In the summer of wall-to-wall Michael-Jackson-is-still-dead coverage, the job of White House correspondent for a major network is easy as 1-2-3: mention the place where the president happens to be, sound-bite the conventional wisdom about the president's political fortunes, and then tie it all together with a familiar cliche.
So for NBC's Chuck Todd, the heavy lifting last week involved talking about President Obama's domestic "setbacks" while he attended the G-8 Summit in Rome. There were several cliches Todd might have reached for: It wasn't built in a day; all roads lead to it; when you're there, do you do as they do?
But he found another route to the sweetspot that encapsulated the corporate media's meme of the week, which was that (despite a 58 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll and legislative success on most fronts), prodigal son Barack Obama was really, really going to get it when he got back home.
That's the overwrought conclusion you might have reached from Todd's Thursday night segment:
The saying Todd refers to in his intro is, of course, "fiddles while Rome burns," though the first word went missing. The reference is to Emperor Nero, who is said to have played the lyre while his capital city burned like a theatrical backdrop behind him (and the last time a president was tagged with fiddling through a fire was, oddly enough, when George W. Bush was caught strumming a guitar with country singer Mark Wills while New Orleans drowned).
Odds are Todd didn't really want to equate Obama with Nero (or Bush), or to suggest that the Prez was dallying in idle chitchat about climate change and nuclear disarmament while the store burned to the ground back home. That's probably why Todd couldn't bring himself to actually say "fiddles" and immediately downgraded his assessment of Obama's (only slightly decreasing) poll numbers from burning to "not burning" to "wilting a little bit in the summer heat."
Todd was one of the freshest, most insightful political analysts during the presidential campaign, but since getting bumped up to White House correspondent he's often been bland, awkward, and sometimes downright stupid (asking, for instance, if Obama would "veto" the stimulus bill "if it didn't have Republican support," or why hadn't Obama "asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?")
If your job is to pit the president's--or anybody's--popularity against whatever slapdash conventional wisdom rules the day, then you can usually toss any cliche or non sequitur into your copy without worrying whether it implies something you don't believe or isn't supported by the facts. As long as the words emit sounds that slide past the viewers at home and still support the interests of the people who pay you, you're home free.
Todd's less than three-minute report brimmed with such truthiness, like calling Obama's handshake with Moammar Khadafi "controversial." What's controversial about the jolly fellow whom the Bushies famously claimed to have turned from a terrorist to one of our bestest allies ever?
Or like NBC correspondent John Harwood opining, "It's too early to say that this trip is a major setback for healthcare reform." Major setback? Who knew it was a setback at all? (In fact, I thought last week was a mixed and in some ways a positive one for reform--what with Blanche Lincoln coming out for a public option; Harry Reid ordering Max Baucus to stop trying to please Republicans; and House Dems proposing (finally) to tax the rich to pay for healthcare.
And while the economy is indeed looking worse and the job numbers continue to suck, was it really so bad that, as Chuck said, Obama "had to stop and deal with it himself in an interview with NBC"? That's a little like Dick Cheney leaking to The New York Times and then citing the resulting story to corroborate his POV, since it was Todd himself who was making Obama "stop and deal" with "it."
Too smart and earnest for unambivalent sleazing, Todd closed the self-referential circle by sheepishly adding, "the White House will say this hand-wringing over the President's focus on the domestic agenda is just summer overspeculating from the peanut gallery."
And Chuck Todd is hardly the only, much less the worst, goober in the peanut gallery. His overspeculations are small things, mere media misdemeanors compared to the disingenuous distortions of Joe Scarborough or the idiot blurtings of David Gregory, and nowhere near the big lies that Hannity or Limbaugh retail everyday.
But Todd's Rome-burning segment reveals something important about how the MSM (and sometimes non-MSM, mea culpa) typically use language: not to say a specific thing, but to pivot from the pictures they have to the political conflict they've decided to amplify. Gliding effortlessly from, say, beautiful shots of the Obama family overseas to the machinations in Washington can leave you fiddling with falsehoods, like the screwy idea that back in the states the Repubs are finally achieving political traction, if only because Obama's away.
The domestic political truth is not that the Republicans have recaptured their mojo, but that the GOP is like a dung beetle on its back. (Especially this past week, what with the luv guv blabbing on, Palin going bald from all the pressure, and the leading members of the GOP's holier-than-thou club revealed to be covering-up Sen. John Ensign's affair, even to the extent of deciding how much hush-money his parents(!) should pay his mistress.) The corporate media is the party's only hope for putting a good face on this shambles.
If Chuck and so many other journalists play it bland and partially blind, it's because they see themselves as having to be political synthesizers of the old CW, including all the stuff said in right-leaning think tanks, op-eds, chat circuits, and at the network water coolers.
MSM journalists may well be liberals, but their interpretation of the news usually tilts rightward, because the Beltway is wired by money--just as the MSM is wired by advertising. And money likes bland, because it doesn't want to provoke suspicion and resentment.
The group most susceptible to the myth of the indominatible Republican Party are the Blue Dog Dems, who have trained themselves to listen for the pitter-patter of Big Feet. Coming largely from conservative districts, they believe that the best way to get re-elected is by cutting deals with the forces that might oppose them--insurance companies, banks, business associations--instead of voting for meaningful reform. If they did go all-out bold and commit to government-run health insurance and a second economic stimulus, they could create an FDR-style constituency that might well re-elect them and fellow Democrats till the cows came home.
Of course, you won't see that as a theme on the nightly news. It's safe to dwell on a 3-point drop in Obama's approval rating, but dilating on the 72 per cent of Americans who say they want a public option on healthcare might mean looking into the real powers who are blocking progressive change--many of whom are also advertisers (and, in the case of NBC, owners). For most media, that would never be easy as ABC.