“Why Do Political Reporters Refuse To Show Us The Money?”: American Politics Revolves Around Two Mutually Reinforcing Truths
A profound sense of cognitive dissonance lies at the center of American politics: one that even our most elite journalists and pundits refuse to recognize. In virtually all of our political debate and news coverage, the competition between the two parties is treated as one of personalities and ideas. As with any democracy, the guys who are the most popular, whether for reasons of charisma or appealing policy proposals, emerge as the winners. The job of journalists and pundits is to illuminate the candidates’ character and beliefs and track their respective successes, dividing themselves between “substance” and “horse-race” coverage however they see fit.
But this is nonsense. In fact, American political life revolves around two mutually reinforcing truths. The first is that our democracy has been severely corrupted by money; the second is that the conservative movement, and hence the Republican Party, is dominated by ideological extremists who demonstrate zero interest in the problems of actual governance. Taken together, these truths not only define our political debate; they ensure that virtually nothing is decided on its merits — up to and including our national elections.
Catch a bigfoot journalist or pundit at a social event or private gathering, and he or she will likely admit these truths. Scan the editorials and opinion pages of most major newspapers, and you’ll see the power of money decried on a fairly regular basis. But in the news stories, where it matters most, even our best reporters feel the need to put forth a fairy-tale narrative in which the United States enjoys a fully functioning democracy and our elections and laws accurately represent the genuine will of the people.
Media discomfort with reporting the truth about Republican extremism has often been (and will undoubtedly remain) a focus of this column. But today, let’s just look at the money. Take, for example, a recent story by Neil Irwin that appeared in The New York Times’s “Upshot” section, purported to be the paper’s most thoughtful and knowledgeable organ of political analysis. Irwin argues that Americans’ alleged disinclination to “soak the rich” is reflected in “the actual policies espoused by candidates for office and enacted by Congress.” When he notes that taxes on the wealthy have fallen in the past decade, he offers both a “liberal” and a “conservative” explanation for why this happened. Irwin and his editors don’t appear to think it worth mentioning that fewer than 1 percent of Americans contribute more than 80 percent of the campaign funding for the politicians who write these laws. These are, without exception, the wealthiest people in the country: According to statistics compiled by Americans for Campaign Reform, the top five zip codes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side — home to countless Wall Street tycoons — contribute more money than the residents of 39 states combined. And when you consider that far-right billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Charles and David Koch have the power to demand that presidential aspirants pledge fealty to their ideological preferences and financial interests, the notion that our laws represent the collective will of the American people appears comical at best. Neil Irwin knows this, yet he writes his “Upshot” analysis from the point of view of a naive child who has never heard the words Citizens United or seen an episode of The Daily Show.
A similar game of “Where’s Waldo?” can be played with a recent Times story about the House vote to repeal the estate tax. At this year’s annual White House correspondents’ dinner, the Times’s Peter Baker was honored with the Aldo Beckman Memorial Award, which recognizes repeated excellence in White House coverage. Yet Baker’s reporting on the April 16 vote was miles from excellent.
Baker went on for nine paragraphs of “he said, she said” bickering before mentioning that, for all the crocodile tears spilled by House Speaker John Boehner over forfeited family farms and small businesses, “the federal tax currently applies to estates worth more than $5.43 million for an individual or $10.86 million for a couple. Assets above those levels are taxed at rates up to 40 percent.” In paragraph 11, we learn that the tax applies to just “0.2 percent of the deaths anticipated in the United States.” Additional facts that find no place in Baker’s coverage (but can be found on the website of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): In general, taxable estates pay less than a sixth of their value in tax, and a significant number of loopholes already enable many of them to avoid all taxes. Also, roughly 20 (!) small businesses and small farms owed any estate taxes in 2013; these were taxed at a level averaging less than 5 percent (most large estates have never been taxed for capital gains, which are also taxed well below the level of workers’ wages).
It should come as no surprise that the beneficiaries of an estate-tax repeal would be the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans, whose estates will generate nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in revenue between 2016 and 2025, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Baker quotes Boehner calling this amount “nothing more than a drop in the bucket to the federal government,” but he fails to note how frequently the Republicans attempt to slash far smaller expenditures when the poor and working class are likely to benefit. Nor does he note that the folks who would benefit most from the estate tax’s repeal are the very same people whose massive donations to the Republican Party, its candidates, its political-action committees, and its alleged educational arms determine its agenda. This is an agenda, one might add, that is exclusively dominated by the interests of the super-wealthy — science, economics and often even reality be damned.
It’s a cliché to note that in politics, “money talks and bulls*** walks.” But too often, thanks to the frequent failures of our media establishment, the walk and the talk are one and the same.
By: Eric Alterman, Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, and a Professor of Journalism at the City University of New York; Moyers and Company, May 1, 2015
“Making A Fetish Of John McCain”: Using The Veil Of Patriotism To Shroud What Is Plainly Partisan Politics
Its futility makes me so weary it’s hard to type the question, but I’ll type it anyway: Why do the elite Washington media, especially the influential Sunday morning shows, continue to pay deference to, and take seriously, the opinions of John McCain?
Put another way: What would it take for the elite Washington media to reconsider their fealty to McCain? What would the Arizona senator have to do to disqualify himself as the authoritative voice on national security issues, military affairs, and patriotism?
I don’t mean to suggest that McCain would have to do something disreputable, like commit a crime. But if I were a producer for one of the broadcast TV shows, like Meet the Press, I’d ask myself: Does the man whose reputation rests on his dedication to duty, honor, and sacrifice deserve such a reputation in light of recent moves to privilege the Republican Party over the United States?
Before I go on, please note this complaint of mine is just one of many — many! — complaints among media watchers. Paul Waldman, over at The American Prospect, has kvetched for years about McCain’s “mavericky maverickness.” He wrote an entire book about it. So don’t take my complaint as new or even influential. My aim is to note merely how this latest episode is a clear example of McCain’s long con on the media. It illuminates his using the veil of patriotism to shroud what is plainly partisan politics.
What episode? You already know. McCain was one of 47 U.S. senators, led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas, to sign a letter to the Iranian government, saying any deal over its nuclear program with the current President of the United States could be — and, by implication, would be — nullified by the election of a Republican president. In other words, the man who represents the United States to the world is not really the man who represents the United States to the world, because he belongs to the wrong party.
This was further complicated when McCain publicly called into question the credibility of Secretary of State John Kerry after news broke of an agreement between the nations over the framework of a nuclear deal. And there’s more! McCain said he trusted the judgment of Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over Kerry’s. Clearly, the enemy of his enemy is his friend.
This is in keeping with the regular habit of his fellow Republicans to elevate the interests of party over the interests of country, as Slate‘s William Saletan minutely detailed in an article titled “Why Do Republicans Keep Siding With America’s Enemies?”
I’d add only a representative remark by presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. He recently advised any young person desiring to serve her country in the armed forces to wait until 2017. Why? Because Barack Obama is not a Republican.
“Wait a couple of years until we get a new commander in chief that will once again believe ‘One Nation under God,’ and believe that people of faith should be a vital part of the process of not only governing this country, but defending this country,” he said.
You might say: Well, McCain signed the letter only because his party wanted him to. That’s not the real John McCain. The real John McCain is an independent voice, a bipartisan figure who often challenges his party. In other words, a maverick.
McCain did memorably use the term “wacko birds” in 2013 to describe Senate Republicans like Rand Paul who were carping about the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director. (Paul didn’t like that Obama’s drone policy was Brennan’s brainchild.) And indeed, McCain might place Huckabee in the same “wacko bird” category.
But if McCain’s voting record is any indication — truly, it is the only indicator of a U.S. senator’s character that matters — McCain sides with the Republican Party’s “wacko birds” almost uniformly. And if he sides with the wacko birds almost uniformly, then there’s no significant difference between McCain and the wacko birds.
You might also say: Come on. The real John McCain isn’t a wacko bird. OK, I say, then the real one is feckless. According to Politico‘s Burgess Everett, McCain signed the letter without much thought. “It was kind of a very rapid process,” he said. “Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm. I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.”
In other words, he only did what his party asked of him.
In other words, John McCain is a Republican partisan.
How, then, do we understand the Washington media’s universal portrayal of John McCain as a “maverick”? Waldman says it comes from mastering the art of flattery. McCain, he says, “spent a couple of decades massaging their egos and convincing them that he was their best buddy, an investment that paid off splendidly.”
I don’t doubt it, but I’d add another perspective.
John McCain, I suspect, might be better understood as a metaphor, as a mental projection of what the elite Washington media believes a man dedicated to duty, honor, and sacrifice would look like. And John McCain, knowing that few journalists personally know anyone who served in the military, much less saw mortal combat or, like him, experienced life as a prisoner of war, exploited that mental projection to the hilt. These same journalists, I would guess, are as awed by his biography as they are by anyone who can pull the levers of power in Washington. Put it together, and you have not so much a human being as a fetish: a there that isn’t there.
Given the state of the Washington media, I suppose a fetish is as good a reason for John McCain’s ubiquity as any other. As I said, nothing is going to change. Just asking why anyone takes him seriously is exhausting. And for that reason, I’ll stop asking.
By: John Stoehr, Managing Editor of The Washington Spectator; The National Memo, May 1, 2015
One of the funniest conversations I’ve heard took place among a small group of Arkansas women who’d done their best to clue the newlywed Hillary Rodham in on a basic fact of Southern life she’d been reluctant to accept in the 1970s: Cute counts. It’s not necessary to be a beauty queen, but a woman who doesn’t look as attractive as she can is often suspected of being too “authentic” for her own good.
The lady lumberjack look then fashionable on Ivy League campuses confused Arkansas voters, as did Hillary’s decision to keep her maiden name after marriage. (As the husband of a Southern girl often patronized to her face in a New England college town back then, I can testify that cultural incomprehension can run both ways. But that’s another topic.)
The point is that Hillary Rodham Clinton listened. As she later explained, she hadn’t really understood how strongly people in Arkansas felt about the name thing. So she took the name “Clinton” to stop sending a message she’d never intended. About the same time, it became fairly obvious that she’d started taking clothing, makeup, and hair-styling tips from female friends and quit looking like an outsider too.
So does that make her more or less “authentic” by current journalistic standards? Does it make her a big faker, the “manipulative, clawing robot” of a Maureen Dowd column? Or a relatively normal human being adjusting to the expectations of the people around her?
Not long afterward, Hillary also started doing something very much like what she’s recently been doing in Iowa and New Hampshire: holding small-scale town meetings with local school boards, parents, and teachers in support of the newly re-elected Bill Clinton’s Arkansas education reforms.
Clinton’s 1983 education package — its slogan was “No More Excuses” — brought math, science, and arts classes to many rural school districts for the first time. It raised teacher salaries and increased taxes to fund them. Over time, it’s helped close the historic gap between the state’s country and city schools.
And before the campaign was over, Arkansas’s First Lady was on a first-name basis with thousands of, yes, “everyday people” in all 75 Arkansas counties. She came, she saw, she talked, and she listened. As a secondary matter, Hillary’s image problems among Arkansan voters faded away.
How it works is pretty simple: You accept Arkansas, Arkansas accepts you. I’m pretty sure this is broadly true of Iowa and New Hampshire voters too. So is there an element of calculation in Hillary’s latest listening tour? Sure there is.
Is it merely cheap political theater?
Look, she’s a professional politician running for president. Of course her campaign events are stage-managed. How could they not be? Just as she ran for the U.S. Senate from New York back in 1999, a state where she’d never actually lived.
Although New Yorkers tend to be more flattered than offended when famous carpetbaggers descend upon them, she held small forums all across the state — impressing most observers with her industriousness and knowledge of local issues. America’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, backed out of the race.
She’s a very smart cookie, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And she always does her homework. No, she’s not a mesmerizing speaker like Bill, and not the most outwardly charismatic politician in the race (whoever that may be). GOP focus groups say her biggest weakness is their perception of her “entitlement” and seeming remoteness from ordinary people’s lives.
So off she goes on another listening tour. “A sweet, docile granny in a Scooby van,” Dowd sneers. However, contrary to reporters who marvel at Hillary’s “willingness to put on the hair shirt of humility to regain power,” she actually appears to enjoy the fool things.
Partly, it’s a woman thing. See, Hillary and my wife worked together back when the governor’s wife served on the board of Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Diane always mentioned two things: how hard she worked on children’s health issues, and how she never pulled rank.
But what really endeared her to my wife was Hillary’s empathy during a prolonged medical crisis involving our son. At times, Diane was under terrible emotional strain. Hillary never failed to show concern. Was the new treatment helping? Had we thought about seeking another opinion? She acted like a friend when my wife needed all the friends she could get.
And no, there was nothing in it for her. I wasn’t a political journalist then. It wasn’t about me. It was about two mothers.
In an article unfortunately headlined “Manufacturing Authenticity,” Slate’s John Dickerson gets it right. For all her privilege and celebrity, Hillary “has something going for her that other politicians do not when it comes to these kinds of events… she has thought about family issues her entire life.”
Dickerson marveled that in Iowa, “Clinton actually appeared to be listening.”
And that could turn out to be her secret weapon.
By: Gene Lyons, Featured Post, The National Memo, April 22, 2015
The primary game, I’m afraid, is rigged. In a perfect world, all contenders would start from the same point, equally able to assemble a compelling candidacy and make their case to the voters. In this world, however, the reporters who cover the race have already decided that only a few candidates are really worth thinking too much about, despite the fact that the first votes won’t be cast in over nine months and even the supposed front-runner garners only 15 percent in polls.
This, from the Cook Political Report‘s Amy Walter, is a pretty good statement of the media wisdom of the moment:
At the end of the day, when you put all the assets and liabilities on the table, it’s hard to see anyone but Rubio, Bush or Walker as the ultimate nominee. Sure, one of them could stumble or come up short in a key early state. It’s also highly likely that someone like Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and even Perry could win in Iowa. But, when you look at the candidate vulnerabilities instead of just their assets, these are the three who are the most likely to win over the largest share of the GOP electorate.
Nothing Walter says here is wrong. And I don’t mean to single her out—I’ve seen and heard other reporters say the same thing, that Bush, Walker, and Rubio comprise the “top tier.” I’ve written some similar things, even predicting that Bush will probably be the nominee. So I’m part of the problem too.
This judgment isn’t arbitrary—there are perfectly good reasons for making it, based on the candidates’ records, abilities, and appeals, and the history of GOP primary contests. But it does set up an unfair situation, where someone who hasn’t been declared in that top tier has to work harder to get reporters’ attention. Or at least the right kind of attention, the kind that doesn’t come wrapped in the implication that their candidacy is futile.
The candidates who aren’t put in that top tier find themselves in a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to escape from. Because they’re talked about dismissively by the media, it becomes hard to convince donors to give them money, and hard to convince voters to consider them. They end up running into a lot of “I like him, but I need to go with someone who has a real shot.” Their more limited resources keep their poll numbers down, which keeps their media attention scarce, which keeps their support down, and around and around. The media’s prophecy is self-fulfilling.
That isn’t to say that it’s impossible for a candidate who isn’t granted a higher level of attention by the press to find a way to break through. It happens from time to time; Howard Dean in 2004 is a good example of someone who wasn’t considered top tier to begin with, but was able to work his way into it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a crazy free-for-all where there wasn’t a real top tier for most of the time; the race was led in the polls at one time or another by five different candidates. Any one of them might have held on if they hadn’t been such clowns.
Nevertheless, the press has now decided that the only candidates who are worth giving extended attention to are Bush, Rubio, and Walker. As I said, there are justifiable reasons for that judgment, and they do it for their internal reasons as well—most news organizations don’t have the budget to assign a reporter to each of ten different candidates, for instance, and if they assign a reporter on a semi-permanent basis to only three or four candidates, then there are going to be many more stories written about them than about the others. However understandable, though, the granting of that elevated status is like an in-kind contribution worth tens of millions of dollars, whether it’s truly deserved or not.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 24, 2015
“The Distracting Game Of Mirrors”: How To Survive The Hillary Hype; Liberal Dreams And The Media’s Big Elizabeth Warren Trap
Hillary Clinton is reportedly set to end the biggest non-mystery in American politics today by announcing her presidential candidacy. But even as we learn that she’s running, along with when and how she’ll make the announcement (via social media and video, we’re told, on Sunday afternoon), it seems the only actual mystery about the race will remain unsolved: How does Clinton propose to restart the engines of American opportunity that built a broad middle class after World War II, which began to sputter and fail over the last 30 years?
With neither a grand thematic backdrop for an announcement – Seneca Falls? Ferguson? McAllen, Tex.? Outside a small-city McDonald’s during a fast food workers’ strike? – nor a big address to outline the themes of her campaign, Clinton will leave defining what she stands for to the media for a little while, at least, and that’s risky. So far, journalists only seem able to define Clinton in contrast to a past or future opponent, asking whether she’ll attack President Obama (it’s a dumb media given that she has to), distance herself from her husband, the popular former president, or push back against the economic populism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, even without Warren in the race.
If that limbo is risky for Clinton, it’s even more dangerous for progressives. As we wait to find out how Clinton will respond to the increasingly populist pulse of her party’s base, we’re beset by substitute, over-personalized storylines, heavy on drama but light on issues: Will Clinton co-opt the Warren wing of the party, or will she stand up to it? Is she going to rebuke Wall Street, a la Warren, or offer succor?
We’ve even got a surrogate battle of Ivy League economists: Is she closer to Harvard’s Raj Chetty, whose studies of upward mobility focus on how to restore it (which is said to be a more optimistic, plutocrat-friendly analysis), or Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz, who recently wrote, in an essay shared with the Clinton team, that an effective economic policy must go beyond incremental policies like raising the minimum wage and improving education, to include “redistribution” of income – a once-routine assumption of public policy that now sounds like communism to a lot of business-oriented Democrats. (For the record, Clinton has met with both men.)
Without a Clinton challenger – and specifically, without Warren – most of the media struggle to explain what will matter to Democrats in the race. Witness this bizarre exchange between CBS’s Charlie Rose and Warren herself last week. Exasperated at Warren’s failure either to declare her own candidacy or critique Clinton’s, the respected interviewer – the “Charlie Rose” brand has long stood for substance, at least – began to badger the senator for more “specifics” about her agenda – after she’d already talked about reducing student loan interest rates and hiking the minimum wage.
ROSE: It’s hard to get to you be more specific. You talk about the Democratic Party’s a fluid thing and is going here and there and it’s always changing. But we want you to really-
WARREN: I’m sorry, what was nonspecific about let’s reduce the interest rate on student loans to 3.89%?
ROSE: You’ve been saying that in a lot of different–
WARREN: I’m there.
ROSE: I know. You’ve been saying that in a lot of different places and that’s a very specific position.
WARREN: And I have supported our efforts to try to get the minimum wage—
ROSE: And you say, well—
WARREN: I’ve supported it at $10.10. I would support it at a higher number. And I’m willing to sit down and negotiate with those who are willing to raise the minimum wage.
ROSE: What we’re trying to understand is that you represent — you really have become the voice of a wing of the Democratic Party, and maybe all of the party. What we want to know is where does Elizabeth Warren want to see this party go?
WARREN: Oh golly, how could you not know?
ROSE: In terms of minimum wage. In terms of income inequality. In terms of a whole range of things.
WARREN: I’m ready.
ROSE: You’re ready to tell them where you are and where you think the country…And where you differ from former Secretary of State Clinton. Why can’t you tell us that? Why isn’t that interest in the interest of a full debate about the future of the country, the future of the Democratic Party and who the nominee ought to be?
WARREN: Charlie, I’ll tell you where I stand on all of the key issues. It’s up to others to say whether they stand there as well or they stand in some different place. I’ll tell you where I stand on minimum wage. I’ll tell you where I stand on equal pay for equal work. I’ll tell you where I stand on expanding—
ROSE: Name me one thing you would like to see — name me one thing that you would like to see Hillary Clinton do and say and commit to that she has not committed to?
In fact, Warren has laid out her agenda in an eight-point plan to restore the middle class, which includes a minimum wage hike, protecting and expanding Social Security, strengthening labor laws, restoring a more progressive tax code, and building infrastructure. Similar ideas are in the “Ready for Boldness” statement the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is organizing around (Senators Harry Reid and Al Franken are among 5,000 Democrats who’ve signed their names to the statement), trying to “incentivize” Clinton to move to the left. PCCC leaders recently met with members of Clinton’s campaign team.
But if journalists can’t frame these ideas in terms of someone “attacking” Hillary Clinton, they’re not interested, and they’ll insist there’s no progressive agenda.
Meanwhile, frustrated in their efforts to gin up a fight between two popular Democratic women, some will find surrogates elsewhere that let them frame the narrative in terms of “centrist” Clinton facing down and “taming” progressive critics – or being tamed by them. Politico gave us an example this week with “Rahm shows Hillary how to tame the left.”
As Elias Isquith explained, however, the piece took itself apart, as it argued that Emanuel won because he co-opted progressive ideas, not because he ran away from them. Still, it was framed as a “lesson” for Clinton to thumb her nose at the party’s base. Let’s hope she’s not listening.
There are real divisions among Democrats – and maybe even within the Clinton camp – over both tone and substance when it comes to economic policy. Personally, I’m with Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote in an essay shared with the Clinton campaign:
The increase in inequality and the decrease in equality of opportunity have reached the point where minor fixes — such as modest increases in the minimum wage and continuing to strive to improve education and educational opportunity — will not suffice. A far more comprehensive approach to the problem is required, entailing redistribution and doing what one can to improve the market distribution of income and to prevent the unfair transmission of advantage across generations.
But we have no evidence that Clinton herself disagrees, and progressives should ignore the distracting game of mirrors the media will continue to play with the Democratic frontrunner and her base. Personally, I’m not seeing Sunday as the kick-off to Clinton’s campaign (though there are reports that her announcement tweets will deal with issues). That will come when she begins to outline her own substantive agenda for closing the widening income and opportunity divide.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, April 12, 2015