The Huffington Post used to run a regular column called “Russert Watch.” Its raison d’etre was pretty simple – to expose the supposed Dean of Serious Journalism as the occasionally contentious though overly deferential inquisitor that he was. Since Russert’s premature death, David Gregory has taken over as host of Meet The Press, and unfortunately, Arianna’s content mill has diverted it Sauron-like gaze elsewhere. It is my humble attempt to fill this void and to regularize my commentary on the plagues of establishment journalism.
First, let’s examine the cast of last Sunday’s show. Present were the rather well-behaved commentators David Brooks and EJ Dionne, who found themselves in agreement far more often than not. Then we had that old stalwart Andrea Mitchell, whose marriage to Alan Greenspan, former chairperson of the Federal Reserve, ostensibly does not bar her from discussing matters related to the financial crisis or the impending recovery (one Washington Post reporter aptly called her “a conflict of interest in human form.”) Next we had a new addition, Mike Needham, a conservative lobbyist for Heritage Action, and Mona Sutphen, who, prior to serving as a White House deputy chief of staff for policy, served as a consultant for multinational companies and financial institutions at the Albright Stonebridge Group (and who is, moreover, married to a former advisor to President Clinton).
Let’s call this Plague Number One: pseudo-diversity of opinion. When was the last time that Bernie Sanders appeared on Meet The Press, for instance? Or when was Mr. Gregory last in the same room with a genuinely inquisitive, truth-dealing, independent journalist like Matt Taibbi or Amy Goodman or Michael Lewis or George Packer? The tele-appearance of the megalomaniacal Glenn Greenwald in June regarding Snowden’s revelations and flight was instructive not so much of Greenwald’s tendentiousness (which it was but is currently beside the point), but of establishment journalism’s inability to tolerate “polemical” or “partisan” journalism with a “point of view” – three qualifiers that David Gregory spit out at Greenwald in order to delegitimize his reportage.
With the introductions out the way, Gregory instantly switched into company-promoting bobblehead mode. An unjustifiable span of airtime was dedicated to discussing the Winter Olympics (on which NBC conveniently has a monopoly) and a summary roll call of disputes between Russia and the United States. Midway through the program, during an interview with the authors of the book HRC about Hillary Clinton, Gregory warmly thanked co-author Jonathan Allen for a cute analogy when he compared Clinton’s incipient campaign launch to a skier’s irreversible descent down the slope:
Very interesting. Thank you both very much. And nice Olympic tie-in there.
Very well done.
Felt it was good for the network…
Yeah, absolutely. […]
Let’s call this shameless corporatism Plague Number Two.
Which takes me to Plague Number Three: the deliberate encroachment of speculation about the 2016 election into discussions in the waxing months of 2014. It is incredible to watch Gregory pound away at this theme, week after week, segment after segment – his interest miraculously uneroded by the countervailing forces of self-awareness, banality, professionalism, or objectivity. Here is a trophy case of Gregory’s musings on a presidential election that is, let’s be mindful, thirty months away:
- “She says she’s not thinking about it. But others definitely are. Polls show Hillary Clinton with a commanding lead over other potential Democrats.Time Magazine adds, “Can anyone stop Hillary?” The New York Times Magazine portrays her as Planet Hillary, along with an interplanetary web of her political context.”
- “First, a key question. How will her past affect Hillary’s future if she runs in 2016?”
- “It’s interesting when you talk about this book in terms of the rebirth. But also state secrets. In other words, the job as Secretary of State is so crucial now to a potential 2016 run.
- “So what will be the rallying cry for the opposition to a Hillary Clinton run in 2016?
- “So here’s the question I think we have to resolve, which is how does Hillary Clinton position herself as something other than a default establishment choice with a complicated past?
- “Mona, so you’re a veteran now of the Obama White House. Same question. How does she position herself as a candidate of the future?”
- “The bigger question of how, not whether, but how she positions herself, E.J., is what I’m really interested in. How she runs.”
- “Is Hillary Clinton an extension of President Obama, a third term? I mean, she has been an advocate behind the scenes, talks about that to healthcare reform. She’s certainly been pretty hawkish in a way, driving a lot of his policies. So where does his presidency end and hers begin?”
- “So bottom line here, is there anything that says that she doesn’t run? Is it just a matter of time?”
Skimming the globe, one can find an infinity of topics worthy of sincere discussion that ought to be of concern to Americans: the political crisis in Egypt, Iraq’s confrontation with jihadists and the U.S.’s rule in it, the Syrian peace talks and the civil war, the revision of the drone program, the scandalous negotiation of a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan (or should we just say Karzai?), the fate of Ukraine, the negotiation of a massive free trade agreement – the TPP, reform of the NSA, Janet Yellen’s arrival at the Federal Reserve, net neutrality, debates over minimum wage – all of these are more deserving of attention than Hillary Clinton (anything is more deserving of attention than Hillary Clinton). No wonder the network’s ratings are plummeting in response the new NBC News chief Deborah Turness’ embrace of “tabloid-style journalism.”
The quotes above bring me to Plague Number Four: image management. As Gregory’s questions indicate, the debate is not “what has Hillary accomplished?” or “how well did she handle the Arab Spring?” but “how does Hillary position herself?” It is precisely this language that betrays an indifference to truth, or historical fact, or verifiability. This concern with image is a variation on the theme of the inversion of reputation and actions: in other words, the focus becomes, “how can Hillary spin her reputation in order to be well-liked and frame her political record?” rather than “what is Hillary’s record on X, Y, and Z?” and “how can we distill these facts into a decent sketch of Hillary’s ideology or worldview?” I imagine they steered clear of this predictably uncomfortable conversation for one reason: Clinton has no anchored worldview. Mona Sutphen admitted as much when she observed that Mrs. Clinton has “got everything she needs to run a fantastically successful presidential campaign. Star power, money, organization, institutional support.” Anyone notice what’s missing here?
This allergy to facts showed itself several times. After EJ Dionne exposed the fallacy behind the interpretation of the CBO report that the Affordable Care Act will lead to a decrease in 2.3 million jobs (this figure actually represents the decreased input because of the public’s voluntary withdrawal from the labor market in order to pursue other options now that they are covered), Mr. Gregory displayed his discomfort:
“But this is a lot to explain,” he said. Seconds later he returned to the spinning jenny: “Okay, but there are still a lot of Republicans, David, who are going to say, “Look, we told you it was going to have a huge impact on the labor force. Some of which we don’t truly understand. It feeds it. And if you don’t like ObamaCare, you may have a new reason to dislike.”
Unfortunately, this kind of idle speculation is contagious. While discussing immigration, for instance, the tone and concentration was not on the facts or the best policy solutions, but on strategy. Mona Sutphen, for instance, sympathized with the “perspective” of establishment conservatives who worried about the timing of immigration and the vulnerability to Tea Party challengers, as well as the distant future as “the lens starts to shift from the midterms to the 2016 race.” (The utterance of words like “perspective” and “lens” is symptomatic of the consulting class’s sickly obsession with optics.) And David Brooks got visibly defensive of the establishment consensus when Mr. Needham, the only serious person in the room, began speaking about the need for a “fact-based debate” and bold (albeit conservative) solutions that are repeatedly stymied by the “current system” that crowds out nonnative ideas.
This brings us full-circle to the first point: the pretense of ideological diversity. Meet The Press is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that the problem in the mainstream media is not a particular ideological, liberal bias, but a corporatist bias, one that reveals all of the phoniness and awkwardness of a reluctant but permanent marriage, in this case between powerful businesses and venal politicians. These panelists, I would hazard to guess, share all of the important assumptions about politics today: the deference to the financial industry, the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, free trade, the tax structure, the unwisdom of intervention in Syria, indifference to the depredations of factory farming: their differences are presumably quite marginal. (David Gregory himself has long been co-opted since his sponsored application for the Chevy Chase Club, a country club for the establishment politico-journalist Blob with an $80,000 initiation fee and annual dues of $6,000.)
Now, if only we could get them to agree on what they are talking about. Believe it or not, the following segment is unedited and uninterrupted – or should I say, unabridged:
So I probably will go to your conference, I agree with 90% of the policy promos. I just don’t see the political pathway. I’d like you to explain to me politically and demographically how does the party survive as a majority party without being–
–can answer it.
And how are those lobbyists different from you as a lobbyist?
By showing that the Republican party is on the side of the overwhelming majority of the American people, 85% of the American people who don’t feel heard in Washington, they’re right. We don’t have a tax code that’s about raising money to fund the government.
–after American– Asian Americans, how do you reach those people?
And I think that you reach them by, we need to reform our immigration system. We also need to look at other things. There is more student loan debt in this country right now than there is credit card debt.
–the last word, because it tells you something about what is going to drive the weeks ahead is this immigration debate.
Let’s hope it doesn’t, Mr. Gregory.