The Problem with Pundits | The Nation


The Problem with Pundits

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In the wake of Tuesday's Connecticut primary, it's hard to say which group came across looking more desperate and out of sorts: Sen. Joseph Lieberman's bungling campaign staff, universally derided as tone-deaf and slow-footed, or Beltway-based pundits who sounded noisy alarms about the disastrous impact a win by Ned Lamont would have. Progressives would be wise to ignore the pundits' free advice, since it seems to have been driven less by concern about the Democratic Party's well-being and more by personal affinity towards Lieberman, insecurity about the surging liberal bloggers, and fear that Americans might start holding somebody--anybody--responsible for Iraq.

About the Author

Eric Boehlert
Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for...

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Since September 11, the Bush Administration has repeatedly exploited
the threat of terrorism for political ends, from dirty bombs to sleeper
cells to electoral politics.

Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.

Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.

Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."

Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia?

Browne: Because I'm a psychic.

Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.

But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?

Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."

It's called a pager.

And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?

The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?

During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?

On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.

Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.

Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:

Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.

Clayson: You do know the answer?

Martin: We do know the answer.

The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.

Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."

Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.

The Lamont media flailing truly was remarkable. How else to describe longtime Lieberman pal and DC corporate lobbyist Lanny Davis, trolling online through liberal comment sections in search of random anti-Semitic slurs in order to prove thoughtful progressives opposed to Lieberman were really filled with "scary hatred." Davis also trembled theatrically for a liberal Connecticut buddy who confided that he might not return to the state to vote on primary day "out of fear for his safety."

Meanwhile, the New York Times's David Brooks lashed out at the "liberal inquisition" unfolding in Connecticut, the type of phenomenon that could be understood "only [by] experts in moral manias and mob psychology." ABC's Cokie Roberts sang from the choir sheet this Sunday morning, announcing a Lamont win would mean "a disaster for the Democratic Party."

Roberts's ABC colleague Jake Tapper labeled Lieberman's challenge as a "a party purge of a moderate Democrat"; a cliché repeated constantly among the talking heads. Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Chait ridiculed grassroots Lamont activists by suggesting "their technique of victory-via-purge is on display in Connecticut." Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, who in a recent radio interview refused to say whether he actually wanted Democrats to gain control of Congress in November, denounced the "thought-enforcers of the left" supporting Lamont, whom Peretz mocked as "Karl Rove's dream come true."

Earlier in the campaign, Washington Post columnist David Broder dismissed Connecticut's progressives as "elitist insurgents." Over at the Rothenberg Political Report, Beltway mainstay Stuart Rothenberg was in a tizzy that Lamont's win would "only embolden the crazies in the [Democratic] party," the "bomb-throwers." (Like Broder, Rothenberg opted for terror terminology to describe the democratic process unfolding in Connecticut.)

The Beltway's simplistic, yet overheated, argument went like this: By voting out a pro-war, conservative Democrat, Connecticut voters (i.e., the "elitist insurgents") would taint the party nationally by advertising Democrats as being soft on national security. That mindset, trumpeted by Time's Mike Allen, among others, represents an absolute refusal by MSM to divorce themselves from the notion that Republicans own the issue of national security and that Americans only trust conservatives to deal with foreign policy. That, despite the fact that a steady stream of polls indicate a majority of Americans are fed up with Bush's messianic worldview (a record-high 60 percent now disapprove of the war, according to CNN), and more Americans trust Democrats to do a better job protecting the peace as well as fighting the war on terror.

Equally far-fetched is the assumption that a candidate in Connecticut will impact races in the other 49 states. Since when do voters in Oregon, for instance, vote in retaliation for whom citizens in Arizona elect in their primary? Perhaps that was true when the renegade candidate was KKK honcho and Republican David Duke. But Lamont is a multi-millionaire and fourth-generation Harvard graduate. Why would voters in Tennessee be concerned about Lamont, let alone care about him? There's absolutely no proof that the choice Connecticut Democrats made Tuesday is going to influence elections around the country. No proof, that is, other than the fact that the Republican National Committee's Ken Mehlman says it's so.

Aside from the hollow analysis, what accounted for the pundits' unusually hysterical hyperbole? Part of it was that the pundits took the race personally. Meaning, they really like Joe Lieberman.

-- "Joe Lieberman is a thoroughly decent, intelligent, compassionate public figure." Bloomberg News's Al Hunt, July 31.

-- "He is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men." New York Times's David Brooks, July 9.

-- "Joe Lieberman is, without question, one of the finest men I've known in public life." Time magazine's Joe Klein, July 23.

-- "I have known and liked Joe Lieberman for more than 40 years," US News' Editor at Large David Gergen, Aug. 6. (Gergen's column in the Hartford Courant was particularly disingenuous, suggesting Lieberman's only offense regarding Iraq was that he had simply voted in favor of the war in 2002.)

If nothing else, that kind of blatant, public back-rubbing helped draw back the curtain on a dirty little Beltway secret that news consumers aren't supposed to know: Journalists go easy on politicians they like. Meaning, if reporters and pundits like a politician on a person level than that politician is rewarded with glowing campaign coverage (i.e., Sen. John McCain). But if reporters and pundits despise a politician on a personal level, that politician is penalized with blatantly dishonest campaign coverage (i.e., Vice President Al Gore).

What also drove a lot of the animus was the growing tension between the Beltway insiders and the bloggers, who continue to grab more political authority at the expense of ink-and-paper pundits who are scrambling to maintain theirs. It was no coincidence that Brooks and Broder and Klein and the crew at The New Republic have all in recent months taken public whacks at the progressive netroots, trying hard to undermine them. For instance, Brooks dismissed Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas as the "Keyboard Kingpin," while Klein proudly announced on CNN, "I bow to nobody in my disdain for bloggers." For the last few years mainstream media pundits and reporters chuckled over the bloggers' dismal 0-16 streak in backing candidates in previous campaigns. But the Lieberman stunner (stunning, in that four months ago nobody thought Lamont could prevail), changes everything. As of right now, the bloggers not only have juice, but represent perhaps the most potent force in progressive politics. You don't think that scares Beltway insiders who for decades saw themselves as the de facto king makers?

Revealing, too, is the fact that MSM pundits and reporters don't focus on Lieberman's arrogant decision to abandon the Democratic party in order to hang onto his seat in November by running as an independent. In fact, Bloomberg News's Al Hunt simply referenced Lieberman's me-first strategy as an "insurance policy." (Imagine if every political loser took out an "insurance policy.") On Tuesday, Newsweek.com wrote admiringly about Lieberman's decision to "soldier on with an independent bid for his Senate seat" where "he is free to be himself," while New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin cheered, "Lieberman's decision to stay in the race as an independent is the right one." Pundits who normally revere process and pounce on politicians who try to selfishly change the rules in the middle of game, simply shrug their shoulders at Lieberman's stunning campaign vanity.

But what I think is essential to understanding the Lieberman media phenomena is that, for the most part, the pundits who assailed Lamont's rise during the campaign were the same ones who signed off on the disastrous war in Iraq and now appear spooked that voters in Connecticut finally decided to hold Lieberman, the de facto Democratic co-sponsor of the invasion, responsible for that foreign policy debacle. They're spooked because for the last three-plus years there's been something of a gentleman's agreement that nobody inside the Beltway, whether at the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, or inside the corporate media world, has been asked to pay any sort of professional price for backing the disaster that is Iraq. But suddenly Democrats in the Nutmeg state have decided enough's enough. That's not a trend Beltway insiders want to see spread nationally, which is why so many pundits were eager to marginalize Lamont and his anti-war backers as "crazies" and "elitist" "bomb throwers."

The problem for pundits is that the November elections will offer a lot more referendums on the war--and nervous name-calling might not be enough to stem that tide.

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