A Meta-Read Is a Better Read

A Meta-Read Is a Better Read

The notion that the function of journalists is to explain “the truth” is about as quaint as America’s participation in the Geneva Conventions.


Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, authors of The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, represent the pinnacle of America’s insider journalistic elite. As the political director of ABC News and national political editor of the Washington Post, respectively, they are the go-to guys not only for the latest skinny on who’s up and who’s down but also on the more significant question of What It All Means. As the driving intellectual force behind ABC News’s blog The Note, Halperin may be insiderdom’s most influential commissar. Karl Rove has remarked that in Bush’s White House, Halperin is thought of as “some kind of minor deity.” By virtue of both his position and his smarts, Harris, too, exercises considerable power over the collective mind of the so-called Gang of 500. So it is no surprise that their book offers the equivalent of a psychological X-ray of power in Washington.

Sometimes inadvertently, The Way to Win provides a unique window on the perpetual spin machine we call “news.” Judging by the evidence presented here, the notion that the function of the journalist is to explain “the truth” about politics to American citizens is about as quaint as America’s participation in the Geneva Conventions. Insider journalists are barely less politicians than the politicians themselves. Hardly anyone leaves the party without a metaphorical goody bag. Rove’s is so stacked with illustrations of his superhuman genius, I doubt he can lift it.

Al Gore, on the other hand, goes home pretty much empty- handed. This, too, is revealing. When recounting their “Trade Secrets” of the 2000 campaign, for instance, the authors, regarding the “Al Gore is a liar” motif, admit that “nearly every one of these controversies was overplayed or mischaracterized by the Old and New Media” and that it “might be unfair, but that does not alter the fact that Gore violated numerous Trade Secrets by neglecting to confront the stories.” In fact, as the Daily Howler website never tired of pointing out, it was the authors’ own news organizations that led the dishonest pack, consistently producing coverage that ignored Gore’s actual words, contextually reported, and instead repeated the malicious misinformation provided by RNC press releases. When, for instance, Gore accurately described his role in bringing attention to the pollution problems of Love Canal–maintaining that he said he “discovered” them in the sense that you discover something you were searching for–the Post‘s astonishingly hostile reporter Ceci Connolly wrote, “Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore…. The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie ‘Love Story’ and to have invented the Internet says he didn’t quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site.” Never mind that Gore was right about his role in Love Canal–he also accurately recounted the reporting of his role in inspiring Love Story. Ha-ha-ha, who cares? Over at ABC, Cokie Roberts asked, “Isn’t he saying that he discovered Love Canal when he had hearings on it after people had been evacuated?” And William Kristol jumped in with the phony Washington Post/RNC version of Gore’s quote: “I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all.” Gore was right and these reporters were wrong. And yet, according to our authors’ Trade Secrets, this is all somehow Gore’s fault.

One sees a similar dynamic when the authors write, “Bush was effective in dressing his conservative aims in centrist clothing because so many reporters admired the wardrobe.” True, in part, but a better explanation is that reporters liked Bush and loathed Gore, something the authors acknowledge but do not address in sufficient detail, much less explain in the context of the alleged liberal bias they so frequently profess to detect. Recall the now-infamous scene in New Hampshire, for instance, unmentioned in this book, during an early Democratic debate, when the room of 300 reporters, according to Time magazine, “erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd,” whenever Gore made a forceful point.

The media’s tilt toward Bush was evident not only in their refusal to look too closely at Bush’s Texas record, which clearly belied his moderate rhetoric, but also at his past. “How and why the Democrats and most of the national press did not make [Bush’s likely evasion of his National Guard responsibilities and the favoritism that got him his post in the first place] a prominent issue during Bush’s first run is a curiosity,” write the authors. “Bush’s Vietnam-era history had produced a spark but not a fire.”

In fact, the Boston Globe was alone among mainstream news organizations in taking the story seriously. Globe reporter Walter Robinson pointed out numerous contradictions and dishonest recapitulations of the official Bush record. The story could–and should–have led to further investigations, which it finally did four years later, in the ill-fated CBS News/Dan Rather episode. But the mainstream media just weren’t interested in 2000, when it mattered most. Most news organizations ignored the story. A few praised it but ignored or mischaracterized its key findings. As with Bush’s shady stock dealings and other questionable actions in his long record of irresponsibility–delineated in great detail in an investigative piece published in Talk magazine–virtually nothing that strayed from the “Bush is a dope but a likable one, while Gore is liar, and a smug, supercilious one at that” line entered the discourse. As Cokie Roberts so thoughtfully explained, “The story line is, Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough. In Bush’s case, you know he’s just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator.” That quote appears nowhere between these covers.

I’m not saying don’t read this book. It contains a razor-sharp analysis of the upper stratum of American politics available nowhere else. But a meta-read is a better read. See just how intricately the mainstream media have implicated themselves in Karl Rove’s culture of deceit, manipulation and contempt for the practice not only of journalism but of democracy. In other words, read it and weep…

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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