Politico reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei review the outrage from offended journalists over the ABC debate this week with a particularly jaundiced eye. They claim it proves exactly what they have themselves experienced in their work — starry-eyed reporters who wind up having to be “de-toxed” from their crushes on Barack Obama:
In fact, the balance of political questions (15) to policy questions (13) was more substantive than other debates this year that prompted no deluge of protests. The difference is that this time there were more hard questions for Obama than for Clinton.
Moreover, those questions about Jeremiah Wright, about Obama’s association with 1960s radical William Ayers, about apparent contradictions between his past and present views on proven wedge issues like gun control, were entirely in-bounds. If anything they were overdue for a front-runner and likely nominee.
If Obama was covered like Clinton is, one feels certain the media focus would not have been on the questions, but on a candidate performance that at times seemed tinny, impatient, and uncertain.
The difference seems clear: Many journalists are not merely observers but participants in the Obama phenomenon.
(Harris only here: As one who has assigned journalists to cover Obama at both Politico and the Washington Post, I have witnessed the phenomenon several times. Some reporters come back and need to go through de-tox, to cure their swooning over Obama’s political skill. Even VandeHei seemed to have been bitten by the bug after the Iowa caucus.)
(VandeHei only here: There is no doubt reporters are smitten with Obama’s speeches and promises to change politics. I find his speeches, when he’s on, pretty electric myself. It certainly helps his cause that reporters also seem very tired of the Clintons and their paint-by-polls approach to governing.)
Harris and VandeHei worry that this phenomenon will damage the media industry much more than the political process. They have four main concerns about the Obama-crush they see in their colleagues, especially in the irrational vitriol that followed a debate that didn’t appreciably differ from most of the rest on both sides of the partisan divide this year. How many times did Mike Huckabee have to answer questions on evolution, for instance, or Mitt Romney about his gardeners and his Mormonism? The concerns are:
- The adoption of personal points of view in reporting news
- The rise and influence of a “liberal echo chamber”
- Lines blurring between journalism and advocacy, such as with HuffPo
- A demand to cover politics in Utopian terms instead of in reality
I see the first two as much more problematic than the latter two. I don’t see much evidence that the last exists at all. Reporters sometimes report negative campaigning as somehow a new and wholly undesirable part of American politics, but they do report it. The Huffington Post is an impressive enterprise, and has a few writers from the traditional media on its staff, but it is a blog and not a major media outlet. It doesn’t even have all that much pretense at objective reporting as opposed to relentlessly left-wing commentary, and so most people know exactly what they get when they read HuffPo.
However, Harris and VandeHei nail it with the first entry on the list. Too many reporters want to either make themselves a part of the story, with Keith Olbermann as the most egregious example. No one thinks reporters should be mindlessly hostile, but they should avoid personal connections with their subjects if they expect to have their work taken seriously. Fawning sycophantry can be read at the candidates’ websites easily enough; readers shouldn’t have to endure it in the news sections of their local newspapers.
And if we needed a confirmation of the existence of these fawning sycophants, the media reaction the two Politico reporters describe provides it. Instead of remembering that reporters are paid to ask tough questions about open issues to government officials and political candidates, these “journalists” would rather that ABC had left them unaddressed entirely. These same voices uttered nary a peep during earlier Republican debates that featured silliness after silliness.
VandeHei went through his detox. Apparently most of the American media needs to find their way to a rehab center for shills in the near future.