Thursday, April 17, 2008

Defiant Stephanopoulos illustrates what is wrong with American political journalism

If you thought that the scathing, contemptuous reviews he received for his debate performance Wednesday night would give George Stephanopoulos cause for reflection, think again.

In two separate interviews, Stephanopoulos is defending the way he and, presumably, Charles Gibson discharged their duties as debate moderators for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The This Week host tells Politico's Michael Calderone that the topics dominating the first half of the debate - Jeremiah Wright, Tuzla, the Weather Underground, flag lapel pins - were "tough but appropriate."

When I asked whether questions about flag pins or Bosnia are actually relevant to voters, he replied: “Absolutely.”

“The vote for the president,” Stephanopoulos said, “is one of the most personal” decisions that someone makes.

“When people make that choice, they take into account how candidates stand on the issues,” he said, but also are concerned with “experience, character [and] credibility.”

“You can’t find a presidential election where those issues didn’t come into play,” he said.
And in remarks to TPM's Greg Sargent, Stephanopoulos was identically unrepentant.

He dismissed criticism that it had focused too heavily on "gotcha" questions, arguing that they had gone to the heart of the "electability" that, he said, is forefront in the minds of voters evaluating the two Dems.
This quote illustrates everything that is broken in our political press. Stephanopoulos actually believes that "electability" is the most significant issue in the minds of voters this year.

This is why is neither he nor Gibson saw fit to explore issues like the cost of living; peak oil; global warming; our decaying infrastructure; the widening gap between rich and poor; torture; executive power; health care; the composition of the Supreme Court; the politicization of the Justice Department, or any other issue that actually affects the lives of American citizens.

This is why Stephanopoulos and Gibson saw fit to spend two hours discussing gaffes, guns, capital gains taxes, and jewelry.

There is nothing new in all of this, of course. Stephanopoulos' remarks are emblematic of the corrosive and self-fulfilling tendency for media figures to substitute their own opinions for those of the American people, and then to use those "facts" to excuse the shallow, trivial news coverage and analysis that infects our political discourse.

For an excellent deconstruction of this phenomenon, see Glenn Greenwald's post last year about a discussion of the U.S. Attorney firing scandal that took place on MSNBC's The Chris Matthews Show.

Here are several of our media elites from our nation's most influential journalistic outlets -- including from Time, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and NBC News -- all sitting around on the Chris Matthews Show giggling for three and a half minutes straight about the silly U.S. attorneys scandal. The whole thing is just a fun game for them, and it's absurd to them that anyone could take things like this seriously.

And what is most notable is that they express outrage at one part, and one part only, of this whole story -- namely, they are furious over the fact that the foolish, unfair Democrats would even dare to try to force Karl Rove to testify. Why, firing U.S. attorneys and lying to Congress and the country about it is all fair game, but that -- trying to get Rove to answer questions -- is really beyond the pale. Just watch how the people who have done so much damage to our country think and behave:

Really, is it any wonder at all that our government is so fundamentally corrupt and broken when we have a press like this? Why wouldn't top government officials lie continuously when our national press corps finds such lying to be such a source of merriment and humor, and can summon the energy only to attack, mock and condemn those who find the lying objectionable, rather than the liars themselves?

And given that these are the people who are supposed to perform the function of checking government power and uncovering government corruption, is it really any wonder that the administration has felt comfortable engaging in six years worth of systematic lawbreaking? These media stars would never investigate any of it, because they don't think it's a problem, and if it ends up being exposed, they will belittle and mock any objections to the lawbreaking, defend the administration, and distract everyone from the issues raised. They obscure the consequences of corruption revelations with gossipy and giggly speculation about who is helped or hurt politically.


On what do these media stars base these constant, emphatic claims about what Americans want and don't want? On nothing other than their own personal desires, which they cowardly and misleadingly attribute to what "Americans believe," even though such claims are baseless and false.
There is no difference between the smug indifference of the journalists in the clip above and the obstinate cluelessness that Stephanopoulos demonstrates in his interviews with Calderone and Sargent. In each case, prominent and influential members of the political press get caught substituting their own interests for the interests of the American people. And in so doing, they fail to carry out the core mission of their profession - to inform their audience, and to hold politicians accountable on behalf of the American people.

The Chris Matthews roundtable journalists are bored by revelations pointing to the politicization of the Justice Department. Therefore, they yawn and giggle and heap scorn on those who consider it important. And, more importantly, they fail to cover the story of the weakening of one of the pillars of American democracy - our very system of justice.

George Stephanopoulos thinks that "electability" is the most compelling issue in the 2008 presidential primary campaign. Therefore, he is content to spend two hours of prime network airtime asking gotcha questions about Jeremiah Wright, flag lapel pins, and the Tuzla airport.

And don't get me started on multimillionaire Charles Gibson's apparent belief that, with gas at $4 a gallon, Americans are lying awake at night worried about the capital gains tax.

Earlier today, Marcy Wheeler wondered if the widespread negative reaction to the ABC debate might help to bring about a change.

More generally, this debate seems to be a rorschach test for journalistic responsibility. Howie Kurtz and David Brooks were delighted with the debate. Greg Mitchell and Will Bunch were appalled. Walter Shapiro judges the debate failed both on democratic terms and on bad spin terms. While most of these journalists qualify as media critics (thus, it's not surprising they're commenting on the debate), it does present an opportunity to ask other journalists what they thought of the debate, to force them to take a stand on the role of journalists in the presidential campaign.

Done well, this would be an opportunity to shame journalists into avoiding the kind of spectacle we saw last night. Done well, we could use this opportunity to get journalists to forswear the kind of crappy coverage ABC offered last night. After all, if we have the opportunity to compete with John McCain on the issues, we'll kick his butt. But if we're forced to continue sniffing Hillary's or Obama's underwear drawer rather than talking about how they differ from Bush and his buddy McCain, it'll be a long six months until the election.
I can't say that I'm hopeful. I am afraid that it is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

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