Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weekend Rerun: Appearance and Reality in the Mainstream Media

Doing this blog has changed the way I read and listen to political pundits.  I used to pay attention to them insofar as I was interested in what they were talking about.  That meant that I didn't bother reading a lot of big time pundits because I calculated that the chance of learning something interesting was too remote to justify the expenditure of time and effort.  Now that I read a little more widely and a little more deeply, I've gotten a better handle on what makes a lot of boring punditry boring; when they purport to be talking about politics, pundits are really talking about themselves.  This post from June 7 was an attempt to describe how the self-reference works in connection with the hit Obama was taking over the Gulf oil spill:
There’s usually no better indication of what’s on the collective mind of the mainstream media than a David Broder column. Here is his piece about the Gulf oil spill entitled: "Is President Obama's Jimmy Carter Moment Nearing?":
“I was thinking back to when another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, found himself stymied in another seemingly endless ordeal. Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 officials and workers hostage for 444 days, while the United States was helpless to free them.

“Many of us recall the event by the name that became attached to it: "America Held Hostage." That was the title ABC News slapped on its half-hour news update that aired each night, with Ted Koppel as anchor. The show later became the long-running program ‘Nightline.’

“This is when you know you are truly harpooned, when your problem has become someone else's meal ticket.”
That’s just one more example of how relentlessly self-referential inside-the-beltway punditry has become. Upon inspection, every fact is revealed as an artifact of the medium that transmits it. So Obama will be susceptible to harpoons as soon some network executive decides to start harpooning him. Is there any escape from this enchanted world of media-generated appearances?

It appears not if you listen to commentary inspired, in part, by Broder’s column. Consider this observation by Mark Halperin on the June 4 installment of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports (my emphasis—h/t Geoffrey Dickens):
“Well I don't think that's the only mistake in terms of symbolism and stagecraft that they've made in this crisis. I think three things are true. I think they get a really bum rap from the press about how much they've done on this crisis and, and for how long, I think they've gotten a lot of the substance, most of the substance right. Second, I think they have made a series of mistakes, not just not meeting . . . with real people who have been affected by this when they were down there, but as Jon Stewart and David Broder have both pointed out, he's done too much of the ceremonial aspects of the job, meeting with sports teams, hanging out with Paul McCartney. That, I think has been a big problem. But the third thing is, he will have a problem with the chattering class, no matter how much he bites his lip today, no matter how much he feels people's pain, until the hole is plugged. And they know that in the White House. This is a problem of substance. He's exacerbated his problem with the chattering class because he's created this story line that he's Jimmy Carter.
Let me see if I’ve got this straight: the Gulf oil spill is a “problem of substance”; the Obama White House has “gotten . . . most of the substance right”; and it’s a “bum rap” to say that it hasn’t. So that must mean that Obama doesn’t have a Jimmy Carter problem--that is, a reputation for being ineffectual--right?

Well, no. He has a “problem with the chattering class because he's created this story line that he's Jimmy Carter.” And how, exactly, did Obama do that? By forcing pundits like Halperin to say that he has a Jimmy Carter problem. And how could Obama force someone like Halperin, who thinks that he has gotten “most of the substance right” to insinuate that he’s so ineffectual that he’s in danger of becoming a failed president? Being a good reporter, Halperin had no choice in the matter after Obama, by hanging out too much with Paul McCartney, raised the eyebrows of other media figures like Broder and Jon Stewart.

So, you might think, Obama could have steeled himself against these harpoons had he taken charge of the Gulf oil clean up more ostentatiously from day one. Well no. As Jonathan Alter suggested in his reply to Halperin on the same show, had Obama done so, his micro-management would have raised disturbing memories of Jimmy Carter (my emphasis):

“I think that those are, Katrina comparisons, the Jimmy Carter comparisons, are too easy, but where they are relevant is that Jimmy Carter, when they seized the hostages in Iran in 1979, for 444 days, he let them also seize control of his presidency and apparently, the, the Democrats have some focus groups that show that the American public right now does not want to see Obama focus full time on this crisis. They want him to multitask, but he has to give them the impression that he is showing leadership, not just telling them that he's been a leader, and he has been too much the professor-in-chief and that's not the same thing as being the communicator-in-chief. I think Mark is quite right that for several weeks now, they have just missed the stagecraft of this event and they don't have a lot of time to make this right and to get back on his game.”
So Obama has been right to multi-task, but he’s “missed the stagecraft” by doing it in the vicinity of Paul McCartney when Jon Stewart was looking, thereby forcing the hand of people like Halperin . . . .

You get the idea. Why does anyone take any of this seriously?

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