They’ve Got the Fever…

They’ve Got the Fever…

As the GOP’s ideological center hurtles into the farthest reaches of the universe, the MSM still strives for “balance.”


A campaign sign for Republican candidate for US Senate Ted Cruz is reflected in the sunglasses of a campaign intern. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

During the election season, Barack Obama frequently gave voice to his hope that once the Republicans found themselves trounced in two consecutive presidential elections, their “fever” might just break. So instead of toadying to the crazies in the base of their party (the ones who are always threatening to run primary opponents against any party member who admits that the world is round or whatever), Republicans would finally come around and admit that the job of a legislator is to accept reality for what it is and begin from there. Had this happened, it would have lifted a terrific burden from the mainstream media, since today, the remaining conventions of objective journalism—together with the social pressure on the people who practice it—demand that “both sides” be blamed for the breakdown in our political process, regardless of the degree of Republican recalcitrance on display. As a result, the MSM’s members are all but required to purposely mislead the Americans who rely upon them for truthful reporting. 

Alas, the GOP fever continues unbroken. With the possible exception of immigration reform, the Republican Party’s ideological center continues its warp-speed journey into the farthest reaches of the universe, untethered to such earthly concerns as evidence or even common sense. And so the MSM’s predicament persists, and naturally substance suffers.

Take, for instance, the coverage of Texas’ newest celebrity senator, Ted Cruz. The New York Times’s Jonathan Weisman devoted a front-page story to the degree to which Cruz has offended his colleagues on both sides of the aisle with his unwillingness to wait his turn to be heard, as well as for some of the shocking things he has said. Even though Weisman devotes his analysis to a comparison of Cruz to Senator Joseph McCarthy, his story does not delve sufficiently deeply into the content of Cruz’s comments to demonstrate just how divorced from reality they are. Indeed, the story even takes a “he said/he said” attitude to Cruz’s nutty notion that Chuck Hagel had been paid by North Korea to undermine US defense capabilities (or as the Times puts it, “might have received compensation from foreign enemies”). The focus of the piece is thus exactly where Cruz and his fellow Republicans want it: on his unwillingness to play by the traditional rules of Senate seniority, rather than the foolish and poisonous nature of his evidence-free allegations. 

The front page of the Times has always been the gold standard for “fair” and “balanced”—in the old-fashioned sense of both terms—and its denizens pride themselves on an old-fogey focus on substance. Alas, this is hardly the case in the rest of the journalistic universe, where “success” is measured in Twitter followers and Facebook “likes.” This world is ruled by substance-averse, trend-setting outfits like Politico and BuzzFeed.

In fact, the day before Weisman’s Cruz profile appeared, Politico ran a similar story. Written by Manu Raju, the piece described Cruz as a “no-nonsense freshman” who “has quickly become a lightning rod—on issues ranging from guns to Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary.” For Politico, the only area of interest was Cruz’s “no-compromise, firebrand style,” as demonstrated by his “sharp questioning of Hagel,” even though it may “turn off voters eager to see the two parties start making deals.” The upside, however, is that he’s already being “talked up in conservative circles as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.” And that’s it: Cruz’s McCarthyite lies constitute merely “sharp questioning” and lead to whispers of a Michele Bachmann/Herman Cain–style candidacy—yet another likely foray into mass hysteria that Politico will undoubtedly cover like a NASCAR race.

It is a telling indication of the mindset of the insider reporter that Mike Allen’s Playbook—published daily by Politico and the most influential tipsheet in politics—offered Weisman and the Times a so-called “No Shame Award” for “putting on the front page—with no indication it wasn’t a novel revelation—a carbon copy” of a piece that had been a lead story on Politico the previous day.  Allen’s complaints were two. First, the Times pretended (though it did not explicitly claim) that the quotes in its piece were original, when in fact they came from an e-mail that had also been quoted by Politico. Allen insisted that “you can’t try to pass something off as new, when the people who care the most about the topic have read the same thing 24 hours earlier.” Then he suggested, “A clever way to needle Cruz…would have been to say ‘emailed in a statement that was identical to one he provided to Politico.’”

Implicit in Allen’s complaint is the belief that front-page New York Times stories should be written for Politico readers with the ambition, at least in part, of needling sources, as journalism has now become just one big insider circle jerk. What’s more, he fails to notice that while the Times story was a bit overgenerous to Cruz (as the MSM is to almost all Republicans), it was no “carbon copy,” since it at least addressed Cruz’s McCarthyite tactics, while Politico’s profile exhibited the kind of gee-whiz attitude one expects to encounter in a Teen Vogue peek at the inside of Justin Bieber’s bedroom.

Ironically, perhaps, on the same weekend, the Times Sunday Styles section (previewed on Saturday by Allen) contained a profile of former Politico reporter turned BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith, who at one point was quoted explaining that “the fabric of politics has always been gossip and jokes and crazy personality stuff and memes,” before asserting that a BuzzFeed story titled “Thirty-Three Animals Who Are Disappointed in You” was “a work of literature” because it received 2.5 million views. “I’m totally not joking,” he added.

And what led BuzzFeed’s coverage of the State of the Union? “John Boehner Looks at His Boogers During the State of the Union: The Speaker Saw a Winner.”

The fever gets worse at night…

Rick Perlstein writes about a smart young college student who tried to find a place for himself in the modern Republican Party—and ended up running screaming in the other direction.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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