaningful critical assault on their political ethics.

A critique of Rovian political ethics should be the terrain for centerist journalism which, because it is free from the reflexive "I hate Rove because he is a conservative Republican" ought to be in a position to be dispassionatly critical. Jay's argument is that centerist journalism is so in love with political technique that it has lost the moral authority (if it ever had this) for evaluating Rove on any other terms than as a political technician.

Posted by: Richard H at August 14, 2007 3:33 PM | Permalink


Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 14, 2007 4:15 PM | Permalink

Savvy? Heh. What's absurdly hilarious is how hanging out with Rove, using him as a source, being his guest for bad shrimp cocktail at the Chevy Chase Club, etc. somehow became hip and kewl ...when I'm hard-pressed to think of a bigger dweeb in Washington.

Posted by: Roxanne at August 14, 2007 4:46 PM | Permalink

They may admire his savvy, but I think it all has more to do with the fact that the MSM is now all about being shills for the Republicans. If Rove was a Dem we'd have been constantly hearing about his corrupt acts, just like we constantly heard about all of Clinton's supposedly corrupt acts including those that were completely made up.

Posted by: Tom at August 14, 2007 5:14 PM | Permalink

Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion

In high school, we called this, "Doing whatever it takes to be popular." In the case of politics and reporting, this seduction is compounded by an acute career ambition that relies on playing favor for sources.

Furthermore, Rove's "fiercest tendencies" (including the ubiquitous use of leaks and whispering campaigns) are hardly unique and only notable in that rumors are played out in the press carelessly.

Posted by: The Wiseacre [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2007 5:15 PM | Permalink

In other words, beltway common sense doesn't stop with cynical lip-service to objectivity, it is literally beyond good and evil.

That means the definition of beltway journalistic hipness is nihilism.

What might that tell us about the journo's pathological hatred of "dirty hippies," even when they "win" in the debate over reality, even when polls say their view has become the majority view? Is savviness predisposed to the view of history as triumph of the will and the application of brute military power?

Or is the original sin of the "dirty hippies" that they are so unforgivably "earnest" a properly hipsterized journo would gag on the sanctimony of anyone who actually believed in justice or an ideal?

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 14, 2007 5:21 PM | Permalink

Is it savviness that requires the MSM to conceive that any opposition to any U.S. war at any time for any reason can only ever be the resurrection of George McGovern?

It seems another unspoken assumption of beltway journo savviness is a completely naive acceptance of revisionist neoconservative fantasies about Vietnam as the turn of the Democratic party to backstabbing treason even though this fictional narrative parts company with political and historical fact in countless ways.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 14, 2007 5:29 PM | Permalink

Thinking that you indeed caught Rove 'making things up' I clicked the link provided. Imagine my surprise then when finding out that 1. Rove made claims of voter fraud, and 2. the government prosecuted voter fraud cases. Seems like you've provided evidence for NOT making things up.

Posted by: Menlo Bob at August 14, 2007 6:10 PM | Permalink

Uh, I don't think you read that article correctly. Better try again.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 14, 2007 7:00 PM | Permalink

Menlo Bob -- The GOP's fixation on "voter fraud" is a fraud. Several studies debunk the myth, in spite of interference with one of those studies from the Bush Administration.

The Cost of a GOP Myth

Panel Said to Alter Finding on Voter Fraud

The Gonzales Justice Department has brought dozens of voter fraud cases. But when the time came to show the evidence, they folded or were shot down. Because the evidence just isn't there.

Feds Prosecuted Only 38 Cases Of Voter Fraud Between 2002-05

So maybe Jay had a bad cite. But the facts support him.

Posted by: Kyron Huigens at August 14, 2007 7:02 PM | Permalink

In defense of the inside-the-Beltway press corps...

...the reputation for savviness is only as good as your last campaign, as the saying goes.

Thus, Rove's "evil genius" status--an ironic turn of phrase that combines admiration with amorality, as Rosen, accurately, perceives--evaporated when it turned out that Rove did not have "his own math" in the 2006 midterms. The real-world math that conventional wisdom expected, namely that the Iraq War would disillusion his dreams of a permanent Republican majority, turned out to be vindicated.

My perception of yesterday's coverage of Rove's departure was that it fell less along the lines of "despised or deified" and more on the "no Mark Hanna, he." True, his Gang of 500 contacts may have been slavish in their adulation of Rove's savviness when he was winning, but they seemed merciless about how far short he fell from his McKinleyesque aspirations as he departed.

And not even a good Teapot Dome Scandal to report on as the door hit him on the way out.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 14, 2007 7:54 PM | Permalink


What you say may be true in your time zone, but I urge you to look West, where some of us have been telling true stories about Rove's tactics with the media for many years.
Here's a post with some old (and true) Rove and the media stories.

I was “Rove’d,” but he didn’t leave prints

Posted by: Charlotte-Anne at August 14, 2007 8:53 PM | Permalink

Andrew Tyndall,

I don't think this is really about the degrees to which Rove succeeded or failed - Jay is actually making a rather subtle point about what kinds of facts are amenable to being represented by a journalist with centerist aspirations.

Consider the following extract from the Mission Statement of Politico:

"There is more need than ever for reporting that presents the news fairly, not through an ideological prism. One of the most distressing features of public life recently has been the demise of shared facts. Warring partisans -- many of whom take their news from sources that cater to and amplify their existing opinions -- live in separate zones of reality. In such a climate, every news story is viewed as either weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. Our answer to this will be journalism that insists on the primacy of facts over ideology."

This sounds completely reasonable - it is. It encapsulates a very, very important aspiration, but in becoming so self-conscious this same aspiration becomes an ethical imperative that is in danger of limiting a journalist to a very specific subset of political phenomena that are ideologically "neutral" i.e. are "shared facts".

The representation of Rove to which Jay draws attention to is an excellent example.

Imagine a journalist setting out to write about Rove in a way that strives, in the manner of the Politico Mission statement, to emphasize "facts over ideology". What is a "shared fact" about Rove? A shared fact about Rove, that pretty much everyone agrees on, is that for a while he was a fantastically adept potical operative. Beyond that, however, what you say about Rove will almost inevitably degenerate into being seen as "either weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war". So, what do you do?

Jay's argument, I think, is that the danger of the aspirations of something like the Mission Statement of Politico is that the kind of journalistic objectivity it seeks to practice is potentially hostage to "shared facts" and dares not go beyond them.

Before the Iraq war I heard/read someone asking whether Iraq was the way it was because of Saddam, or if Saddam was the way he was because of Iraq? What Jay's idea of "savviness" does is gesture towards the dangers of the same kind of unresolved circularity in the relationship between centerist journalism and Washington politics. Is the scope for a journalism of "shared facts" diminished and endangered by the politics of Washington since 2000, or is the politics of Washington since 2000 diminished by a journalism that limits itself only to "shared facts"?

Posted by: Richard H at August 14, 2007 9:58 PM | Permalink

Pick apart the citations if you will, but Jay nailed it -- the "cult of savviness" is an apt description for what has happened to journalism in general, and particularly political journalism in Washington. Far too many reporters and editors who should know better have lost sight of the importance of holding themselves to a higher standard of objectivity and accuracy, not to mention the necessity of double- and triple-checking the drivel they're often spoon-fed by the DC political machinery. If more than a few had bothered to dig deeply into Rove's background (or even watch the documentary "Bush's Brain" or read the various books by Texans), then surely more of them would have questioned nearly everything coming out of this White House from the get-go.

But the larger point is that everything coming out of any White House should be examined and re-examined. It's ironic that the so-called "liberal" DC press corps of the 1990s was doubly tough on Bill Clinton for the very reason that they didn't want to be accused of giving him an easy ride because they agreed with his politics. Today's Beltway journalists seem far more concerned with being political "insiders" who are just as likely to report on campaign tactics and this week's YouTube "buzz" as they are to engage in investigative journalism. They jump on any bandwagon and question very little, whether it's Rove, Obama or Guiliani. Some of the best political reporting is being done by magazines and newspapers outside the Bestway. To wit, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone have broken more newsworthy political stories in recent years than any of Washington's most venerable publications.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that whereas DC journalists were once feared by politicians, we've seen a reverse trend with Rove and his ilk -- journalists not only openly admire their political savvy, they also actively fear retribution from these "savvy operators". (A noteworthy exception is today's column by Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post: "Goodbye, 'Boy Genius".)

Posted by: Kerri at August 15, 2007 12:51 AM | Permalink

Richard H--

You say: "I don't think this is really about the degrees to which Rove succeeded or failed..."

...but when it comes to making a virtue of "savviness" being savvy is inseparable to being successful. The insights of a failure should be disregarded as mere spin. The insights of a success are invaluable "inside dope" for a journalist who wants to carve out a reputation of knowing which way the wind blows.

Concerning Karl Rove in particular, the zenith of his reputation among savvy-loving inside-the-Beltway political reporters was the victory in Campaign 2004. Conventional wisdom held that a high turnout--boosted by the Democratic-leaning 527 groups--would benefit John Kerry. Rove insisted that he had his own math. Sure enough the turnout for Kerry was high but the turnout for George Bush was yet higher. When exit polls surprised many mainstream political reporters by showing high numbers of so-called values voters in the Republican base, Rove was rightly validated for his ability to mobilize born-again Christian voters as a GOP voting bloc.

So Rosen is spot on when he remarks: "What is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Everyone knows that the press admires an unprincipled winner. (Of a piece with its fixation on the horse race)" The virtues that Rove is celebrated for in a book like The Way To Win--by The Note's Mark Halperin and Politico's John Harris--are race track virtues...the ability to spot a long odds winner, to read a form book, to spot a favorite's vulnerabilities, to know that there are horses for courses. Savvy is a virtue when covering politics as a horse race not when covering policy as ideology.
That is why, ultimately, valorizing savvy is no great harm in horse race journalism--precisely because it is so fickle. As soon as the insider's tips do not return winning insights, he is yesterday's news. The midterms of Campaign 2006 proved that Rove could no longer create his own facts or own his own math. As ABC's David Wright reported on Monday: "Not even Karl Rove could spin the Iraq War as a success."
The Rovian rhetorical model of message discipline and government by talking points--which I suppose is the polite way of paraphrasing Josh Green's "he makes stuff up"--foundered in Fallujah and was discredited once and for all in New Orleans. By then the savvy thing to do was to look for a new insider with the skinny.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 15, 2007 8:42 AM | Permalink

Eric. First time trying to copy something to a comment. We'll see.

"Have you noticed, in all the press coverage of Rove’s announcement yesterday, how no one spoke of knowing Karl Rove as a source? Matt Cooper is one we know about because of the trial of Scooter Libby. (“Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation …”) There are many others we do not know about because they agreed to keep his name a secret. But make no mistake: they are also the ones writing the “balanced” non-committal retrospectives, the ones with 50-50 headlines like “Rove bows out despised and deified.” (Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen in the Politico.)"

Rosen is saying he knows this stuff--"make no mistake", for example--although "we do not know about" who spoke to Rove without being spotted.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 15, 2007 11:51 AM | Permalink

Andrew Tyndall,

OK. I see what you are saying. I think my immediate positive reaction to Jay's piece was a function of the fact that I felt the reporting of the Rove resignation was, for the most part, radically incomplete. Jay's deployment of the term "savviness" sought to explain this incompleteness in terms of an oblique complicity between most of the coverage of Rove's resignation and Rove's own performance.

You seem to be taking a somewhat more sanguine attitude towards "savviness" when you write:

"Savvy is a virtue when covering politics as a horse race not when covering policy as ideology.
That is why, ultimately, valorizing savvy is no great harm in horse race journalism--precisely because it is so fickle. As soon as the insider's tips do not return winning insights, he is yesterday's news."

My problem with this is really twofold. First, it implies that the quality of journalism is essentially parasitic on the political fortunes of whoever is being written about. If someone writes a predictive piece saying team Rove will win and team Rove wins, then that is "good" journalism. I suppose that in a way this is good journalism, but it seems to me to be a pretty limited vision of what journalism could/should be.

Second, is the metaphor of politics as horse race ever appropriate? If politics is a horse race, then a simple description of how a particular horse won will suffice. Is the same description sufficient if doping is involved? Well, if doping has been declared illegal by the governing body of horse racing, then mention of doping would be fundamental to the story of how the race was won. If doping were legal, then it would be just another fact in how the race was won.

This is where the analogy of politics with a horse race is fundamentally inappropriate. As Rove, perhaps more than anyone demonstrated, there is no governing body out there to make calls on what might or might not be accetable in the political horse race....except....maybe....JOURNALISTS!!!!

If all you do is a journalist is predict a winner, or describe the action in as objective and neutral a way possible, then you are implicitly endorsing whatever tactics get used to win. As a consumer of journalism I am looking for something better than this - I am interested in journalism that makes value judgements in a timely manner - not because I hunger for the partisan, but because I want to be informed by writing that attends to the question of its own descriptive aptness.

Posted by: Richard H at August 15, 2007 12:33 PM | Permalink


I am no great lover of "horse race" political journalism either. But I would argue that it was only from journalists practicing in that field Karl Rove was accorded plaudits. When it came to policy as opposed to politics he was dismissed as a lightweight--not savvy at all. In fact, his electoral tactics--winning through his base (50%+1), using wedge issues (gay marriage on the ballot in Ohio), smear tactics (so-called swiftboating) and demonization (liberals want to offer "therapy and understanding" to the September 11th attackers)--were roundly criticized as counterproductive when he tried to legislate his agenda of Social Security privatization and immigration path to citizenship.

However, when you draw the implication that quality horse-race journalism "is essentially parasitic on the political fortunes of whoever is being written about" I think you are selling the savviest horse race journalists short. Rove offered them valuable insights. For example, a get-out-the-vote operation can benefit the GOP; born-again Christians can be mobilized as a voting bloc; values issues have traction in Presidential politics; an unpopular Iraq War can be defended by attacking its opponents. In return for those insights, journalists on the horse race beat granted him an amoral credibility.

As for your second point, namely that Rove demonstrated that "there is no governing body out there to make calls on what might or might not be accetable in the political horse race....except....maybe....JOURNALISTS!!!!" I think you misconstrue the cause of Rove's fall from prestige since he was hailed as the "architect" in 2004. His fall has occurred precisely because those non-journalistic governing bodies do exist--specifically a special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case and Congressional oversight committees in the US Attorneys firings. It was when those Constitutional checks and balances countered Rove's operation that it became no longer accurate to grant him "savvy" status.

So, yes, I am sanguine when operatives are put on a pedestal by being given a reputation as "savvy." It is a fickle reputation, as easily frittered away as bestowed--and not accorded much gravitas even when so temporarily granted.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at August 15, 2007 2:20 PM | Permalink

uhhh, jay. menlo bob read it. the comphrehension level of the typical neocon; word up!

the dude ciphers that rove was a buthed. because he was a very mean person. good=nice=wise; bad=mean=savy. inflated ego = neurosis.

don't feel bad poor journos. it is symptomatic of every industry. ever hear of a banker going on a vegas junket with a hedge fund manager. poor banker just wants to be cool. it's called ethics or in my terms, the dude abides!

Posted by: thedude1369 at August 15, 2007 2:38 PM | Permalink

Anna: I don't think there's any way to get the answers you are looking for.

Charlotte-Anne: I thought I was writing about the Washington press and its myopia toward Rove. Josh Green, whom I cite, makes much of Slater's book and how the national press ignored what was clearly documented in it.

I don't disagree with most of what Andrew has said, but I think he's overlooking one element. Because the horse race press admired Rove's savvy they did not portray how extreme some of his tactics were, though they did learn from him some of the lessons you list. The key lines are near the end of my post, and they come from Green: "...He has both an understanding of the media’s unstated self-limitations and a willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others."

If some of his success is due to his "savvy" and some due to the fact that he has no conscience, the savviness bias that I write about means the horse race press will not portray the true depth of Rove's aggression and the dark side of what Green correctly calls his character.

And speaking of character, here is a Rove anecdote: Don't mess with Karl.

Also worth reading is Glenn Smith, Why the Political Press Loved Karl Rove. He used to work in Texas journalism, then Texas politics. Lots of details in there.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 15, 2007 4:27 PM | Permalink

I'm a conservative Republican. Karl Rove's comment about President Bush being one of the smartest men he's ever met was bizarre (Rush Limbaugh radio show). I voted for him twice and am often embarrassed by poor display of knowledge. You don't have to ignore the obvious to support him.

Posted by: Mike at August 15, 2007 7:05 PM | Permalink


I am maybe being unrealistic and utopian, but what I'm trying to hold onto is the the notion that Rove's political savviness might be amenable to substantive non-partisan critique by journalism. I am in complete agreement with you when you wrote of Rove that: "His fall has occurred precisely because those non-journalistic governing bodies do exist--specifically a special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case and Congressional oversight committees in the US Attorneys firings." I guess my question is why did journalism not have more to do with bringing him down? Jay writes of Rove: "He transgresses and figures no one will stop him. He goes further than others in the game. These are things you would think journalists would recoil at, or at least observe with regularity." The question is why didn't they?

As I understand your position, you would argue that Rove has actually come in for a lot of criticism. In your first paragraph you make the following distinction: "When it came to policy as opposed to politics he [Rove] was dismissed as a ightweight-- not savvy at all." This distinction has been clear in the coverage of Rove's resignation and, if anything, is becoming clearer in the commentary since then. Moreover, as you also point out, his political strategies for winning came to be seen as counter productive when it came to trying to implement policy. For example, E.J. Dionne Jr. (via Froomkin) writes: "Relentlessly attacking Democrats on national security meant that Bush's opponents had no stake in his Iraq policy when things started falling apart." I think this is quite correct, but this kind of criticism of Rove's political savviness has only really come to light after the event - it is criticizing Rove's political tactics in the light of their implications for the implementation of policy.

What I take from Jay's argument is a primary concern with the coverage of Rove's political savvy rather than his absence of policy savviness. Moreover, the issue is not that in
hindsight the former compromised the latter. Rather, within the orbit of the reporting Rove's political savviness there appears to have been a singular failure - by journalists - to discriminate between Rove's tactics in any terms other than their political/policy implications.

There are probably some perfectly good practical reasons for this.

i) Rove's strategy was, of necessity, often shadowy and covert - the row over White House staff using RNC email accounts that seem to have been largely deleated is a case in point; if someone goes out of their way to cover their tracks they are just going to be harder to research than someone who operates in the open. Rove has made himself an illusive target.

ii) despite his central seat of power in the White House, Rove's use of that power seems to have been increadibly distributed. In shoring up the support of various interest groups and undermining opponents Rove traversed enormous ground. You list some of his strategies: "a get-out-the-vote operation can benefit the GOP; born-again Christians can be mobilized as a voting bloc; values issues have traction in Presidential politics; an unpopular Iraq War can be defended by attacking its opponents". So it is perhaps not at all surprising that insight into Rove is piecemeal and fragmentary.

Beyond these practical difficulties, however, it is hard avoid the conclusion that there has been a failure to write about Rove's political strategies in judgemental terms that might have mattered.

Posted by: Richard H at August 15, 2007 7:54 PM | Permalink

The right word for "that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political" isn't "savvy" -- it's "cynical". And there isn't anybody in this world more gullible than those who admire cynicism without possessing it; which handily explains the worthlessness of modern journalism.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 15, 2007 10:14 PM | Permalink

I have had this feeling about the infatuation with what you call "savviness" for as long as I've been in journalism. I always thought of it in terms of the journalist's seduction by the notion of being let in on "the way things *really* work," and being able to raise one's status with colleagues and readers by showing them that you're in on such secrets.

Once someone persuades you that he has let you in on "the way things *really* work," you are in his debt... and so delighted with the idea that you've been shown the real gears of power that you forget to ask why you were shown them, and whether your glimpse was selective, and whose agenda that might serve.

Posted by: Scott Rosenberg at August 15, 2007 11:46 PM | Permalink

The amoral journalist in awe of "savviness" is not restricted to politics. Neither is parasitic reputation building:

I like your idea of a reputation system for journalists based on their success in making predictions. It has potential. So might other ideas for how to create a reputation system for journalists as "sellers" of news, views, reports and assessments.

Posted by: Tim at August 16, 2007 6:45 AM | Permalink

Admiring savviness is akin to the weak admiring the ruthless. It makes the former feel strong. Or, in this case, slightly beyond-the-pale dirty, just the fun kind. And knowledgeable. And hip. Morality is for the bourgeois--within which is found all the letters necessary for "bore".

Of course, one could make a more or less objective judgment that a person is savvy, perhaps even trying to come up with a scheme for quantifying it.

But that's different from admiring it, and the savvy must laugh to see how easy it is to manipulate the wannabes.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 16, 2007 11:39 AM | Permalink

Richard Aubrey,

I just don't think that the Machiavellian defense of Rove works any more. As of right now it just looks as though the "bores" are on the ascendency. This is one of the key points that Andrew Tyndall was making above: "[savviness] is a fickle reputation, as easily frittered away as bestowed".

Things have changed radically and quickly. Reading Mickelthwait and Wooldridge "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" just before the 2004 election there was a sense that if Bush won it really would be all over. In the concluding chapter of the book the authors contrast the leaders of the Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives: "Hastert, a hulking former wrestling coach...Pelosi, a tiny birdlike woman..." they then make an extended comparison of their two districts and conclude..."looking at 'Pelosiville" and "Hastertland", it is not difficult to see why American politics has shifted to the right. If American politics is a seesaw, it is an uneavenly balanced one. Imagine Dennis Hastert at one end of the seesaw and Nancy Pelosi at the other end, and you have some idea about which party is sitting with its legs dangling in the air." p.380. Compare that image with the news that Hastert is not going to seek re-election, and the cartoon at the top of David Frum's political obitury for Rove in the NYT.

The point is that you can only defend a Machiavellian so long has he is a winner. Jay's piece is interesting because it puts a novel slant on the debate about why there was no satisfactory journalistic of critique of Rove when he was at the apex of his power. The flip-side is how do you defend him now that he is so lost? Is there a Machiavellian defense of a loser? The only one I have seen is the Van Gogh defense - everybody hates you while you are alive, but 20-30 years later it will be a different story. Apparently this is where Bush is now hanging his hat, but even for the most jaded bore that is one hell of a punt.

I would be fascinated to read a defense of Rove that is neither rabidly partisan, nor Machiavellian and makes no reference to the Van Gogh defense. Is such a thing possible?

Posted by: Richard H at August 16, 2007 8:16 PM | Permalink

re: Is such a thing possible?

I would think no more possible than a defense of Dick Morris would be (also see The New Prince).

Posted by: Tim at August 16, 2007 9:54 PM | Permalink

Richard H. Of course, if you're trailing along behind the great man, admiring how he makes his own rules and does down the christers--how stupid they are!-and laughs, and you get a rush ("frisson" is French for cheap thrills, right?) by being part of the action, the guy has to win.

In addition to being deliciously, shiveringly amoral, he's smarter.

If he loses, he's not smarter.

I don't make this judgement about Rove, who has attracted too much attention for winning for me to trust the losers' judgment. I make this judgment about journos. It goes for presidential advisers, tinpot dictators, or slimy financial manipulators. Sexy as hell, but they have to be winning.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 17, 2007 12:50 AM | Permalink


I’m sure Dick Morris is enormously flattered whenever he is compared with Rove (I would be very interested to know of any work that has been done to make a substantive comparison of the two), but I would argue that Dick Morris is the John the Baptist of contemporary machiavellianism in American politics where Rove is the Jesus Christ. Obviously Rove is the far more substantial figure, but more important in the present context is the idea that Dick Morris may have in some sense prepared the way for Rove by immunizing us against their common cynicism.

Thinking along those lines there was one part of the Lamb/Maraniss interview that jumped off the screen (thank you for the link). At the very beginning of their discussion of Dick Morris (about a third of the way through the interview) Maraniss says:

“He [Dick Morris] is a Machiavellian, fascinating character who knows how to connect with politicians in a way that few other consultants do, but yet there's a certain embarrassment about him because he's so clearly Machiavellian that the politicians for whom he gives advice often don't want the public or the rest of the press to know that he's doing it.”

My question, and the question I took from Jay’s piece, is where the hell has that “certain embarrassment” gone? One could answer that Morris was more cynical than Rove because, as the Lamb/Maraniss interview goes on to talk about, Morris played for both teams – he worked for both Democrats and Republicans.

The issue here is not, however, political allegiance, but political method and its representation by journalists. Just because Rove’s Machiavellianism was practiced in the service of one team only doesn’t make it any less cynical or less worthy of condemnation.

Frankly, I am embarrassed by Dick Morris and by Rove – everyone, especially journalists, should be.

Posted by: Richard H at August 17, 2007 8:51 AM | Permalink

I agree that Morris is a kind of junior league Rove, and exerted the same kind of fascination for journalists. But he had nowhere near the same power.

Here is what I see with Rove, and this is what Josh Green of the Atlantic marveled at. (After my post, he sent me a note saying he wished he had done more on the failures of the press during Rove's career.)

The best way of putting one over on the boys in the press, causing them to fail in their duty to apply scrutiny, is to do very extreme things openly and then dare them to make a big deal out of it, knowing of course that, if they try to make a big deal out of it, the same extreme tactics can be used against them.

This causes each boy on the bus to ask if he wants to go first, and as each one declines the others are emboldened to fold their tents (and make a mockery of their professional vows) until all tents are folded and there are no outliers on the bus. The extreme action is thus either overlooked or re-narrated as within normal bounds.

There are outliers off the bus--often in the regional press--but being outside the peer group they are safely ignored.

Later on, when the crash and burn occurs that too will be inadequately reported, because to give a truthful account would require going back to the tent-folding and vow breaking. Who wants to do that? Thus does the extreme actor implicate the press in his actions, not by hiding them but by betting there will be no need. This takes the whole smoking gun dynamic out of play.

Meanwhile, supporters of the extreme action understand that by raging against the tent folders they help ensure the tents will remain folded--a dynamic I have called culture war theatre--and opponents are driven up the wall by the way the press fails in its basic duty ("you folded your tents!") so they too rage at the press, inevitably arguing that journalists are "in the pocket" of the extreme actor (more theatre) when actually it's far more complicated than that.

Since the critics have it wrong, they aren't really critics, right?

And in the final act of this perverse cycle, the defeated press looks at the anger coming from both sides and decides it's right in the middle, where a good truthteller should be.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 17, 2007 9:31 AM | Permalink

I think it also worth noting that the unprecedented solidarity of the Republican Congress in the face of a systematic dimunition of its power can in part be laid at Rove's door. I think that members of the House and the Senate feared Rovian retaliation if they broke ranks.

It was a very shameful six years in the history of our Republic.

Posted by: jayackroyd at August 17, 2007 1:01 PM | Permalink

I think your "perverse cycle" theory is the most plausible attempt to account for press failure during the Rove era I've heard so far, but I'm still confused about the following: How do the boys on the bus who fold their tent get from being intimidated and shamed into silence out of fear of Rovean payback to self-righteous defense of their capitulation as the essence of journalistic ethics when challenged by others? How can a journalist simultaneously know they have been intimidated into silence and believe that criticism of their spinelessness is partisan failure to understand the higher objectivist calling of their profession?

The bad faith is so extreme, the cognitive dissonance so exaggerated, it is difficult for me to accept that part of the theory. Josh Green seems to foreground the claim that journalistic complicity was the price for professional access. The motivation for that is a little easier to follow, but also doesn't take us as far as we need to go. Where Green emphasizes self-serving greed and the way Rove leverages the coercion of capitalist employment, you seem to emphasize fear of direct, character assassination and retribution of the sort Rove clearly specializes in. Of course, these are probably all complementary accounts.

Are you saying there is a kind of journo herd denial and repression that simply disappears Rove's intimidation from living memory which then frees them to be consciously outraged at suggestions that they are in the pocket of the GOP? "In the pocket" of course doesn't have to be voluntary. If you are blackmailed or coerced into submission you are every bit as "in the pocket" as a true believer. That is what has often led me to wonder if press cooperation with Rove isn't something closely analogous to Stockholm Syndrome. Is it one's own shame at being intimidated that leads to identification with the thumb you are under? There seems to be some kind of pretty extreme psychological splitting going on to allow all of these impossibly incompatible things to happen more or less simultaneously.

Basically I'm trying to figure out how intimidation leads to self-righteous denial that one has been intimidated and that to suggest one has been intimidated is a sign of ignorance. How does intimidation lead to the claim that journo capitulation is objectivity and critics just don't understand? Are they self-righteously claiming objectivity to cover their own shame and complicity? The press were witnesses to crimes they didn't report so now they have to cover their own implication as well for psychological, moral, and legal reasons?

I think your "perverse cycle" theory is the best one I've heard so far, but I'm still not sure if you can get there from here.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 17, 2007 3:16 PM | Permalink

A follow up question:

Ultimately your press as cult of "savviness" theory seems to require a sort of press club masochism or admiration for authoritarian personality types ala Horkheimer and Adorno:

You seem to say that the more successfully the press experience themselves as being manipulated and coerced into complicity with the crimes of those they cover, the greater their identification with and admiration for the "savviness" of the operator who has successfully intimidated them.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 17, 2007 3:27 PM | Permalink

Mark: the press is a shame subculture. It isn't what the journalist does that matters, but what the public believes the journalist has done. So, once the journalist has been humiliated, the memory of that humiliation must be concealed or distorted into something that is not humiliating, both in the journalist's mind, and in the court of public opinion. The truth is too painful to be known, therefore it must not be known. Any tool that lets them forget will be used -- an agreement among the humiliated that nothing very unusual happened; rejection of outside criticism as uninformed, unprofessional, and politically partisan; praise of the humiliator as a Machiavellian genius who could overawe anybody, excusing how they were overawed as the inevitable result of a genius' superhuman skills -- all these disguise the fact that the journalist has been shamed.

It is, I suppose, natural that the members of a profession whose chief power is the ability to humiliate others should be infinitely sensitive to being humiliated themselves. But shame cultures, by their nature, cannot be truthful, with themselves or with others -- and this makes the press' claim, to be the special guardian of truth, a hollow mockery.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 17, 2007 8:28 PM | Permalink

I think Michael's answer is a pretty good one, Mark.

I would also underline what Scott Rosenberg said: "Once someone persuades you that he has let you in on 'the way things really work,' you are in his debt..." And at the same time those who attack the person sound ridiculous to you. For surely they don't know how things really work.

I have to add that there are people even in the Beltway press who have rise above the peer culture and done a good job. A bunch of them work for the McClatchy Washington bureau, which absorbed the Knight-Ridder group. There's Walter Pincus at the Washington Post, Charlie Savage at the Boston Globe. One way to answer your question would be to look at them and their work and ask what makes it possible for them to break from the pattern.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 17, 2007 10:27 PM | Permalink

re: Dick Morris is the John the Baptist of contemporary machiavellianism in American politics where Rove is the Jesus Christ

I like that. That's good. Except, where John had his head served on a platter, Dick had his toes sucked.

There was one other paragraph that jumped of the page from the Maraniss interview:

It worked, and then he developed what I call the "permanent campaign," which was essentially to go around the established media, the newspapers and television, and, as you're pushing your legislative agenda, use your own public relations apparatus to sell your agenda. It's something that Clinton did from then on, to use polling constantly, not just to find out what the people were thinking about an issue but how they would respond specifically to rhetoric.

Posted by: Tim at August 18, 2007 12:46 AM | Permalink


A comment got caught in the spam filter.

I'd like to add to the "permanent campaign": Lippman-Dewey Blogosphere

Posted by: Tim at August 18, 2007 12:48 AM | Permalink

Jay and Michael,
Thanks, both of your answers were very helpful.

Here's my report on your assignment. I'll be interested to see what you draw from it. I've read interviews with Charlie Savage and Warren Strobel, one of the central McClatchy reporters who worked on Iraq, but I'm afraid they take us toward a "not perverse cycle" that looks a lot like traditional descriptions of adversarial investigative journalism you would hear in any introductory journalism class. They don't find much to say or choose to shed much light on the "perverse cycle" of their peers in which they were not participating. They don't seem to have much to say about the political celebrity "savviness" perspective.

Savage's line was that Bush's signing statements were written in something approaching legal code which took him weeks to decipher, on top of which the legal issues were pretty complex even for a person like himself whose regular beat is legal issues, so he's not surprised others didn't see the story earlier. He feels his editor's bravery in taking a chance to establish a journalistic perspective that didn't just follow the national consensus, particularly the willingness to put it on page 1, is rare in the industry and was critical to what he was able to accomplish.

Warren Strobel at McClatchy suggested that as a lesser newspaper chain they simply didn't have the star power that allowed them access into the offices where the Judy Miller-type news agenda-setting anonymous White House leak game is played. They didn't really have any choice but to work up from lower and middle level bureaucrats and staffers in Washington. What these people told them related to the war in Iraq often turned out to be almost mutually exclusive of much of what the White House was claiming on a pretty regular basis.

Strobel says that these same sources spoke to reporters from higher profile papers as well, but either the Times/Post tier reporters or their editors weren't interested in a point of view that conflicted with the official White House story because they didn't print much reflecting that perspective. Strobel said his bureau chief, John Walcott, thought the Bush administration case for war smelled funny from the start and strongly encouraged them to dig in to what their sources told them regardless of how it might diverge from the official White House line.

Both Savage and Strobel repeat like a mantra that journalists need to be skeptical of their sources, especially governments, but that they found this relatively obvious and necessary attitude mysteriously absent in many of their peer reporters and editors at other operations. Savage presents himself as simply miffed by this. Strobel refers to a psychosis after 9/11 that led to a misguided fear of challenging the Bush administration in any matter involving national security.

In short, Savage and Strobel both emphasize that the basis of serious investigative journalism is skepticism toward authority and a strong editor who backs you up or directs you to fresh territory. They seem genuinely at a loss as to why the practice of what sounds like pretty conventional investigative journalism seems to be such a rare event these days.

If there is one lesson they do directly suggest, it would probably be this:
Not having access to celebrity tier administration sources is a virtue, not a vice because that is always also distance from the spin cycle. Jay?

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 18, 2007 2:37 AM | Permalink

Adding to this comment, in order to broaden and deepen the view of savvy amoral journalism ...

Media Cleansing, Dirty Reporting: Journalism and Tragedy in Yugoslavia

John Burns on Covering Iraq: Then and Now (2003)

But he warned American journalists against setting unethical precedents. "If we are going to hold our government accountable we'd better be pretty sure we don't make expedient compromises ourselves, which is a very hard thing to do -- very hard," he said. "You better get into these places to report on them. You have to get your visas extended to continue to report on them. It is not easy. It's a question of where you strike the balance. I don't think the balance was struck in the right way when Saddam was in power."

Posted by: Tim at August 18, 2007 12:31 PM | Permalink

Perhaps one other take away lesson from examining the Savage/Strobel perspective: Perverse cycle journalists appear to be adamantly invested in the pretension that what they do is proudly and heroically continuous with traditional notions of journalistic integrity and objectivity. From the perspective of Savage and Strobel, what national consensus journalists do when they go to work these days is anything but.

In other words, the national consensus journalists' perverse insistence that nothing has changed is one of the most deeply truth-challenged aspects of what they do.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 18, 2007 1:34 PM | Permalink

On the other hand, if we take the Hearst empire as the definition of traditional American journalism, contemporary Murdoch-style national consensus propaganda is a return to traditional journalistic conventions which roughly parallels Cheney's efforts to return the executive branch to its quasi-monarchical pre-Vietnam form:

As Martin Lee and Norman Solomon noted in their 1990 book Unreliable Sources, Hearst "routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events."

Hearst's use of "yellow journalism" techniques in his New York Journal to whip up popular support for U.S. military adventurism in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898 was also criticized in Upton Sinclair's 1919 book, The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism. According to Sinclair, Hearst's newspaper employees were "willing by deliberate and shameful lies, made out of whole cloth, to stir nations to enmity and drive them to murderous war." Sinclair also asserted that in the early 20th century Hearst's newspapers lied "remorselessly about radicals," excluded "the word Socialist from their columns" and obeyed "a standing order in all Hearst offices that American Socialism shall never be mentioned favorably." In addition, Sinclair charged that Hearst's "Universal News Bureau" re-wrote the news of the London morning papers in the Hearst office in New York and then fraudulently sent it out to American afternoon newspapers under the by-lines of imaginary names of non-existent "Hearst correspondents" in London, Paris, Venice, Rome, Berlin, etc.

Hearst was bashed continually by Communists for being anti-Communist, ultra-nationalist and has also been called a Nazi by some communists. They accused him also of libel (mostly about his articles on the Soviet Union and Stalin).
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 18, 2007 2:13 PM | Permalink

The return of yellow journalism would also clearly parallel Karl Rove's avowed ambition of becoming the Mark Hanna (William McKinley's political operative) of the 21st century.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at August 18, 2007 2:23 PM | Permalink

This discussion of press "savviness" is truly academic.

Mostly because the latest Pew study shows a solid majority of the American public faults news organizations for political bias, inaccuracy and failing to acknowledge mistakes.

The credibility and power of the national press is waning, and it will be a long, long time before it "brings down" anyone, except maybe it's sad, sorry self.

This ain't yer daddy's Watergate press.

Posted by: qcexaminer at August 18, 2007 6:43 PM | Permalink

Someone left html tags on. Let me try to turn them off.

{/insane leftist paranoia off}

OK, now. What exactly is this "Rovean payback"?
Does it have something to do with his dreaded weather machine?
If he has such awesome power, why are Walter Pincus and Charlie Savage still alive?
Can anyone name a single example of this horrific phenomenon?

Posted by: Neuro-conservative at August 18, 2007 9:03 PM | Permalink

qcexaminer: Indeed, the discussion is academic, but that doesn't mean it's without interest, or relevance. How does one explain the fact that the press regards itself as a paragon of objectivity and accuracy, when in fact it has no trace of either? What is it that creates and sustains such delusions, and can they be cured or prevented?

By the way, Mr. Rosen, the consensus among the press that Iraq is doomed to dissolve into chaos is also an instance of the press' shame subculture at work. Once reporters learned that, contrary to the world's belief, Saddam did not have WMDs, they felt humiliated; and immediately began to conceal and distort the memory of their humiliation. They couldn't deny their support of Saddam's overthrow, but they could at least deny that they were responsible for it, by claiming that Bush had deceived them. Once they'd done that, Bush's other arguments for overthrowing Saddam had to be part of the deception; and the chief of these was the premise that Iraqis wanted a free and democratic government. So reporters looking at Iraq saw only evidence that Iraq was falling into bloody anarchy. Any hopeful signs would justify what Bush had done, and Bush must not be justified, for if he is, the reporters were wrong to condemn him, and will be shamed again.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at August 19, 2007 9:00 AM | Permalink

Slightly OT.

At "Blackfive", a blog, there is an improved version of a WH press conference regarding Petraeus. Enlightening. It should also serve to enlighten journalists that some things are known they'd prefer not be known.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 19, 2007 11:11 AM | Permalink

From Howard Kurt's column tomorrow:

From the moment he leaked word of his departure to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Karl Rove has been lionized and vilified by the media hordes.

He is either a political giant, shrewdly plotting a series of victories during the Bush presidency, or a nation-wrecker, sowing the seeds of division to boost the GOP. The nicknames -- "Bush's Brain," "The Architect" -- match the portrayal of an important historical figure.

But what if journalists are part of an unspoken conspiracy to inflate Rove's importance -- not for ideological reasons but because it makes for a better narrative? What if they are the architects, using well-placed aides to build a stage for inside-dope stories involving Rove and his colleagues?

Or perhaps there's a cruder explanation: that some journalists believe Bush lacks the intellectual heft to achieve big things on his own, so they attribute his most consequential decisions to a powerful Svengali at his side.

This is not to play down Rove's crucial role as the president's longtime confidant and chief strategist, who indeed helped engineer his election triumphs and map a governing approach that emphasized the care and feeding of Bush's conservative base. But was Rove's decision to quit, 17 months before the end of Bush's term, truly deserving of lead-story status in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the three nightly newscasts?

The rise of the political consultant as prominent media figure is a relatively recent phenomenon. Once these advisers labored behind the scenes, so that Joe McGinnis's 1968 book "The Selling of the President" seemed revelatory in describing the packaging of Richard Nixon. But in the last two decades, a handful of practitioners -- among them Lee Atwater, Dick Morris, James Carville, Mary Matalin and Robert Shrum -- have become certified celebrities, often writing books about their wizardry.

Journalists, having little access to presidents, must piece together the story behind the story by relying on the White House inner circle. That makes political advisers valuable in two respects -- as sources and as subjects. These yarns about who demanded an answer in the Situation Room often accentuate the role of those doing the telling. (Matthew Scully, an ex-colleague of former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, writes in the Atlantic that on 9/11 the president told his assembled aides "we're at war," but that in The Washington Post's version it was, "Mike, we're at war." Gerson, who has disputed Scully's article, is now a Post columnist.)

We know from grand jury testimony that Rove was a source in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame for two journalists: columnist Robert Novak and Matthew Cooper, then with Time. But for most reporters, Rove was usually inaccessible and far from a good source, offering upbeat spin but spilling no secrets.

He was depicted instead as the man behind the curtain -- the Bush consigliere responsible for the man's greatest triumphs and deepest failures, depending on who was doing the writing. Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard executive editor who is close to the White House, felt compelled to write last week that Rove "is not a magician."

Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and blogger, writes that reporters hailed Rove for his shrewdness: "In politics, they believe, it's better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane. . . . And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain."

That is an overstatement, but one grounded in reality.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 19, 2007 11:40 PM | Permalink

The way Jay sets out the “perverse cycle” dynamic makes it look pretty hermetic – very difficult to break. Faced with the latent threat of humiliation by Rove’s tactical machinery I am not sure I would have the courage to try to go after him and it would be hypocritical to suggest acts of heroic and suicidal bravery from journalists as a solution. Moreover, I think Josh Green’s point that Rove has a “willingness to fight in territory where conscience forbids most others” can frankly be extended to so much of the way that the Bush administration has operated that a certain “deer in the headlights” disposition is not just a perfectly understandable reaction, but is becoming increasingly pervasive. Dan Eggen’s account of Gonzo visiting Ashcroft in hospital to get the latter to approve of the warrantless wiretapping program is a truly breathtaking example. It is reminding people of the hospital scene in The Godfather and, while it might be a nice fantasy to imagine a journalist scribbling away at Ashcroft’s bedside, it might also be that the kind of skills that will keep Gonzo in check are more those of Michael Corleone than Walter Pincus.

Sometimes I think that the press is getting blamed for too much – the bus is driving through a landscape where there are precious few meaningful tents left standing. This is also why the point made earlier about the Republican Congress is so important: “the unprecedented solidarity of the Republican Congress in the face of a systematic diminution of its power can in part be laid at Rove's door. I think that members of the House and the Senate feared Rovian retaliation if they broke ranks.” - the press is not the only “shame subculture”!

At first blush after reading Jay’s “perverse cycle” there really seems to be very little recourse other than sit tight and wait for the storm to pass. When Rove goes, life on and off the bus will become a little less threatening and journalists will be able to start misbehaving again. Not a particularly appetizing thought, not least because it really does make all this discussion academic.

Another way to imagine a way mitigate the hermeticism of the perverse cycle would be to ask whether the architecture the press shame subculture is radically different from what came before Rove, or just a more extreme example of a pretty permanent state of affairs? It really is worth remembering that the White House has always hated the press.

Ultimately the way you look at Rove hinges, to a very great extent, on whether he is seen as just part of a long tradition of White House antipathy towards the press, or whether he represents such a radical intensification of that tradition that he has generated something unique. This is both a question of opinion, but also of journalistic method. The kind of journalistic formalism practiced in The Way To Win--by Mark Halperin and John Harris (essentially an exercise of “compare and contrast” Clinton’ and Rove’s strategies for winning the White House) is only ever going to diagnose Rove as part of a continuum. This “value free” journalism will only ever concentrate on those characteristics that are shared by the two things being compared – how do you compare something that is unique? Indeed, in the Introduction to the book the authors say explicitly they are not going to consider anything that is sui generis Rove or Clinton and, no surprise, one comes away feeling that Rove and Clinton are jolly clever chaps.

It seems to me that Josh Green’s article and Jay’s extension of some of its implications, together with new information about Rove's practices that is coming out every day, point to the uniqueness of Rove’s methods that deserve attention in and for themselves. This does mean making independent judgments about what Rove has done, which in turn, means being prepared to labeled unsavvy.

Posted by: Richard h at August 20, 2007 10:12 AM | Permalink

News! A far as I can recall, never before today has there been favorable mention by the New Republic to anything I have ever done or said. A first!

From Jason Zengerle at The Plank


I don't often agree with the press critic Jay Rosen, but I think he had a smart point when he argued in one of the thousands of Rove postmortems from last week:
Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, "with it," and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain.

There may be no better example of Rosen's point than this article about Rove in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, which tries to divine the meaning of Rove's recent attacks against Hillary Clinton...

Pretty good example. And thanks, Jason!

Of course the youngish reporter-columnists at the New Republic are frequently good examples of what I termed the "cult of savviness." That's not to say they don't overcome it and do important work; I would say they do, fairly often. But the savvy style and its excesses they are on intimate terms with. Which makes The Plank item more interesting.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at August 20, 2007 2:08 PM | Permalink

I'm glad you have finally got recognition from TNR!

The LA Times thing is an odd story - Froomkin is all over it as well. In the Froomkin version Rove is deconstructed 'live' on "Fox News Sunday" and "Meet the Press".

From Froomkin:

Chris Wallace asked: "Her campaign says the more you attack her, the more the Democrats love her. So why are you helping Hillary Clinton?

"ROVE: Didn't know that I was. Don't think that I am.

"WALLACE: What does that mean?

"ROVE: Exactly that.

Froomkin goes on to look at Rove being genuinely evasive when Wallace asks him about the Plame affair.

Who knows if Rove can use the kind of perpetual second guessing that is going on with regard to his remarks about Clinton. From the perspective of understanding and reporting on Rove, however, it is important to make a distinction between statements that are inherently evasive, and statments which have evasiveness projected onto them.

One of the characteristics of "savviness", as you define it, is being "perceptive". You really do get the sense that the LA Times piece is like the person who can't read the bottom line of the opticians chart and is just making stuff up. To me your definition of "savviness" in journalism is something much less obviously trivial - savviness often appears as very high quality work about important news stories. So, while it is undeniably nice to have your ideas picked up, using the LA Times piece as an example of "savviness" is not, in my humble opinion, entirely appropriate.

Posted by: Richard H at August 20, 2007 4:31 PM | Permalink

Yes, In high school, we called this, "Doing whatever it takes to be popular." In the case of politics and reporting, this seduction is compounded by an acute career ambition that relies on playing favor for sources.

Posted by: Realty at August 21, 2007 3:51 AM | Permalink

Karl Rove is not only an embarrassment for the USA but also for human Race.

Posted by: 360view at August 21, 2007 8:06 AM | Permalink

Another journalism-related scorcher at Blackfive.

Leads from a best seller, "Lone Survivor" and what this Seal--the author--feared most.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at August 21, 2007 8:22 AM | Permalink

They seem genuinely at a loss as to why the practice of what sounds like pretty conventional investigative journalism seems to be such a rare event these days.

Posted by: Guess at August 27, 2007 4:12 AM | Permalink

From the Intro