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Think Again: When ‘Journalism’ Became ‘Liberalism’: Remembering Jack Germond

Jack Germond

SOURCE: AP Photo/Random House, David Burnett

This undated publicity image released by Random House shows journalist Jack W. Germond. Germond was a columnist and pundit who covered 10 presidential elections and sparred with colleagues on TV's "The McLaughlin Group."

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Veteran journalist Jack Germond died last week at age 85. Virtually all of his obituaries mourned the passing of not only a dedicated, hardworking, and “fat” fun fellow but also a political liberal. As the Associated Press obituary read, “Germond became arguably the best known of the ‘Boys,’ thanks to his irascible appearances on ‘The McLaughlin Group,’ where he offered a liberal alternative to conservative host John McLaughlin and fellow panelist Robert D. Novak.”

Calling Germond a liberal, however, not only misses the point, but it also misleads the reader about Germond and about the role of journalism in general. To be honest, the AP obit was not bad in other respects. It terms Germond to be “emblematic of his generation of Washington journalists: He was friendly with the politicians he covered, and he cultivated relationships with political insiders during late-night poker games and whiskey-fueled bull sessions.” It credits him as a “walking encyclopedia on politics and politicians,” quoting his friend Walter Mears, who was also formerly the AP’s political writer. Mears said, “He worked the telephones — before they were cellphones — and the opening usually was pretty much the same: What do you hear? His style of political reporting was an art form. Sadly, it is becoming a lost art.”

The fact is that Germond was not a liberal. He was a no-nonsense, unsentimental reporter. When the truth of a given story, as he understood it, pushed him in a liberal direction, he was not shy about saying so. Ditto when it did not. But by the time Germond became known to the general public as a cast member on “The McLaughlin Group” at the height of the Reagan era in the mid-1980s, merely examining any issue from a nonideological position was equated with being a liberal.

I discerned the transformation that was taking place while writing my first book, a history of punditry called Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, which I began writing in 1989 and published originally in 1992. Here is how I described Germond’s role on the program:

Baltimore Sun veteran Jack Germond rounded out the group, rolling his eyes upward and gently subverting the gravitas with which the others called for an immediate declaration of war over this outrage against the common decency or that insult to all Americans. Germond played along with the rest of the boys when the subject was politics. He remains the kind of reporter [Robert] Novak once was, devoting himself to the minutiae of the political system. Germond’s distaste for ideological politics, coupled with [Morton] Kondracke’s conversion [to conservatism], has allowed the others to cast him as “the liberal” in the discussion, when in fact he is no such thing. Germond is a pure pragmatist. He may have some sympathy for old-style liberal programs, but he is much more likely to look at things as they are and say “Why?” than to look at them as they never were and say “Why not?” He also left [“The McLaughlin Group”] in the late 1990s, apparently no longer able to bear its host.

The value of casting an apolitical fixer as the show’s liberal during the Reagan era was considerable, as it severed the legs of any truly liberal alternative without any further discussion. Few developments were more helpful to Ronald Reagan’s effort to de-legitimize liberal solutions to America’s problems than the growth of conservative-dominated television punditocracy. With Novak, [Pat] Buchanan, and later [Fred] Barnes attacking from the Right, and Kondracke agreeing from the so-called Left, Ronald Reagan’s brand of genial reaction came to appear downright reasonable. Centrist solutions became liberal by virtue of the show’s skewed political geography, and truly liberal ideas were marginalized entirely.

Unapologetic liberals were occasionally trotted out as guests, but they often sounded as if they were filing from another planet. What reasoned reply can be offered to a panel member who insisted that black teenagers were unemployed because “these kids don’t want to work,” or that the only way to deal with Muammar Khadaffi was to “slit his throat with no fingerprints,” or that the reason the National Organization of Women differed so strongly with the administration was because the group was “twenty-five percent lesbian”? To even engage these issues on such far-out ideological territory is to admit defeat. … When historians one day seek to understand how George Bush and Lee Atwater succeeded in making “liberalism” a dirty political word in 1988, they will need to look no further than the tapes of five upper-middle-class white guys sitting around a television studio talking about how black families “are just going to have to stop relying on government and politics to solve [their] problems.”

This process has been going on for roughly 40 years, with precious little awareness in the mainstream media. Over and over, the goalposts have been moved rightward so that prominent Republicans such as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole note that not even Ronald Reagan could get the Republican presidential nomination these days. And as Samuel Smith aptly noted in 2011, a politician with former President Richard Nixon’s policies would today be considered a far-left Democrat. As recently as August 21, The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky identified yet another example in which rumored reports of right-wing Republicans’ alleged “move” to the center is evidence only of the center moving closer to their own off-the-wall, ideologically driven obsessions that no one could even have imagined when Jack Germond was fighting off his moronic opposition on “The McLaughlin Group.” As for the commonly stated belief that the so-called liberal media dominate coverage and skew American politics toward liberal positions, allow me to recommend this fine piece of work that appeared on the Daily Kos website titled “15 things everyone would know if there were a liberal media.” (A man can dream…)

Consider finally the manner in which Germond decided to end his career. He became disgusted with the 2000 election campaign, which, he said, he found “odious,” lacking in substance, and too depressing to spend his time covering. Yet as Tomasky notes 13 years later, “How much worse can [things] get? A lot.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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