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March 31, 2008

The Love Affair Between McCain and the Press Sprains the Brain of the Liberal Blogosphere

"Though I await further reports, talk of some blogospheric war makes little sense to me. We're in a dynamic situation here. And one of the biggest unknowns is: will Obama match McCain in radical openness with the press?"

At Attytood, where I check in regularly, Will Bunch had some news for me on Saturday. Liberal bloggers declare war in Philly over media, McCain. He later changed it to, “UPDATED: Liberal bloggers say media-McCain love will be the battleground in the fall.” Having just written about that affair, I was interested in his report:

The left-wing blogosphere is declaring an all-out war against the mainstream media – desperately concerned that inside-the-Beltway reporter-love for D.C. fixture McCain is already creating too large a mountain for any Democratic nominee to scale.

“This campaign is not going to be between the Democrats and the Republicans,” said Philadelphia’s Duncan Black, who writes under the name Atrios and whose highly popular progressive political blog, named Eschaton, inspired the gathering of bloggers and political activists called Eschacon ‘08.

“It’s between the Democrats and the media.”

I look forward to learning more about how “the media” stepped in for “the Republicans” in 2008, such that the media now have to be defeated for the Democrats to win. But even that provocative idea stops well short of war.

How in-your-face and personal to get?

If Bunch’s report is correct, and “the left-wing blogosphere is declaring an all-out war against the mainstream media,” there’s a few things I want to know: against whom, exactly? Is this a war of the pen, a matter of what we think and write about as critics? Or is this… let’s take culture war to the next level and de-legitimate the media for as many people as we can reach? (Of course, the right had that idea already.)

If Bunch’s report is not accurate, and no such war was declared, then I would expect him to be corrected today and tomorrow, as people get back from the conference, think about what happened there, and compose their posts.

Will’s updated account said “there was a lot of discussion and debate over how to deal with the media love affair, [over] how in-your-face and personal to get with allegedly wayward reporters, and what is fair game in undercutting the McCain narrative. For example… is McCain’s past divorce and speedy remarriage into the rich Arizona family that helped launch his political career in the early 1980s, something to go after?” (See this column from 2000)

From Sinfonian, who live blogged the day.

Digby: one idea, like Josh Marshall did, is to have readers cover local press and submit them so that there’s a national clearinghouse of information. Media Matters is good at media criticism, but they can’t go after reporters “on a very personal and ugly basis if we have to” like the blogosphere can. “The press must be shamed … by a relentless public.”

Where public conduct is shameful, public shaming is good. Bunch said that Vermont blogger NTodd Pritsky brought up the recent episode where a questioner of Chelsea Clinton asked about the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“People are asking Chelsea Clinton about Monica,” he said. “Why aren’t we asking McCain about Cindy” – his current wife, who McCain left his first wife for after returning from Vietnam – “or some of his lobbyist connections.”

The young man who asked Chelsea about Monica Lewinsky was a student at Butler University. He told the AP he’s a Clinton supporter. I’m not sure what relevance that has for the coming war, if it’s war that’s a-coming.

True, anyone who manages to get called on in a “town hall” session can speak the unspeakable and ask what the media refuses to ask. (See this example.) If its dramatic enough, it can go viral, either by Big Media tape looping or the new sharing networks that work around it. Trying to get called on by McCain so as to confront McCain with questions he hasn’t been asked by the regular press? Definitely possible. For unlike Bush he is not afraid of being questioned. Definitely risky, too. I can imagine McCain taking a Cindy question and turning it to viral advantage.

Targeting whom, exactly?

On February 21, the New York Times published a front-page expose on “some of his lobbyist connections,” the ones that never get written about. Remember, it blew up in their faces because the article insinuated that he’d had an affair with one of the lobbyists. But it tried to do what I believe the liberal blogosphere is calling for. That is, the Times tried to say: “Here’s a man who holds himself up as different, a man of principle, of rectitude, but is that the real McCain? We found troubling evidence that it isn’t….”

So is the war going to target the people at the New York Times who tried to take on the “upright character” part of the McCain mystique and—in journalistic terms, at least— blew the story? And are they going be warred on for blowing it (losers!) or for failing to ask if the McCain of legend is the real McCain? Listen to Bill Keller explain the “larger point of the story” and “our purpose in publishing it.” After the Keating Five scandal, McCain

rebuilt his career and his reputation by becoming a champion of clean government, a critic of lobbyists and the vested-interest money that courses through American politics. More than most politicians, he was keenly aware that, as he put it in one of his books, “questions of honor are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics.”

The point of this “Long Run” installment was that, according to people who know him well, this man who prizes his honor above all things and who appreciates the importance of appearances also has a history of being sometimes careless about the appearance of impropriety, about his reputation.

War on Keller, then? John Armato of Crooks and Liars, linking to these rumors of war, says he writes “as someone who knows what our liberal media will do to Obama as well, because John McCain has them wrapped around his finger.” My view: If you already know what the press and the makers of political television are going to do with McCain and Obama in 2008, you know far too much.

Saturday at Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher previewed the talk at Eschacon.

This is the guy who wants to “Bomb Iran” and be in Iraq for the next hundred years. In the junior high popularity contest that this election has become, McCain is the Once and Future Prom King. On the other hand, the media have locked their sights on Obama, and he can look forward to more and more constant video repetition shitstorms of the Jeremiah Wright variety.

Unless someone starts pushing the media to apply some equivalent skepticism to McCain, the slog to November will be one long foot massage for St. John the Divine.

Pushing big media to bring equal skepticism to McCain is an intelligent demand; and there’s plenty of material for bloggers to work with. But this requires war? It seems to me to require good blogging.

“This relationship is lethal.”

Same day I published How Did John McCain Obtain What He Has in the Bank with the Press? Digby posted Cosmological Flyboy. It’s good blogging, her reaction to Neil Gabler’s compelling op-ed on the pose of ironic detachment that McCain and the press share.

Obama is cool, but not in the proper ironic, post modern way the press loves so much. His call to hope and change is probably going to give McCain and his fanboys a lot of laughs down the road. Look at all the silly hippies. And even if he were a cynic and a ironist, which he isn’t, Obama is stuck with the liberal party and they are, like, totally uncool with all their useless blabbering about icky women’s issues and goo-goo anti-war crap and talk about poor people. Talk about a bunch of bringdowns.

This relationship between the press and McCain is lethal. They’re already subject to GOP narratives about the faggy, mommy party and having their awesome maverick actually in the race is a perfect opportunity to show their cool, manly bonafides. They’ll be on the straight talk express no matter what crazy bullshit McCain spews out. Because they know he really doesn’t mean it. He’s a cool guy, just like them, and they don’t mean anything they say either.

Digby is right to emphasize how much it’s a guy thing between McCain and the press. “Because of his POW history and his savvy manipulation of their hero worship, they have imputed the character of the young man of integrity who stood steadfastly by his fellow prisoners forty years ago to the older sleazy, self-serving, intellectually lazy politician he became.”

Something like that did happen. But I don’t think Digby is right to see this relationship—which is deeply neurotic—as a fixed thing. It’s more in motion, and about to come under a lot of stress. Some of it from within journalists themselves. This is why, though I await further reports, talk of some blogospheric war makes little sense to me. We’re in a dynamic situation here. And one of the biggest unknowns is: will Obama match McCain in radical openness with the press?

The best indications are that McCain is about to throw a press think wild card into the mix. We don’t know what difference it will make because it’s never been tried by one nominee in a head to head presidential race, as far as I know. Like so many other things this year, none of the pros had predicted it would happen. And maybe it won’t pan out as the pressure builds. But McCain says he is going to continue to open himself to questioning by reporters throughout his run for the White House. You travel with McCain, you get to ask him questions. On the record, with lots of different opportunities, day and night.

“It keeps me intellectually stimulated.”

Can you really run for president like that? Most campaign advisers campaign against it. Besides the risks of gaffe and misstatement, they know that their own control over the campaign—the whole idea of message discipline—is diminished when the candidate is constantly sounding off to reporters. The handlers insight: you can’t run the campaign and be the nominee at the same time. (The 1972 movie, The Candidate, is all about this.)

Howard Kurtz asked McCain about it in January.

As the JetBlue charter from Michigan touched down in South Carolina, I strolled up to John McCain’s front-row seat — none of his aides batted an eye — and asked if he would continue to chat with reporters around the clock if he won the Republican nomination.

Most candidates, after all, grow more cautious around the media mob as the stakes get higher.

McCain said he couldn’t stop, because “that destroys credibility.” And besides, he said, “I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be.”

Can’t stop. Destroys credibility if I change now. Keeps me thinking. Reporters: lower level of human being. Kurtz was supposed to chuckle at the insult, which is the towel-snapping part of the affair. “They keep me thinking” is a bit subtler. The man who is benefiting from hero worship is well advised to tell the worshippers that they instruct him. This allows them to think the interaction more equal than it really is.

“Access and New Hampshire townhalls.”

Kurtz’s check-in was more than two months ago. The other day in my comments section I asked Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason, who wrote a recent book on McCain mythology, whether the kind of aides now being added to his campaign were the kind who wouldn’t bat an eye at unrestricted access by Washington Post reporters with open notebooks. His reply surprised me:

Back when he was still running as the presumptive GOP front-runnter — in 2006 and early 2007 — he surrounded himself with Bush media types who erected some protective layers around him: Barring rabble like me from having any sit-downs, and (more importantly) eschewing the cozy bus rides for incessant (and largely unsuccessful) fundraising events.

In July of last year, when his campaign was on the verge of implosion, he fired a whole hell of a lot of those people, and got back to the basics of Access & New Hampshire townhalls. The architects of that story arc — of Getting Back to What We Do Best — are not likely to jump so quickly back into protective mode. Especially since he’ll likely be going up against a candidate who the media also adore, and therefore will have to compete for their favors.

Jane Hamsher says: “The media have locked their sights on Obama.” If she’s referring to what happens when the perception of Obama love becomes strong enough within the press corps that they self-consciously look for ways to bring some bad noise… yeah, that moment is here. (And it can happen with the press and McCain, too.) If she means the admiration for Obama within the press corps is over, and now they seek to destroy him, just like they did with Al Gore… no way. Political reporters are in the main still astonished and impressed with Obama. He defied their odds, and proved himself better at horse race punditry than they are.

An alternative to declaring some all-out war against the mainstream media lies within these coordinates:

That’s the opposite of war. That’s persuasion.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

April 21: Kevin Drum says he is “baffled” by Obama’s stingy press availability and doesn’t understand the thinking. I’m with Kevin, but watch his commenters give him an earful.

For the topically obsessed: watch a Bloggingheads video of Time’s Ana Marie Cox and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. They argue in detail about Neil Gabler’s take, barbeque at the candidate’s ranch and the tempestuous affair between McCain and the press, as well as the tension between bloggers and journalists. All matters in my last two posts are covered, though not always well. My summary here.

Eric Boehlert of Media Matters (who was there in Philly) emails about my line, This requires war? It seems to me to require good blogging.

I think the point Duncan and others were making this weekend is that the press doesn’t really respond to ‘“good blogging.” For instance, Media Matters for the last month has noted again and again and again and again that McCain clearly flip-flopped on immigration and yet almost nobody in the press mentions it when the topic, in reference to McCain, comes up… So sure, it’d be nice if bloggers simply had to point out reporting deficiencies and the press then responded. But the blogosphere is tired of politely, and repeatedly, pointing out the media’s errors regarding McCain. So i think many within the blogosphere will declare war.

Digby replies to this post. It’s a long and thoughtful answer, which I won’t try to summarize.

When I said that bloggers could get “personal and ugly” in ways that institutions like Media Matters couldn’t, I wasn’t suggesting that we “take the culture war to the next level and de-legitimate the media for as many people as we can reach.” That’s hyperbole that nobody even came close to saying.

By going personal and ugly, I meant that we could write about the press the way I did in the excerpt from this post which Jay positively quotes at length. In other words, we can write like bloggers, laying out the critique in edgy, irreverent, aggressive terms that an organization like Media Matters would not want to do. (And our new organizing tools may make it possible to drill our national critique down to the state and local level and mobilize readers to take it to the writers themselves.) The informality and shoot-from-the-hip style, along with our outsider status and freedom, is the essence of blogging.

Well, I agree with that.

In his Washington Post column, Howard Kurtz wrote about my exchange with Digby. “It’s no surprise that liberal bloggers are starting to train their fire on McCain and what they see as his media enablers, but some have apparently concluded that journalists are the enemy.” Meanwhile, more signs that McCain plans to run an unconventional campaign.

The blogger TRex, an FDL-alum, who was also at Eschacon.

I think that it’s kind of an overstatement that an oath of blood-vengeance was sworn out on the Big Dogs. We definitely need to be putting the spurs to the people who are supposed to be holding McCain accountable and are instead literally eating from his hand, but that’s kind of what we’ve always done.

Over at Firedoglake, Eli explains that a declaration of war on the mainstream media is meant…

not to completely discredit them as an institution (although, come to think of it, that might not be such a bad thing), but to hammer them ruthlessly every time they attack Democrats with lazy stereotypes and high-school sniping, and every time they fawn over McCain or any other macho Republican manly men who might set their loins a-quiver. And maybe, just maybe, we can scare some of them into occasional honesty, or raise a big enough stink to damage the worst offenders’ credibility.

The post also includes a fantastic claim that is, essentially, a lie. “The media are telling us that Barack Obama is some kind of Muslim or Muslim sympathizer.” No, “the media” aren’t telling you that, Eli. But it makes for a nice war cry.

Later at Firedoglake, Scarecrow explains it this way:

Liberal bloggers are convinced that Democrats aren’t just running against the Republicans; they’re running against a media framing of the parties and the candidates that makes it far more difficult for Democrats to win. But this year it’s worse; the Democratic nominee must overcome the media’s blind love affair with John McCain, a bias so effective in shielding McCain from criticism it could put McCain in the White House.

“Our only question is how to increase the speed and amount of pain we can inflict.” Philly blogger Mithras in the comments:

Political reporters are a fickle, amoral herd. When the GOP proxy guns are trained on Obama or Clinton, they will eagerly repeat right-wing talking points in order to heighten the conflict. When Gore got gored and Kerry got swiftboated, we argued and reasoned and got no where. (Also, the candidates hoped in vain that people would see through the BS.)

This time is going to be different. We know what to do when reporters join the Drudge-led puke funnel: kneecap them immediately. Our only question is how to increase the speed and amount of pain we can inflict; the morning session of Eschacon was devoted to exactly that. And it will be different in another way: Neither Obama nor Clinton will fail to respond to attacks.

Bottom line: Rosen is wrong. The news media will collaborate with right-wing propaganda, as they have consistently done since Clinton’s first term. You can’t use reason to counter slander. The only thing that works to stop it is deterrence.

This blog is new to me. The author writes well. Ché Pasa comments on this post and Digby’s: This means war!

War on the AP? You may want to read this first. Cindy McCain’s Fortune Provides Senator With Private Jets, Vacation Homes.

Washington Times: Blogger outreach boosts McCain.

Even as talk radio was brutalizing Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primaries, conservative bloggers reached a respectful truce with the Arizona senator over touchy issues and gave him what the campaign called a “tremendous positive psychological” boost.

The main reason: Mr. McCain’s blogger outreach, the most extensive of any presidential campaign in either party.

Same article, “McCain treated bloggers similar to other reporters, including repeatedly inviting them to travel on the campaign bus with the press.”

Michael Hisrch in Newsweek: The World According to John McCain.

There is McCain the pragmatist: worldly-wise and witty, determined to follow the facts to the exclusion of ideology—a man willing to defy his own party and forge compromise, even with liberals like Ted Kennedy (on granting illegal immigrants some amnesty) and John Kerry (on normalizing relations with Vietnam). And then there is the zealous advocate, single-minded about pressing his cause, sometimes erupting in outrage at detractors and willing to stand alone—without any allies at all, if need be.

There is much to like in both McCains. He’s pragmatic in the service of the national interest; he rises to passion when he believes that America’s best values are at stake.


Posted by Jay Rosen at March 31, 2008 1:18 AM