Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


It's a whole new world out there.

On the day that the estimable TBogg hangs up his spurs, I write about a "lecture" I saw last night by Maureen Orth - Vanity Fair journalist and Tim Russert's widow - and Chuck Todd.

The lecture was about media and politics.  Orth made a long and whiny argument about the encroachment of new media on traditional media.  Basically, she was making the case for elite media.  She even brought up David Broder as a counterweight to Nate Silver.  She felt twitter and tumblr were fine for those poor wretches over in the duskier lands, but Americans needed respectable journalists to tell them what was going on.

Todd tended to be more diplomatic in his comments about new media, but that only gave him the appearance of vacillating.

While Todd decried the Gawker method of journalism - and the idea that clicks and traffic is the measure of a story is a poor one - he failed to note that the results that he condemned - salacious, prurient news leading - is as old as Heart and Pulitzer.  Before Gawker, we still had Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers and Donna Rice.  "If it bleeds, it leads" predates TMZ.

Todd basically predicted the death of the daily local newspaper.  I would agree that the newspaper as we know it is doomed.  There will still be national newspapers like the Times, the Post and the Journal, but the local papers will become less and less.

The implications are two fold.

First is the local effect.  This is the downside.  I find the DC press to be pretty lame.  Todd tried to lay that off on the Internet, but the fact is David Broder never broke a story that I can remember, and Woodward and Bernstein only broke Watergate, because they didn't know any better.  Journalists may have once been proud to be on Nixon's Enemies List, but no one wants to lose access to a source on the Hill by reporting things which are overly critical.

But there is infinitely more corruption and graft at the local level than at the national level.  Stop-and-frisk is a much more serious invasion of our civil liberties than the NSA programs, and luckily NYC has several viable newspapers to report on that.  A similar program in, say, Indianapolis or Houston is unlikely to get the same scrutiny.  If you want to look at the value of local papers, look at the work the New Orleans Times-Picayune did during and after Katrina.

Losing papers at the local level will greatly impede the role of journalism as government watchdog.

Secondly, the effect at the national level is likely to be a net gain.

Orth actually held up David Broder going door to door in Iowa as an exemplar of the sort of journalism that should be done.  All that does is give a sense of what people in a handful of neighborhoods in a homogeneous state feels.  Did Mr. Broder go into the rough neighborhoods of Charleston, SC?  Did he venture into rural hamlets?  Probably not.  He brought his own interpretation of middle class verities to bear on his "interviews".

What Nate Silver did was accurately look at what the electorate was saying about itself in the macro sense.  Silver and the other poll aggregators were - as Silver's book explains - separating the signal from the noise.  Broder and the DC press tended to give too much weight to pollsters like Gallup, because Gallup was old and venerable.  But Gallup is actually a pretty lousy pollster for accuracy, as Silver and his ilk have pointed out.  And Rasmussen is a joke.

But in the "salons of Georgetown" Gallup was the gold standard and PPP was partisan.  Except PPP has been the gold standard if what you care about is accuracy.  The reliance on Gallup is a good example of unexamined group think.  The DC media's marching lockstep into Iraq in 2003 would be another.  The constant harping on l'affair de Lewinsky yet another.

I left before I could ask my question, because I could tell I was not going to get an answer that did anything but upset me.  But the critique of This Town is that the courtier press is too close to the power structures of DC to accurately call them to task.  Political reporters in DC are part of the same structures of permanent government that has no interest in examining the bigger questions.  Hence the horse race coverage of elections, rather than delving into issues.

If the local press is dying for lack of resources, the DC press is dying for lack of guts.

Both instances lend itself to a weakening of the role of the Fourth Estate as watchdog.

But whereas commentary has improved with the internet - Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Alex Pareene all got their starts online - there is a deleterious effect on the day to day reportage.

The solution was acknowledged last night.

Longer form journalism will still thrive.

The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic will still produce investigatory pieces.  It was Jane Mayer in The New Yorker who began to peel back the secrecy of the torture regime.  It was Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone who exposed the banksters.

The question is: can we find that level of reportage at the local level.

That's the critical question.

Not how to bring back the journalistic world of David Broder.


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