Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction

Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction

Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction

Eric on this week's concerts (plus some upcoming events) and Reed on Matt Bai's treatment of the Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair.


Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is "A Tale of One City by David Brooks"—The “one city” is the New York dreamed of in Mr. Brooks’s imagination.

Chick Corea and the Vigil Live at the Blue Note and with Christian McBride and Brian Blade on “Trilogy” (three CDs on Concord Records)
New (old) Dead releases
The Roundabout Theater’s “India Ink” by Tom Stoppard (and some other stuff).

Chick Corea has twenty Grammys, but what really makes him unique is the incredible range of his compositional and musical ability. Corea brought one of his many bands, “The Vigil” to the Blue Note for a week of shows, which, for the present includes saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, bassist Hadrien Feraud, drummer Marcus Gilmore, percussionist Pernell.  They are all amazing in their own way and while the band is usually understood to be a kind of fusion thing—a successor to “Return to Forever,” the show I saw was pretty jazz and Latin focused, which was a pleasant surprise.  Among the highlights for yours truly was the new composition, “Royalty,” a Corea-penned tribute to drummer and bandleader Roy Haynes, whom Corea calls his “hero, mentor and friend” whom he first met in 1967 when he joined the Stan Getz quartet. (The band’s drummer is Roy’s grandson.) The rest of the show was heavily flamenco/tango/Spanish influenced and while it was the first set of the run, everybody left pretty happy.

What I really hope to see soon, however is Corea playing with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade, and doing the kind of classic jazz and Corea compositions that appear on his new live triple-CD “Trilogy.” It’s the kind of jazz one yearns for if one is, like yours truly, stuck in the past, both in terms of mid-century compositions and Corea’s earlier career—“My Spanish Heart” is my personal favorite—albeit updated and reimagined by three terrific and telepathic players. Highlights of this delightful collection include  “Fingerprints,” Corea’s “Spain,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and a gorgeous “Someday My Prince Will Come” with Gayle Moran Corea on vocals closing out the three CDs and leaving one very much wishing to go back to the beginning.

In recent Dead release news, there’s a new enormous 1990 box that I’ve not heard, but one of the highlights is a March 29 show at Nassau Coliseum that featured Branford Marsalis in the second set. It’s three CDs and called Wake Up To Find Out, which is appropriate because it has a terrific “Eyes of the World,” and also an awesome “Dark Star.” Blair Jackson wrote about this pairing: “Of all the guest musicians who shared the Dead’s stage through the years—and they were many and varied—none embodied both the Dead’s adventurous, questing spirit and their obsession with beautiful melodies and accessible structures quite like Branford did.”  Deadheads are also listening to Dave’s Picks, 11, Wichita, 1972. It was the only time they ever played there and they throw in a few songs from Oklahoma City 11/15/72. It’s that’s your period, then, you probably should have subscribed to the series, since that’s the only way to get Dave’s Picks before they sell out. And if you missed out on that, and have the same taste in Dead shows that I do, then you will want to check your collection and make sure you already have “Grateful Dead: Dick's Picks Vol. 15—Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ 9/3/77.” If you don’t then, by all means, thanks Real Gone Music, because they’ve just re-released it. It was an amazing and historic show, I can tell you, from what I remember. There were like, a billion people there and the Dead played three sets after Marshall Tucker and the New Riders. Patty, Sarit and I waited for like, four hours for Rachel Malina and Jolie Goodman, who we were nice enough to drive there and they NEVER came back. (Don’t ask me what they were doing. They ditched us as soon as we got there.) Well, they came back eventually, but not in time for Patty to get to her job at the market the next morning so we left them there, in Englishtown, and gave Rachel’s scary dad the bad news when we got home the next morning. (It was a 24-hour trip.) So by all means, you will want this show. I can still remember how great Keith’s piano sounded—it made my migraine go away. (I was afraid to ask anyone if they had any aspirin because, you know, it was a Dead show….) As to what I don’t remember, Real Gone reminds me: “It was also the first show after the release of Terrapin Station, and several numbers (the title track, ‘Samson and Delilah’ and ‘Estimated Prophet,’ which segues into a really unusual and stellar "Eyes of the World") surface from the album. ‘The Music Never Stopped,’ ‘Peggy-O,’ ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo’ and ‘He's Gone’ are all given what could be characterized as definitive renditions as well, and the band closes the night by playing ‘Truckin’’ for the first time in two years before the ‘Terrapin Station’ encore.” So thanks guys.

PS “Dave” will be doing a live chat today at 4:00 about the 1990 box which I imagine will remain up if you check in afterward, here.

Whenever I see a play by Tony Kushner, he gets my vote for “World’s Greatest Living Playwright.” But whenever I see a Tom Stoppard play, I switch my vote to him…until I see another Tony Kushner play. Anyway, for the next while, it will be Stoppard, who gets extra points as a playwright, in my opinion, for having crappy politics (which makes him harder to like than Tony, whose politics I mostly share). Stoppard’s play India Ink is now getting its New York premier from the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pells Theater and while it’s not A+ Stoppard, it’s good enough Stoppard to be nearly great.

The plot is this: “Set on two different continents and in two different eras, Indian Ink follows free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe on her travels through India in the 1930s, where her intricate relationship with an Indian artist unfurls against the backdrop of a country seeking its independence. Fifty years later, in 1980s England, her younger sister Eleanor (Tony and Golden Globe Award® winner Rosemary Harris) tries to preserve the legacy of Flora's controversial career. Little by little, Flora’s mysterious past is revealed, as is the surprising story of two people whose connection lives on through art.” Weird, huh? Acting is quite good and the sets are wonderful. It comes with a warning that the “production features nudity and is therefore recommended for audiences over 16 years of age” but I found this to be disappointingly overplayed.

Oh and hey, a lot of people I know who were really smart really liked Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Lucky them. All 45 episodes, plus the Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, have been meticulously remastered from the original film elements and are available for the first time in HD. Thank Shout! Factory for Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series Blu-ray box set so if you’re that kind of person, this set’s for you. (Turns out, I’m not, but I tried…)

Also this: Tonight I will be doing a BDS event at the CUNY Grad Center (Rooms C203-205, concourse level), at 6:30 with Susannah Heschel and Todd Gitlin, timed to the CUNY doctoral students’ vote on a proposal before them. Here and here are a couple of articles dealing with the issue and the CUNY vote.

Also this coming weekend is the New Yorker Festival, and my friend Susan Morrison wants you to know that she will be interviewing Randy Newman, which will be great, and Buster Poindexter, who will also be playing, so how great is that? Get the details here. It’s a terrific schedule this year. And hey, that reminds me, Buster is coming back to the Cafe Carlyle, which is a really great evening, if you’re either really rich or in need of an extra special occasion.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Media Culpa: The Politics of Personal Deconstruction
by Reed Richardson

It’s a natural question to ask as we head into the final stretch of another election. To partake of all the petty parsing, optics obsessing, and scandal saturating that colors so much coverage of modern politics is to inevitably wonder: Where did it all go so wrong?

Matt Bai, national political columnist for Yahoo News, offers up his answer in a new book All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid (Knopf, $26.95). While paying reverence to the holy trinity of campaign journalism—The Making of the President 1960, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, and What It Takes—Bai zeroes in on the sudden political flameout of Democratic presidential frontrunner Gary Hart in 1987 as the turning point. But it’s really the last of that troika, Richard Ben Cramer’s seminal profile of the ’88 campaign, that serves as the primary inspiration for Bai’s book. In the preface, for example, Bai recounts making a personal pilgrimage to essentially seek Cramer’s blessing. And to his credit, Bai grasps what has been lost on most of those in the political press who aspire to follow in the footsteps of What It Takes:

“But most often they mistook the point of Richard’s work; where he was most interested in illuminating worldviews and reconstructing the experiences that shaped them, his disciples were increasingly obsessed with personalities and unflattering revelations, the portrayal of politicians as flawed celebrities.”

This is critique is spot-on. Bai, however, is too diplomatic to name names (besides, occasionally, his own). But when it comes to the superficial, gaffe-obsessed, personality-driven dramaturgy that has gripped campaign journalism of late, one need look no further than Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin. His own inane triad of books documenting the past three presidential electionsThe Way to Win, Game Change, and Double Down: Game Change 2—serve as perfect case studies of a political press drowning in minutiae, palace intrigue, and “winning the news cycle.” Ironically, back in 2007, Halperin penned a fatuous column that blamed his own journalistic myopia (along with that of his Beltway colleagues) on what is mostly a misinterpretation of Cramer’s book:

“I’m not alone. [What It Takes’] thesis—that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office—has shaped the universe of political coverage.…

“But now I think I was wrong. The ‘campaigner equals leader’ formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.”

Halperin’s mea culpa was short-lived. Bai, however, seems to be after a longer lasting apologia. Indeed, at times, his book comes across as self-confession, where he’s seeking penance for his own past journalistic sins, the origin of which he traces back to what he believes is the more lasting lesson from Hart’s downfall. That it heralded a new, more prurient, less substantial era in the political press. Or, as he more flamboyantly puts it:

“[T]he story of Hart and the blonde didn’t just prove to be Hart’s undoing; it was the story that changed all the rules, a sudden detonation whose smoke and soot would shadow American politics for decades to come.”

This kind of purple prose and clichéd exaggeration—all the rules, really?—diminishes rather than burnishes this book’s real value. In a later example of this flair for the melodramatic, he characterizes the Miami Herald scoop of Hart’s possible infidelity as “the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever.” (For a fuller taste of the book, Bai published excerpts of it recently in The New York Times Magazine.)

Over-the-top language like this feels especially off-putting precisely because Bai has done yeoman’s work in pulling together a compelling and freshly reported narrative of an oft-overlooked moment in American political and journalistic history. The book reminds us that many of the structural elements of the 24-hour news feeding frenzy that we’ve grown accustomed to—pop-up satellite dish farms and paparazzi-like stakeouts—hadn’t yet been deployed to cover a presidential campaign scandal before Hart’s. Likewise, a political press corps that had willfully ignored the extramarital affairs of public figures like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had never before engaged in public, on-the-record questioning of a candidate’s sex life until Donna Rice’s name emerged. So when all these phenomena suddenly converged on the Hart story, one gets the palpable sense from Bai’s narrative that the press’s ground rules had unquestionably shifted, seemingly overnight.

New reporting and insightful context help flesh out that narrative as well. Thanks to Bai’s meticulous fact-checking, we learn that the Hart scandal’s timeline is mostly a myth. The conventional wisdom always had it that Hart challenged the press to find any dirt on him with his now legendary “follow me around” comments to E.J. Dionne in The New York Times Magazine. So, it was in taking him up on this offer that the press subsequently uncovered his affair with Donna Rice and the damning photo of her sitting in Hart’s lap, with him wearing both a mischievous grin and a T-shirt emblazoned with the oh-so-unfortunate name of the boat, “Monkey Business.” As Bai notes, this narrative conveniently absolved the press from culpability over digging into Hart’s personal life—after all, he had been arrogantly asking for it. (Even more telling, Bai finds the reporters involved in outing Hart’s affairs are complicit in perpetuating this myth.)

In fact, Hart’s infamous “follow me around” quote wasn’t published until after the Herald had gotten its tip, staked out Hart’s DC townhouse, and then confronted him about his relationship with Rice. (Another nice bit of reporting detail: Bai finds out that this infamous quote had been cut by an editor during an early draft and Dionne had it reinserted it later.) It was only because a pre-publication version of the story was circulated to newsrooms that the Herald was able to insert the quote at the last minute into its initial scoop. In other words, the Herald had started snooping around Hart’s sex life before he’d told them to, but it pretended otherwise.

As for the anonymous tip to the Herald that set the wheels of fate in motion? Bai breaks new ground here too, by finally tracking down and reporting who made it. Turns out it was Dana Weems, a jealous acquaintance of Donna Rice. More than 25 years later, her blithe, half-hearted apology for spitefully ruining Hart’s career is perhaps emblematic of how fully our society has normalized invasive press coverage of so-called political scandals.

Nor, frankly, does Bai find much, if any, contrition from anyone in the press who played a major role in Hart’s unraveling. This betrays the book’s over-cooked investment in the impact of its central story. Rather than “changing all the rules,” this moment would have been more accurately portrayed as a notable point along a continuum of changes in political coverage. In fact, one could argue two other media events from that same year—the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Robert Bork nomination fight—have influenced media coverage and the “politics of personal destruction” as much as, if not more than, Hart’s story.

At times, misplaced nostalgia gets the better of Bai. In his campaign to tarnish the post-Hart era of journalism, he indulges in some rank ‘golden age’-ing of the era that preceded it:

“Before the mid-eighties, which stories got on the air, and how prominently they were featured, depended almost entirely on their objective news value—that is, how relevant they were to the public interest. But now that calculation had a lot more to do with immediacy; suddenly a story could be captivating without being especially important.”

To believe this is to ignore the reality that an overwhelming white, male, establishment viewpoint defined for decades what did and didn’t have “objective news value.” As a result, many, many voices were simply shut out of our democracy. On CNN’s Reliable Sources this past weekend, host Brian Stelter pushed this point and Bai, somewhat disingenuously, replied: “I didn’t write manifesto.”

This highlights the other valuable, but mostly unintended, takeaway of Bai’s book—the perils of a press corps with an agenda it doesn’t own up to. In the cast of Hart, the press covering him clearly didn’t like him and it showed. To read Bai’s accounts of how the Woodward and Bernstein-inspired younger members of press corps disdained the more sober, less hail-fellow-well-met vibe coming from Hart is to see a collision of interests in the making.

Only a few months into Hart’s campaign, and the political press was already dwelling on his personality rather than his policies, constantly knocking him as “cool and aloof,” a “loner,” and, worst of all, “weird.” (Hmm, does this remind anyone of the press’s coverage of another campaign?) That a petulant press corps would inevitably begin digging into the long-time rumors of Hart’s extramarital affairs wasn’t pre-ordained, but sure became more likely the longer the campaign lasted. (And in an ironic twist, no one probably knew more about Hart’s dalliances than Bob Woodward himself, who had hosted Hart as a roommate for a time during his Senate career, when Hart did little to hide his having a D.C. “girlfriend.”)

Bai does an admirable job of holding up to the light how an already hostile press rationalized its interest in the “womanizing” angle. Or to use the phrase from one of the book’s chapter titles, all these rumors were “out there” and so were fair game. Time and again, this facile reasoning is given by reporters to excuse asking Hart uncomfortable questions about his marriage. Even legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee buys into it, saying that if the Post hadn’t done it, someone else would have—a classic intellectual dodge. That Hart, out of principle, refused to dignify these questions only feeds the aggrieved press’s curiosity. And in classic case of compromised objectivity, almost all of the reporters covering the Hart sex scandal said they felt anger toward Hart, as if his conduct was somehow coercing them into lowering their journalistic standards.

But Bai is guilty of his own biases with respect to Hart. He clearly likes the man. This fondness manifests itself in different ways. For one, he over-estimates Hart’s electoral chances against George H.W. Bush in 1988 in order to engage in a little wistful “What might have been?” alternative history-making had a Hart White House come to pass. This affinity for Hart is also understandable because Bai is a member in good standing of the Beltway entitlement reform caucus. (A position I’ve criticized in the past.) And Hart was the prototypical New Democrat, someone who likely would have tried to “fix” Medicare and Social Security in ways that undermined the social safety net.

Comparing his gentle treatment of Hart today to his coverage of John Edwards in 2007 is to see Bai avoiding the trap of tabloid coverage but still indulging in flippant character deconstruction of a different kind. In a lengthy, 2007 profile that Bai references in his book, he looked at Edwards’ plan for lifting up the poorest Americans and where it fit on the policy spectrum. (Too far to the left for Bai’s taste, mostly.) And yet Bai still can’t help but traffic in an uber-cynical, meta-campaign take on someone who, for all the personal faults later exposed, was genuinely interested in helping a vast majority of forgotten Americans:

“So, in an odd way, building a campaign around poverty—while at the same time calling for an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, which thrills liberal partisans—turns out to be a very shrewd primary strategy, after all. It’s not that Edwards doesn’t believe in what he’s saying; it’s just that he surely knows, at the end of the day, that it isn’t really a liability, either.”

This kind of damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t paradox sounds an awful lot like the game-within-the-game media narratives that Hart faced and Bai rails against in his book. Indeed, Bai accurately notes that the no-win questions that the media was asking about Hart’s sex life are precisely what finally doomed his campaign.

In the end, Bai reiterates that the press makes its own choices on coverage and has agency over what narratives it decides to emphasize and ignore. For Bai, that means closing out his book by choosing not to ask Hart if he really did have an affair with Rice. But that’s a question long since rendered moot by history. Instead, we should be more interested in how Bai and others in the political press will figure out which questions they should—and shouldn’t—ask going forward, so that our democracy doesn’t end up being sorry for the answers it did—and didn’t—get.

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

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy