Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage

Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage

Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage

Eric Alterman on Jazz at Lincoln Center and Reed Richardson’s tips for navigating the upcoming 2016 election.


Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

There’s not been an Altercation in a while, so here are a few pieces I’ve put up of late.

Bill de Blasio Is Just Getting Started

The former activist and New York public advocate discusses his first year as mayor.

A Great Newspaper’s Shame

Why is the political coverage in The New York Times so lame?

Mario Cuomo’s Patchwork Quilt In his electrifying 1984 convention speech, Cuomo forged a new liberal vision drawn from his own ethnic experience. (From The Cause, my history of postwar American liberalism)

Bill Moyers Retires

Moyers’s most significant legacy is that he treated his audience as adult citizens of a republic. (From the second to last time Bill retired, but sadly, this time it’s for real.)


Jazz@Lincoln Center

New York Winter Jazzfest

The Complete Sopranos on bluray

Sinatra in London

“The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.

I made it to Jazz@Lincoln Center twice last week. First, at Dizzy’s I saw Marcus Roberts’ Modern Jazz Generation, one of the most exciting developments in jazz right now. First of all it’s nice to see that Roberts can sustain so ambitious an undertaking. I recently reviewed Roberts’ MJG a few months ago when they played the Appel Room, and, at Dizzy’s, they demonstrated considerable growth both in terms of musicianship and internal communication. The musicians are almost all quite young, and they mesh quite nicely but when it comes time to solo they play as if they’ve been waiting an entire lifetime to shine. The set was devoted to Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Horace Silver and a sparkling Chick Corea song from “My Spanish Heart,” my favorite album of his. I look forward to more meshing on their part, both musically and across time and space.

But the most amazing thing about the show was the warm-up act, eleven year old, Bali-born Joey Alexander. (He only played the early show because the late show would have been past his bedtime.) He began with Monk and then moved into Coltrane and elsewhere in the canon. It was jaw-dropping. It actually made me reconsider the possibility of human achievement. How this cute kid can understand what he is playing well enough to interpret what he did—much less play it, given the complication of say “Giant Steps,” was, and remains, almost impossible to fathom. After the show, he and his mom told me that he had been playing since he was 7 and he had even played Rose Hall. Check him out here. He’s an amazing phenomenon.

Later that week, I caught a performance by Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra. It was not my favorite period of jazz but I really appreciated the degree to which Wynton integrated historical context into his introductions of each piece. (The concert was based on a lecture in the six-part series Wynton gave at Harvard called “Hidden in Plain Sight: Meanings in American Music that began in 2011.) As the press material explained, the show was designed to “explore the roles of orchestral instrumentation and the expansion of harmonic prospects, the evolution of the rhythm section, and the distinctiveness of the master composers and arrangers involved. At the forefront of this celebration are Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Bill Challis, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Eddie Durham, Chico O’Farrill, and Gil Fuller,” and ended with Dizzy. Even a serious jazz fan might not be familiar with all of these folks and few people besides Wynton, and professional jazz historians would have known all about them. I was particularly ignorant about the role that Don Redman played in the birth of jazz. Actually, I was ignorant about more of than I knew. (And did you know that Eddie Durham invented the electric guitar?) The Jazz@LC schedule is here

The night before, I caught a couple of performances at the Minetta Lane Theater by David Murray and various accompanists as part of the New York Jazz Winterfest, now in its 11th year, and coincides with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference and the Jazz Connect conference, and so is filled with jazz cognoscenti. Murray, who was in town from Paris and/or Portugal, made the most of his return, by playing sets with three different bands, including “The David Murray Clarinet Summit w/ Don Byron, David Krakauer, and Hamiet Bluiett,” which was the highlight in my opinion, the “David Murray Infinity Quartet with Saul Williams”” and “David Murray w/ Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington,” There might have been more, but that was the best I could do. It was spiriting so see so many people waiting in freezing cold to get in to hear such demanding music. I love David Murray but, like say, Chick Corea, he is so versatile, it would be hard for anyone to love all of it. The festival has turned into another reason however, that this is the greatest city in the world, even when freezing.

Stuff: So I’ve been watching the Sopranos: The Complete Series on bluray. It’s 28 discs, 4980 minutes and I can’t believe:

a)the incredible visual definition of the actors;

b)how well written the first season was;

c)how young Tony was, and I guess how young I must have been since James Gandlofini and I were born the same year.

Enough time has passed to appreciate just how great this show was and how groundbreaking was its dramatic trajectory. Among the features include interviews with cast, crew, celebrities, filmmakers, critics, and academics, as well as never-before-seen archival footage from the groundbreaking series. – Two roundtable interviews with the cast and crew – Two-part interview with David Chase—Lost scenes—25 audio commentaries with the cast and crew

I’ve also spent some time with a new 3 CD/DVD Sinatra box called “Sinatra: London,” from my friends at Capitol/UMe. The shows, which have not been released before, took place during several weeks in spring of 1962, when Sinatra traveled to the U.K. to record “Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain.” It turned out to be the only album Sinatra would ever record outside of the United States. The box includes session material from the album, a 1962 BBC “Light Programme” radio special with introductions to each song by Sinatra himself, a 1953 live session for BBC Radio’s “The Show Band Show,” and a Royal Albert Hall concert from 1984. The DVD features is yet another unreleased Sinatra show from the period at Royal Festival Hall, with a “A Foggy Day” from a 1970 show appearance also at the same Hall. It comes with a nice 60-page booklet with an essay by Ken Barnes, who was there for all of it, along with two exclusive art print reproductions of original London concert posters, and a studio panorama from the 1962 recording sessions.

If your interest was kindled (original meaning) by the J@LC Orchestra show mentioned above, then you might want to pursue the music of that period with yet another sterling and extremely generous collection from Mosaic called “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.”  This limited edition nine CD box set restores to pristine condition the great Charlie Parker’sDial Sessions, recorded between 1946 and 1947 which included among so many others, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Howard McGee, Wardell Gray, J. J. Johnson, Duke Jordan, Teddy Edwards, Teddy Wilson, Errol Garner, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. This set was originally made available in Japan 20 years ago but this is the first time you could get it except at crazy import prices, if you could find it at all.

What was Dial? Count on Mosaic, not only for their engineers, but also for their historians.

Dial founder Ross Russell, who owned the Tempo Music Shop, described as a West Coast Mecca for jazz lovers,” launched the label shortly after the Musician’s Union lifted its ban on recording. Major labels were not eager to pay royalties for the first time, and this opened the door to indie entrepreneurs like Russell. Dial relocated to New York (where Parker moved as well.) The earliest tracks in the set, recorded in New York, were originally done for Comet and acquired years later by Dial. They include a Red Norvo show in June 1945, featuring Bird and Diz, Flip Phillips, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, and Specs Powell and J.C. Heard alternating. At the other end, Mosaic throws in some Dexter Gordon sessions from 1947, recorded in LA, with Teddy Edwards among others. Naturally, there’s a great booklet with a 1995 essay by Russell himself. And the sound is hard to believe, given the recording technology available at the time. Mosaic is a real national treasure.

Oh, and finally, I wanted to mention that this coming this coming Tuesday, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, among others will be headlining a benefit for cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center. The concert will honor the memory of the late sax man Michael Brecker, who played with all of them, but died in 2007 at 54 of MDS when he failed to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. The show, which will be at Rose Hall, will also support the work of Azra Raza, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, director of the Myelodisplastic Syndromes Center and a researcher at the MDS Center respectively. (Mukherjee won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.) The show is happening at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. More here.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Caveat Lector: Your 2015 Guide to 2016 Presidential Primary Coverage

by Reed Richardson

It has begun.

Now that the calendar has officially turned to 2015, any remaining pundit coyness or pretense of reporting restraint on the part of the political press can be jettisoned. What was mere Beltway background noise will now start to slowly compete with (and drown out) other political storylines. From now until November 8, 2016, media coverage of the race for the White House will proceed to eat up the news hole at an accelerated pace.

Still, the first GOP presidential debateis a full nine months away, which means we’re still firmly ensconced in the “invisible primary” stage of the 2016 presidential election. As I’ve written previously, the campaign news of consequence being made in this period is much more to difficult to find and report. It requires steps like tracking private soirées with well-heeled donors, connecting the dots of campaign staff hiring, and getting on the ground at small, distant gatherings of the party faithful. In other words, it demands an active, aggressive approach to campaign journalism, which can be an increasingly rarefied trait in an era where poll write-ups and social media snark rule the media landscape. Which is why in the year before an election year, differentiating between actual 2016 election news and needless horserace speculation isn’t always so easy.

Point #1: Don’t put much stock in polls.

One year ago, polls showed Hillary Clinton with a huge lead over any potential 2016 Democratic rival and a pack of dozen-plus GOP candidates mostly mired in the single digits. Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that nothing much has changed. Yet, that well-established stability didn’t stop media organizations from commissioning dozens of polls in the intervening year. Nor will it slow them down going forward, since the 2011 GOP primary polling demonstrated that a lifetime of campaign booms and busts can happen in the months before the Iowa caucuses. But, since we’re not currently in the midst of either the President Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani administrations, it’s important to remember that odd-year presidential polling is of limited predictive value.

Which is why breathless reports of poll momentum in 2015 deserve a lot of skepticism. Like, for example, this craven attempt by CNN to hype its latest poll results, which purportedly show Jeb Bush “rocket[ing]” to the lead of the GOP field. True, Bush’s 23% mark means his 13%-point lead over Gov. Chris Christie is statistically significant. The political significance is much less clear, however. Because what CNN never bothers to mention is that when Mitt Romney is included in other GOP primary polls, Bush quickly drops back into a statistical tie with the rest of the pack, which strongly suggests these polls are merely measuring name ID rather than actual political preferences.

Moreover, this latest CNN poll was conducted right after Bush announced he was “exploring” a presidential run, which prompted a surfeit of mostly positive stories in the press. Not coincidentally, in their book about the 2012 election, “The Gamble,” political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides found that news coverage consistently drove, rather than reacted to the Republican primary candidates’ surges in the polls. In a close race between 10 or more candidates, even a small “observer effect” by the media will be able to swing the 2015 polling narrative on who’s up and who’s down. (And for those who find volatile polls too scientific, there’s always this completely subjective, six-byline National Journal ranking of the GOP field.)

Point #2: Pay even less attention to “gaffes.”

After the Dallas Cowboys’ comeback victory at Detroit last Sunday, Gov. Christie’s awkward celebratory bear hug of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rocketed across social media. Predictably, hot takes from the political press soon ensued. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren took to Twitter to quickly lower the boom on Christie’s electoral chances in the state: “good bye Michigan primary.” (And yes, she was serious.)

This is, to put it bluntly, nuts. Yes, Christie has driven the New Jersey economy into the ditch and his policies would make matters worse in Michigan too, but come on. Not only is the Michigan primary 14 months away, for that matter it’s also an entire NFL regular season and two Super Bowls from now. Nevertheless, fleeting moments like these are catnip for pundits who are constantly on the lookout for ways to demonstrate their political savvy. (Worth noting: there are legitimate ethical concerns about Christie accepting all these free trips to Cowboys games from Jones, who business dealings with the Port Authority.)

In a way, gaffes are the original clickbait. But common sense tells us that they don’t really matter to voters. And political science agrees. The only people that really care about gaffes, then, are political operatives and the political press. Which is why, for example, it’s not worth reading facile op-eds devoted solely to out-of-context nitpicking of Hillary Clinton’s comments. As with almost all gaffe coverage, it can be boiled down to a shameless attempt by the press to avoid a substantive policy critique. In Clinton’s case, it’s also a way for the establishment media to gin up controversy in a Democratic primary that looks unlikely to produce sufficient drama for big ratings.

Point #3: Beware of “savvy” analysis that ignores the obvious.

This is of particular importance in 2015, since a lot of political reporting will devolve into speculating about who will or won’t be running in 2016. Even though most of these campaign decisions are telegraphed far in advance, the Beltway media loves to pretend otherwise. And more often than not, they’re deductive powers are proven to be ridiculously (and repeatedly) awful.

Take, for instance, these three related CNN headlines about Donald Trump’s “serious” presidential ambitions, put in chronological order:

Trump ‘more serious than ever’ about 2012 run (3/10/2011)

Was he ever serious? How Trump strung the country along again (5/17/2011)

Trump ‘seriously considering’ 2016 bid (12/14/2014)

I look forward to the network’s chastened, fourth installment in this series later this spring. (On a related note, I have a breaking news alert to pass along to CNN: the word “gullible” was accidentally left out of the latest edition of Webster’s dictionary.)

Or consider this pitiful May 2007 exchange between ABC News’ Diane Sawyer and former Vice President Al Gore. Time and again, Sawyer tried to find some wiggle room in Gore’s weary, steadfast denials about running for president in the 2008 election 18 months away. The interview, which—ironically—was supposed to be about Gore’s new book on the corrosion of democratic discourse, ended with Sawyer stooping to journalistic self-parody: “But to dig not very deep, once again, at my peril here…I just want to say, Donna Brazile, your former campaign manager, has said, If he drops 25 to 30 pounds he’s running. Lost any weight?”

As far as unwitting self-recriminations go, “But to dig not very deep, once again,” might be my all-time favorite way to describe the Beltway establishment.

To be fair, Sawyer wasn’t the last pundit to deploy this inane, beltline analysis. Just this past weekend, in fact, Brit Hume Tweeted out this bit of political wisdom about his former Fox News colleague Mike Huckabee: “Re: Huckabee, watch his girth. You’ll know he’s moved from exploring to running when it begins to shrink.” Or maybe, just maybe, the fact that he voluntarily gave up a lucrative TV gig is a more realistic indicator of his actual presidential plans. Then again, that’s a pretty obvious point, one that doesn’t require brilliant insights from a cable news anchor.

Point #4: Don’t be distracted by talk of white horse candidacies.

Nobody loves a stunning plot twist more than me. Running a presidential campaign, however, is not something one just switches on overnight or at the last minute. It takes a monumental amount of hard work and just as much preparation. Nevertheless, there’s nothing that intrigues the political press more than the prospect of high-profile politician disavowing any interest in running for president and then changing his or her mind.

For the past year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has consistently sworn off any interest running for president in 2016. Still, the media keeps asking her. Over and over. How bad has this parlor game become? So bad that the Washington Post’s chief political handicapper, Chris Cillizza, recently claimed to have found a loophole in her denials, noting that: “when given the opportunity to definitely rule out running for president—past, present, or future—Warren didn’t do it.” That’s right, he wrote past. Who knew Warren could be deviously planning a presidential run in 2012? Hell, let’s make it 1980 if we’re going to entertain Bizarro world presidential match-ups.

Time-traveling Draft Warren fantasies aside, back on Earth the signs of a real U.S. presidential campaign commence with all the high drama of a corporate tax filing. Thus, you’ll notice little pundit talk or Twitter trends about Jeb Bush resigning from all his corporate boards. But the kind of nuts-and-bolt reporting that ferrets this information out offers far more valuable insight into a politician’s real White House plans than his or her diet or Shermanesque rhetoric. (In addition, this kind of reporting can also provide much richer detail on how, as in Bush’s case, a candidate’s past business entanglements can seriously undermine their presidential hopes.)

Likewise, all the chatter this past week of a return to the presidential trail from two-time loser Mitt Romney should be viewed with heavy skepticism. Though anonymous sources may be breathlessly telling news organizations like Politico that he’s “serious” and “open to the idea” of running in 2016, much of the coverage of Romney’s re-entry amounts to rich donors playing the media. I can think of nearly 66 million reasons why he won’t be running a third time. But if he actually goes through with it, he certainly won’t wait around and parachute back into the race late in the fall.

Point #5: Follow the people, the money, and the money people.

The year before the actual presidential primaries begin involves a lot of infrastructure building on the part of presidential campaigns. Email lists, donor networks, state coordinators: all these need to be in place to have success in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond.

Although campaign staff stories lack a certain sex appeal, they’re often a leading indicator of a politician’s ambitions. Sen. Rand Paul hasn’t officially declared he’s running in 2016, but the campaign staff he’s already hired makes his announcement all but a formality. What’s more, staff departures can be just as important as arrivals, as they can signal to others who the perceived stronger campaigns are. Back in November, when Paul successfully poached the top digital operative of Sen. Ted Cruz—a potential 2016 rival—it sent a subtle, yet important message about the perceived strengths of the two presidential bids.

Staying power is paramount for a candidate who wants to survive the great winnowing that happens during the first few 2016 primary contests. Four years ago, after a surprise victory at the (completely meaningless) Iowa straw poll, cable news touted Michele Bachmann as a supposedly rising presidential prospect. But less heralded news reports about her campaign’s money and people problems ­­­told a different story. Her campaign’s weak fundraising in the third quarter and the mass resignation of her New Hampshire staff in October portended an early exit. Sure enough, after a sixth-place finish at the Iowa caucuses, she quietly disappeared from the race just a few days into January.

What Bachmann lacked was a billionaire backer like Foster Friess or Sheldon Adelson. These wealthy conservative spent millions to single-handedly keep the campaigns of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, respectively, afloat four years ago. For 2016, the price tab for winning the GOP nomination is expected to be north of $75 million. Which is why coverage of the 2015 battle for the benefactors, already underway, is key to understanding which Republicans have a real shot at making it to next summer’s GOP convention.

On the Democratic side, there’s little doubt that Hillary Clinton can amass a prodigious campaign war chest; the Clintons’ ability to tap wealthy individuals and corporations is, by now, well established. Instead, the more interesting storyline to follow is how her Wall Street connections might offer a political opening on the left to an insurgent Democratic challenger like Bernie Sanders. Indeed, MSNBC noted this week that Sanders has reshaped the Senate Budget Committee in a way that could provide him a natural campaign springboard for a more populist economic message.

Point #6: The ideological media primaries are important.

How much attention MSNBC pays to Sanders this year could have an significant impact on his decision to mount a challenge to Clinton. That’s why watching its coverage of him and Clinton and, similarly, observing how Fox News covers the Republican presidential hopefuls can be instructive. In this pre-POTUS election year especially, ideological news organizations and political pundits act as a kind of first-order proving ground for their party’s prospective candidates; a place to be tested in an mostly friendly environment and hone his or her message. This will be even truer in 2015 than four years ago, as the RNC plans to more tightly control media involvement in what will be substantially fewer primary debates.

Because of this, it’s worth knowing the media lay of the land. On the right, it’s no secret Fox News president Roger Ailes desperately wanted Christie to run in 2012. Over at theWall Street Journal editorial page, they don’t care much for Rand Paul and they loathe Ted “Iowa caucuses by way of Texas” Cruz. (I mean really loathe him.) The Washington Post’s resident right-wing primary obsessive, Jennifer Rubin, doesn’t much care for Cruz,likes Bush and Rick Perry, but seems to hate Paul with the heat of 10,000 suns. This is a notable turnaround for Rubin, since four years ago she trained her obsessive fire on Perry, before transforming into Mitt Romney’s obedient lapdog.) Naturally, Rush Limbaugh disagrees with all these establishment voices, loves Cruz, and doesn’t think Jeb Bush is a conservative.

On the left, the partisan media has mostly responded to the supposed inevitability of a Hillary Clinton campaign with ambivalence. The Nation has certainly made the case against pre-emptively anointing her the nominee. But the magazine has also tried to come to grips with her unique, historic standing in the party right now. In the end, left-wing media arguments about her personal baggage—her husband, her name, the “dynasty” factor—won’t be reason enough to dissuade Democratic voters if they think she stands a good chance of winning. (The same goes for Jeb Bush on the right, incidentally.) But her Wall Street and foreign policy baggage just might slow her down enough to give someone else a chance. After all, the fatal flaw in her 2008 primary campaign wasn’t whom she was married to; it was her 2002 vote in favor of a pointless, disastrous war in Iraq.

Point #7: Every election is different.

Journalists love analogies and political journalists even more so. But news stories that try to force-fit this next election into a convenient historical frame are hallmarks of lazy thinking. So no, 2016 will not be like 2008 or 1988. Or even 2012, for Republicans. The best news coverage over the coming year will recognize this and strive to dig deeper than rehashed poll roundups and hashtagged gaffes. Instead, it’s about finding the stories behind the stories, the ones that reveal how our democracy really works (or, all too often, doesn’t) and that stake out in clear terms the real-world impact of the choice voters will face in the voting booth next year.

Final note: This will be my last regular blog post here. Accordingly, I must take a moment to express my deepest gratitude to Eric for letting me write here weekly for the past four-and-a-half years. His hospitality has been nothing short of fantastic. Though I would never presume to say replaced the great Charles Pierce as guest blogger, I at least like to think I kept well tended the intellectual fires that he lit. And I’d also offer a shout-out to the dozen-plus interns—the names of whom escape me—who patiently helped post my portion of the blog over the years. Like Ted Hart, our current intern, they’ve all been great. (Follow Ted on Twitter here or, better yet, offer him a job.)

Blogging here for you has been a pleasure and a privilege, as they say. It’s also been a lot of damned hard work and opened numerous other doors for me, which I look forward to pursuing. I still plan on writing longer articles for The Nation occasionally. As for blogging, going forward you can find more of my media criticism over at Medium.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor’s note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.


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