The Political Press Has Failed Us: A Eulogy

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The Political Press Has Failed Us: A Eulogy

The weirdness of this political season demonstrates how banal our mainstream press has become. In their writing and thinking, orthodox journalists fall back on cliché. Aiming for respectability has made them unworthy of respect. If we glimpsed this contest in its full peacocking splendor, we would go blind. And the election is only halfway over.

In my previous essays, I discussed how the Democratic party transformed itself from the world’s oldest political coalition into a collectible card game of corporate Pokémon, and I analyzed how William Kristol, mayor-for-life at many reasonably-priced District steakhouses, got Republican business done on Twitter, which is to say, not at all. This week, I’m going to cover our uncanny election, and explain how and why the media dropped the ball. Twenty years from now, the Wall Street Journal will be three columns of trending listicles.

THE FRENEMY WITHIN

My favorite primary happening — it’s so hard to pick one — was the alliance between Cruz and Kasich on April 24. This was the partnership that dizzied me. Not Fiorina-Cruz, the team-up of every kind of human disgust possible. That was like two medieval poisons ending up in the same Renaissance Pope: as eventual and predictable as Velvet Jesus paintings in a shed. No. Cruz-Kasich was my Woodstock. No matter that it fell apart barely four days later. It was a Precious Moment unlike any ever crafted in porcelain, stone, or whalebone. I’d write “it boggled the mind,” but the mind has been boggled by everything else during the election season that the biggest reaction this fact could scare up from me was a staggering “I see,” similar to finding out Confederate money was used by Florida fathers to pay for lifestyle snakes. Cruz and Kasich, the image of a ship of onions colliding with a ship of rats. Cruz and Kasich, whose alliance was writ on water. That confirmed for me that whatever the hell is calling itself God is up to something, and it is just going to blow our collective beautiful minds when it’s all done, I bet.

What drew me to the eerie marriage? It was not merely that Kasich, hunter of Fargo, had decided to ally himself with the raw, buzzing face of reptile entropy, but that he had done so in such a desperate, grim-faced way. It was like the building climax of a Disney teen show, where two preppy girls pledge their troth to deny the up-and-comer transfer student from the darkest hills of Illinois her shot at prom queen glory. What in the name of Moloch did they hope to achieve with their patently music-hall bit of grab-ass? Did they really think Trump would have been so easily turned aside? Donald isn’t MySpace or Clarence Thomas, who we can ignore until they both evaporate with the fresh morning dew. He’s more like Scalia, capable of being a divisive pain in Republic’s ass even in his spectral form. No wonder their covenant ended just as soon as it began: it was an agreement between a Midwestern sitcom-Dad and the slithering Other that all of our fantasy novels since Tolkien have warned us about. What possibly could have gone wrong?

More astounding still, this was the honest-to-God last act of two men who have spent years of their lives thirsting for the throne — this was their optimum endgame, a last-gasp hustle by a pair of desperate mountain climbers holding a single gun with two bullets. If this ninth-inning prayer is the best we can expect from two supposedly slick operators of government power, what happens when China decides it’s going to steal the secret AI we keep in the federal caves? What future could Kasich have spied for himself out of the misty fogs of time? Was he blind to Cruz’s prehensile tail and swiveling jaw, capable of swallowing Muslim toddlers in one smooth motion? There was simply no precedent for the event. There was precedent on how to cover it, though.

In 1989, Tom Wolfe wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine titled “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Wolfe took modern American novelists to task for failing to engage with the hallucinogenic absurdity of their own country. In between bouts of self-congratulation and shilling for literary realism, Wolfe wrote: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

In 2006, The Economist published a clever riff on the same idea, fiction being outpaced by fact. The magazine sympathized with Wolfe, saying that writers had been “ignoring the best story around—their own country. America positively pullulates with fantastic stories.” However, the trouble with being Zola “is that you immediately expose yourself to being trumped by reality … satire pales into insignificance” compared with reality. Of course, the magazine was quick to add, “This is not a vote in favour of the sort of literary navel-gazing that Mr. Wolfe condemned. But it is a warning that it is almost impossible to outdo reality in a country as richly bizarre as the United States. Perhaps writers should leave those unfinished novels locked up in the drawer—and content themselves instead with the humble craft of journalism.” I heartily agree with the Economist. We are in metaphysical concord, like a pair of lawyers going to hell at the same time.

When 2015-2016 dawned, it seemed like a perfect time to follow The Economist’s commandment. This has been a lurid parade of acts no novelist could have gotten away with, much as Aaron Sorkin would never have dared to write the Florida Recount. It was the right moment for political writing to fulfill the prophecy. Was the occasion met? No.

I’LL TRY SPINNING, THAT’S A GOOD TRICK

Local reporters, niche writers, and independent journalists do excellent work. But when we lift our eyes to the higher echelons, strange habits start to appear in the writing. “This is how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the same person,” Jonathan Capehart wrote. “These two stubborn outsiders believe they are their campaign’s best political mind. And the damage that outsized and misplaced view of their capabilities has done on their respective quests for the White House is plainly apparent.” The first statement is blatantly false, the second is debatable for Sanders, and the third is ludicrous: Trump is currently the Lord High Executioner of the Republican party, and Bernie is leading the biggest left insurgency since McGovern. Paul Starr wrote an article for Politico titled “Why Democrats Should Beware Sanders’ Socialism” A socialist? Like Eisenhower, right?

Clinton’s victory, wrote The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, “constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.” What? Nixon lost a general election to Kennedy in 1960, then Pat Brown beat him by five points for the California governorship in 1962. The GOP, following Goldwater, left Tricky Dick’s corpse under an overpass, ready to be devoured by hungry-hungry bridge hobos after Jack and Lyndon finished kicking him. It took a war, a riot, two bullets, and the City of Chicago to bring Nixon back. Since her election as Senator in 2000, there has been no time in the last sixteen years, including the Obama presidency, when Secretary Clinton was not the prospective candidate-in-waiting.

Writing about Trump, Adam Gopnik didn’t quite call him a fascist, but quoted an obscure figure rarely mentioned on the Internet — Adolf Hitler — to write of the Orangeman: “But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was.” Gopnik’s article wasn’t a Gopnik article — until that sentence. Trump isn’t Hitler. He isn’t Mussolini. He’s barely Berlusconi – Il Cavaliere, after all, is a successful businessman.

“Of course Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” wrote Rebecca Traister. Well, who is? Jumping on Hillary’s ridiculous 9/11-happened-to-Wall-Street conflation, Paul Street wrote in Counterpunch that Hillary and her handlers, by using fundraising tactics which mentioned the tragedy, lacked “a basic ethical sense of this as a sociopathic tactic.” In bad taste, sure — but sociopathic? People who actually have antisocial personality disorder are good at short-term cons but not twenty-year hustles. The sociopaths I’ve met have trouble holding down a job. What is more likely: that Hillary is a criminal supervillain operating on Littlefingerian levels who has orchestrated fraud, murder, and thievery on a huge scale — or that she is an ambitious, middle-of-the-road Midwestern Boomer yuppie, whose emotional reserve and lack of people skills send the wrong message? In the same article, Street uses the words “milquetoast socialist Sanders.” Two of those words are inaccurate.

When Rachel Lu wrote “But I still entertain the hope that Trumpism will be the forest fire that makes a thousand flowers bloom,” was she serious? Alex Griswold at Mediaite, taking issue with the press’ pouncing on Senator Cruz’s anti-sex-toy policy, wrote “It’s an amusing story, but one that offers exactly zero insight into what positions Cruz actually supports.” Zero insight, really? A career in media analysis is the modern equivalent of reading goose entrails. There are dozens of Americans making a living poring over the triflingest celebrity tweets. Right this second. HuffPo flat-out declared, in a headline rich with subtle emotional shading, “The Bernie Sanders Campaign Didn’t Matter.”

Lest you suspect me of cherry-picking, the sharper members of the press corps realized something was amiss. When Christine Pazzanese of the Harvard Gazette reviewed the Fourth Estate’s showings over the last year or so, the kindest words she could muster were: “Long-held assumptions about how to win have been upended … When it comes to the business of reporting on politics, however, some things haven’t changed.” After noting the media is regularly attacked for “a perceived decline in substantive reporting,” she added “some longtime political journalists say that while the profession certainly has its share of lapses, good and important work still is being done.” Pazzanese quotes the former editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (Class of ’76), as saying “I detect a real feeling of press failure in this election cycle … Why, when I turn on CNN, isn’t there on-the-ground footage, more talking to voters, rather than just another set of people arguing? We can do better … Especially in political reporting, a lot of what we the media focus on just … doesn’t touch people, it isn’t part of their daily concerns.”

Speaking of turned-on CNN and touching people, their Washington bureau chief Sam Feist is quoted in the same article: “There’s something happening in this country that has caused an interest among Americans in this election. I’m not going to pretend to know what it is, but it’s not restricted to the Republican side.” Bold words, sir.

At least Feist is honest enough to admit he has no idea what in the holy days of Unitarian Halloween is going on. And this is, of course, the problem: The Economist’s “humble craft of journalism” does not understand what is happening to it. As usual, Wolfe was wrong about the arts but right about the problem.

EVERY DAY WE STRAY FURTHER FROM MURROW’S LIGHT

The real issue with journalism is not that it is conservative or liberal, or even, as much as it pains me to write these words, too corporate. Rather, it is mild, grey, and housebroken. Here’s what ninety percent of the media I read this year said: Bernie is our rescuer, Bernie is a spoiler, Hillary is our salvation, Hillary is a crook, Trump is a fascist, Trump is a hero, Cruz is a lizard, Cruz is a serial killer, or, occasionally, “I am too cool for any of this.”

Even the deliberately edgy are swimming in the same general tide. Consider the career of Chuck C. Johnson, Twitter’s “far-right mega-troll” (as The Washington Post called him). Johnson intimated that gay magic had somehow derailed Amtrak, asked for money to “take out” a civil rights activist, and appeared to be from a branch of the Weasley family who had summered in Chernobyl. On closer inspection, he turned out to be the real world equivalent of a person-sized red-bearded cat — a Bostonian liberal arts grad hiding in Fresno, paranoid, jumping at the shadow of Mother Jones reporters. His petty campaigns were offensive, crude, and utterly, thoroughly predictable. This guy was the edgiest, mangriest paragon of whoa-buddy “journalism.” What does that say about us?

I have a theory. Let’s take the biggest media story of the past week. Supposedly, the flaw of Gawker is that it is shameless and petty. But the real downfall of Gawker was that its pettiness and shamelessness was of the smallest, least ambitious kind, a Friendster level of desire. If Gawker had been as ferociously hungry to dig into the private life of celebrities as they claim, they would have investigated why Hulk Hogan was on that tape to begin with. They would have asked, did Hogan know about the tape? Or was he indifferent, for once in his life, to being filmed? They would have found out, long before it was discussed in court, just why Hogan said, heartbreakingly, of the people who filmed him, “I was depressed. I gave up and gave in. I felt that those people loved me.”

At any point during this process, Gawker might have rethought their actions, or been cleverer about them, or mounted the kind of crusade on Hulk’s behalf that they mustered for Jennifer Lawrence. Or they would have thrown away the tape, or done any one of twenty better things with it. If this sounds unlikely, remember that the ongoing Kardashian saga began with the Kardashian sex tape, but did not stay there. The American people, God help us, stayed around to watch everything else in their life. If our interaction with the Kris Jenner and her brood had stopped with Kim’s adventures in 2007, most of us would still know nothing about the family. When was the last time you heard people talk obsessively about Tommy Lee and Pamela? A tape is a tape, unless it’s more.

My grandfather, a shrewd judge of character, used to say that a truly avaricious man, a person whose sole desire was greed, would be utterly law-abiding and totally honest. The glutton and gourmet are completely different, although we say both are obsessed with food. The glutton consumes indiscriminately — whatever is at arm’s length will do. The gourmet’s dedication to eating is of a much higher level. The glutton does not love food enough to take it seriously. The gourmet does.

The fact is, Gawker is not shameless or petty enough. They lack the cunning and control of the truly predatory; they operated according to half-formed bovine impulses which they neither understood nor wanted to understand. Eventually they fell into the jaws of Thiel, and the rest, as they say, is comment history. To be truly petty is to be obsessed by smallness, to search infinite treasure in a little space, to be a stickler, to be watchful, obsessive, hair-splitting. Gawker stopped at the middle-sized details – this man, this location, this day — and lacked the courage to go even smaller, or to even ask why.

They showed the same lack of aspiration when it came to shamelessness. Real shamelessness is operatic; it requires Wall Street-size indifference to the environment around you. Gawker bought into the chintziest, most fleeting kind of spectacle; if they had truly been without shame, they would have asked even more questions. If Gawker Media been in charge of China’s Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard would have been a ten-minute flash mob with Taboo buzzers barnstorming a Chick-Fil-A in Poughkeepsie. Gawker is to “dangerous” journalism as Caesar’s Palace is to the Caesars of Rome: a hustler who raves to dive bar lushes how he could go toe-to-toe with Pacquiao.

Gawker is tedious. But this need not be so. Mass things are usually not boring. The Beatles are not dull, Hamilton is not dull, Mad Max: Fury Road is not dull, dogs are not dull. Who among us has not been dazzled by the flashy staying power of the rat, and they are as common as starlight and bones in the ocean. Yet Gawker, which is designed for a mass audience just as Fury Road was, is powerfully numb. We find examples of this unnatural dreariness up and down the Fourth Estate: I don’t just mean noted traveling mustaches like Thomas Friedman, but even your blue-ribbon Doctors of the Republic, like E.J. Dionne and Maureen Dowd. When was the last time any of them surprised you? Practically the only thing that rouses them is when a member of the court dies. The most far-out fever dreams of the press are Rotarian next to what happens on the outside.

So why is the mainstream press so crippled in its capacities? Is it because journalists stopped drinking (as much)? Is it because of corporatization? Is it because most of the time journalists are welded to the telephone, not out among the plebs? Or is it something else?

Journalists are aware they write the first draft of history, to use the complacent phrase. This self-consciousness does nobody any favors. Lyndon Johnson used to say: “While you’re trying to save face, you’ll lose your ass.” The journalism business is a junkie for saving face, and it shows. The modern media yearns to speak for the ages and so does not speak to our age. There is a congenital mildness to the entire industry. Sites like Gawker are finishing schools for emotions and thoughts you are already familiar with. When the media offends, it offends in predictable ways, and when it pleases it pleases in the typical manner, as regular in its machinery as the raw character-killing schedule of TV’s Joss Whedon.

Gawkerism infects our culture. The alt-right burbles about being politically incorrect and not being chained by convention, but they never say anything which would truly shock our politics; they basically engage in rehashing old, moth-eaten prejudices, merely to offend the massively powerful Tumblr branch of government. There are never calls to have the Mongol Khan return to power, or to give dolphins the vote, or suggestions that our cousins the bonobos practice the one true religion, or campaigns to drive all left-handed people into the sea, or a hundred other truly ghastly positions. When many of my friends on the left want to put the system on trial, they do exactly what is expected of them: bang drums, wear crazy outfits, and write gigantic signs. They’ve never taken Matt Taibbi’s advice about the one thing that would really shake Middle America:

… Uniforms. Three hundred thousand people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie scares no one in America. But 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry in the direction of Your Town, would have instantly necessitated a new cabinet-level domestic security agency. Why? Because 300,000 people who are capable of showing the unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march.

It even would give Putin the rolling shivers. I am not accusing any of these groups of hypocrisy; I am accusing them of lacking imagination, which is worse. In the same way, the mainstream press aims to be stately and “realistic,” when it should just be accurate.

YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US

Before he appeared in Spotlight, Michael Keaton starred in the greatest journalism movie of them all, The Paper, which gets much closer to what working in a newspaper office is like than All The President’s Men. In one scene, Alicia (Glenn Close), playing a blonde managing editor with expensive tastes, hears a story from the editor-in-chief, Bernie (Robert Duvall), about how, when he was covering the Olympics, he and a flock of other feckless reporters ran up an expensive bill at a fancy restaurant, only to get rescued by, of all people, Picasso. Alicia laughs, looks at him and says:

ALICIA: Well, I’m not sure I caught the segue here, Bernie.
BERNIE: Well, the people we cover – we move in their world but it is their world. You can’t live like them, Alicia. You’ll never keep up. Now, if you try and make this job about the money, you’ll be nothing but miserable, because we don’t get the money – never have, never will.

In their desire to be part of the game, high-end media orbits in a sphere that is not truly theirs. In 1911, Will Irwin wrote in Collier’s that “The newspaper should be a gentleman.” He claimed reporters’ behavior had improved despite the yellow journalism of yesteryear, and why? Because more reporters and editors had college degrees. The calling was becoming respectable.

And here we have the problem. It is less professionalization, and more respectability, has doomed mainstream media. It annexes them to the establishment, makes them co-conspirators. It lifted them to move in the same circles as the elite they cover and rendered them creatures of the same. I am not worried about journalists and statesmen being at the same parties; I am concerned that they are thinking the same thoughts.

In public life, there are unexpected events – outside context problems and black swans. In bad sports journalism, when these crises occur, the boys in the bullpen usually don’t know how to handle it, so they scatter around, seeking lame prefab terms to meet deadline and eventually, if luck is with them, decay into Rick Reilly and silently, persistently plead for death. In such situations, the cracks begin to show. We are seeing such a moment happen in political journalism, and the results are the same.

The oddity of this cultural moment should not be underestimated. I am not discussing a small-scale John Oliver-like reaction of “Come on, it’s 2016, people!” Not at all. What I am saying is this: if we properly understood this election, we wouldn’t even use John Oliver or the Gregorian time scale as reference points. I don’t mean that this election is a prelude to the dark night of fascism or neo-Clintonism or the rise of the werewolves, but that this election is so new we don’t have points of reference. We must think and see from new angles.

We live in a world where Ralph Nader, eternal scrub of 2000, just gave an interview where he kooked out a warbling lament for a world where publishing houses of Irish jokebooks can no longer turn a profit. Bill Clinton used to rain down bombs on pharmaceutical factories between rounds of golf. Three weeks ago he spent half an hour of his remaining life bar debating a Bernie supporter in a booth. In the past-the-looking-glass waters where we currently sail, far farther than the Dawn Treader ever dared, there is no England to breed Olivers of the John variety. The aforementioned Taibbi gets it, writing about Donald’s attack on Cruz:

American politics had never seen anything like this: a presidential candidate derided as a haggardly masturbating incarnation of Satan, the son of a presidential assassin’s accomplice, and himself an infamous uncaptured serial killer.

In his biographical film “Lincoln,” Spielberg and screenwriter Kushner have the main character (hint: Lincoln) say to General Grant “I never seen the like of it before. What I seen today. Never seen the like of it before.” Although Father Abraham matriculated on hookworm farms in a time when hand-tooled hog butchering wasn’t just necessary but considered a form of playdate, his words have the ring of truth for those of us in the mad future time.

Meanwhile, those high members of the mainstream press, if I may quote the poet Enya, have sailed away, sailed away, sailed away. Stalin said, “Writers are the engineers of human souls.” Guilty as charged, Comrade Killsabunch! But today polite society engineers the writers. The higher up you go, the more wiring they put into you. Respectability made the press dull. It paints Gawker’s brand of timid clickbait as extreme and daring, when it is neither. To write with an eye towards the future is dandy, but not at the price of forgetting today. Respectability forces us to think in timid, pre-approved ways. It breeds invisible controls in action and dull habits in thinking. It is said that the worst thing you can be in Britain is boring, and worst fault in America is to be inauthentic, and today, the press has achieved both.

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