Our Trivial Political Media, Continued…

Politico encapsulates what’s wrong with inside-the-beltway political coverage when triviality trumps insight and “The Donald” is taken seriously.

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Donald Trump arrives for the opening ceremony at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois. Trump has deleted some of the Twitter tirade he posted following President Barack Obama's reelection and added new critiques of NBC's Brian Williams. (AP/David J. Phillip)
Donald Trump arrives for the opening ceremony at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Illinois. Trump has deleted some of the Twitter tirade he posted following President Barack Obama's reelection and added new critiques of NBC's Brian Williams. (AP/David J. Phillip)

I turn away from the euphoria of the post-election moment to mention the current issue of the newly-revived journal, The Baffler, which contains a fascinating long-form dissection of the underlying ethos—both professional and ideological—of two web (and occasionally print) publications that have lately set the pace for the rest of the insider political media: Politico and Buzzfeed. At more than 6,300 words, author Alex Pareene makes many more points than I can profitably summarize here—and you can easily read the article for yourselves. Go ahead: It’s right here, and I’ll be happy to wait for you to read the whole thing and then come back to consider my take on one aspect of the argument about what these publications—particularly Politico—are doing to our political debate.

Though I’m drawn by the many excellent points Pareene’s essay makes regarding Politico’s tendency to pander to right-wing ideologues, I want to discuss The Baffler’s enthusiastic embrace of Politico’s focus on political triviality. I did my own investigation of the issue of press coverage of the 2012 election, finding that triviality was very much at the center of that coverage. But I did not have the space to properly dissect the debilitating effects of Politico’s reduction of crucial differences in policy and ideology to matters of insignificant minutiae.

Even leaving aside the constant—though sometimes nuanced—conservative reverence, such coverage cannot be justified on the basis of the simplest common-sense analysis. Politico rarely does anything to illuminate the issues, clarify the questions facing voters, or even shed much light on the characters of the respective candidates—any of which is usually the justification for such contentless coverage.

Instead, this “news” gets reported because it’s there—because it flatters someone’s ego or because it might produce a few page views or perhaps a faux debate on cable news. These stories hardly ever relate to any question or issue facing a prospective voter, instead building the strange, internal narrative formed by a combination of the participants (and would-be participants) themselves.

When I mentioned in The Nation, for instance, that unforgettable George Pataki presidential candidacy, I lacked the space to note that Politico’s Maggie Haberman covered the former New York governor’s “withdrawal” from the race by writing that sources had confirmed that, “Former New York Gov. George Pataki has decided not to seek the Republican nomination for president.” She had a great deal of trouble explaining, however, why she was bothering to say so. The balance of Haberman’s story ran thusly: “It’s hard to say what, if any, impact this has on the GOP primaries. Few believed until this month that Pataki was really serious about getting into the race. And even then, it wasn’t obvious where the moderate, pro-environment, abortion rights-supporting Pataki would find a niche in the field.”

Well, yes, but in that case, why in the world was Politico covering it? It’s a question I doubt anyone at the publication could answer.

In the same Nation piece, I also mentioned former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s memorable presidential candidacy—which garnered a 1,600-word promotional piece from Politico’s Molly Ball. For some reason, Ball felt it necessary to deny, in her opening sentence, that the premise of the piece was merely “an attention-getting stunt,” insisting that Bolton was “seriously considering running for president.” But so, one assumes, are any number of people confined to institutions for the mentally and emotionally disturbed all across the United States. Where was her evidence that this hypothetical candidacy might ever pass from the confines of Bolton’s (and Ball’s) minds into the realm of tangible reality, much less the kind of reality that can be said to matter to voters?

With all those words, Ball could not find a single person in Republican or conservative circles who thought a prospective Bolton presidential run made any sense whatsoever. Still, it somehow merited 1,600 words on Politico’s website. (In contrast, the New York Times devoted 2,576 words to something real—an investigation of permafrost and planetary warming—in the same week.)

It’s no surprise, of course, that Politico led the coverage in these nonstories. To say that Politico sets the terms for contemporary political reporting these days is an understatement. Its up-to-the-millisecond style—originally pioneered by then-ABC’s (and now Time’s) star reporter, Mark Halperin—pays next to no attention to the implications of anything upon which it reports, up to and including war, save in the narrow political terms of how it will affect who’s up and who’s down on a moment-to-moment basis. Led by Mike Allen’s not-to-be missed “Playbook,” which sets the agenda for much of the media each morning, the entire publication offers a kind of legitimacy for storylines that might otherwise not be judged sufficiently serious or important to make it into mainstream reporting. But given its obsessive need to be at the center of any and every story simultaneously, it’s difficult to discern any judgment at all by its editors in regard to attribution of space and topics chosen to be newsworthy.

But where Politico really outdid itself in this election cycle was in its Donald Trump coverage, (though it hardly did so alone). The question of how Trump—a real estate mogul and television-show host with a penchant for outrageous statements and unsurpassed egotism—dominated the stunning number of news cycles that he did would have been impossible for any reporter to explain. Many news organizations, for instance, reported in advance of Trump’s endorsement of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that Trump actually would be supporting Newt Gingrich—a nonfact of no consequence that, shortly thereafter, showed up everywhere.

The news outlets’ confusion caused a buzz about Trump’s now-crucial endorsement of Gov. Romney, and when the announcement came, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all broke into their respective “news” broadcasts to show Gov. Romney beaming next to “The Donald,” standing at a podium featuring a Trump plaque in a Trump hotel (having flown in on a Trump plane), accepting a Trump endorsement. Then-presidential contender Ron Paul’s campaign offered up a sensible retort to this ego-driven commercial when it emailed reporters: “Please explain to us why anyone would care.”

The Trumpification of the 2012 Republican presidential nominating race never really let up, even continuing into the general election—and Politico was there every step of the way to make sure Trump wasn’t blowing all that hot air in vain. Politico’s Mike Allen reported that Trump was “building his political stature as a top surrogate for Mitt Romney,” adding that he was “gaining juice and respectability in national politics.” Allen then quoted Gov. Romney and Trump surrogates, together with Trump himself, all singing the man’s praises. Michael Cohen, Trump’s special counsel, opined:

In spite of his tremendous wealth—that being over $7 billion—Donald Trump has the unique ability to connect with everyone from the CEO of a Fortune 100 company to the person on the street. He can sit in a board room or a diner and connect with the person sitting across the table from him. It’s this ability that has been instrumental in helping Governor Romney.

Trump’s help during the course of the campaign included publicly offering to expose his “very, very impressive” genitalia to attorney Gloria Allred and ruining what should have been one of the high moments of the campaign—the day Gov. Romney clinched the nomination—by going full birther in the governor’s presence: “Now, you won’t report it,” Trump argued, “but many people do not think [Obama’s birth certificate] was authentic .… His mother was not in the hospital. There are many other things that came out.”

Trump then went on to explain to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the cable news station would improve its measly ratings if it would report on President Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth. Regarding Trump’s final spasm of megalomania—his ludicrous offer last month to President Obama to give $5 million to charity if the president satisfied his curiosity—well, just look here: Politico was all over that idiotic nonstory in much the same way Politico is all over Donald Trump. (His final spasm before election night was when he took to twitter to rant that, “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!” He added, “Let’s fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! … We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty … More votes equals a loss … revolution!”

Not so shockingly, in an earlier survey conducted by Politico (together with Facebook), fully 41 percent of people questioned had already informed pollsters that well before such craziness, Trump’s endorsement gave them a more negative view of Gov. Romney, compared with fewer than 10 percent who said they now viewed the governor more positively. But this did not impress the Politico editors and reporters, who offered up the kind of breathless coverage that Trump imbibes like a vampire feasting on virgin blood. After all, it might have required a moment’s reflection to put the two concepts together.

If you read Mike Allen’s post-election “Playbook” from Wednesday morning, as everyone who makes his or her living in American politics almost certainly did, you saw “Donald Trump” listed prominently among the “losers” of the 2012 campaign. But the list had two omissions I think should be added: Politico and, sadly, journalistic common sense.

But hey, it’s a new day… cue the euphoria.

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.

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Eric Alterman

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