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Monday, September 8, 2008

Get "Meta," it Pays -- Marc Ambinder and the Media [Long post]

There's an ongoing debate right now between Marc Ambinder, (of The Atlantic), and Matt Yglesias (recently of The Atlantic and now at the Center for American Progress) over the role the media should be playing right now in refereeing the manifest lies that the McCain campaign has been pushing lately, particularly Palin's claim that she said "thanks, but no thanks" to the Bridge to Nowhere.

The imbroglio is unusual because it seems to represent a minor implosion over at The Atlantic -- one of the most respected sources for progressive blogging. And Ambinder, in particular, is one of the most respected bloggers on journalism -- journalists often look to him to get the "inside scoop" of what's happening in political reporting.

In particular, Yglesias has criticized Ambinder for suggesting that, although Palin's claim about the bridge to nowhere is "technically true but functionally false," there will be "No blowback." Matt responds:

But couldn’t it have something to do with the way the campaign press reports news? ... [W]here’s the narrative about how McCain’s key strategy introducing Sarah Palin to the public and turning his campaign around is based on putting lies at the heart of the presentation? There are a few dozen people, of whom Marc is one, in a position to create this narrative. They’ve chosen not to do so, but that’s a decision they’ve made not a fact about “the way consumers process news.”

Ambinder retorts that "The positive point is that a small but significant fraction of the electorate seems astonishingly inured to misleading charges and negative attacks. ... To move to a Greenwaldian debate about the duties, obligations and frustrations of the press -- well -- read elsewhere if you want to play that game. I'll abstain." In other words: most voters don't care about lying. And we've mentioned the distortion, so our job is done.

Unsurprisingly, Matt found this "tellingly defensive," adding that
it’s perverse for members of the press to make claims about how dishonest campaign tactics are likely to play that treats themselves as non-participants in the process. Creating false beliefs in the public about yourself and your opponent is politically helpful. But acquiring a reputation as a liar is politically damaging. And the public gets a lot of information through the press. Thus, the political impact of telling a lie will have a lot to do with how the media chooses to cover it.

The main point: when it comes to lying, there's coverage, and then there's coverage. It's one thing to report what McCain/Palin are saying, interjecting notes about when the statements are false. It's another to analyze the pattern of lying, and to write about lying becoming a key feature of the campaign. Every politician, (including Saint Obama) distorts, but if distortion becomes the primary facet of your politics, that's especially newsworthy.

This back-and-forth is somewhat uncommon among bloggers who are ostensibly on the same side of the political spectrum. When Andrew Sullivan and Jonah Goldberg engage in their weekly needling, for instance, it's part of a general red-not red divide (Sullivan, a conservative, has become an increasingly vocal critic of Republican platforms and campaigns -- while Goldberg works for the G.O.P. standard-bearing National Review). But Matt and Marc have worked together for years, so Matt's evacuation of The Atlantic and these sudden disputes are at least noteworthy.

Some quick gossip: Ambinder was a pretty big Clinton supporter going into the primaries, and though he occasionally mooted the point, it's not a perspective that is generally presented explicitly in his blog. Matt, on the other hand, was a long-term Obama supporter. So they're bound to see things differently. That said, recently, Ambinder posted an unsourced tip that the Obama campaign was encouraging surrogates to compare Sarah Palin to abortive V.P. candidate Thomas Eagleton. Fox news ran with the story, before the Obama camp denied it categorically. Ambinders pulled the post without explanation, then stopped blogging for more than 24 hours. Around the same time, Matt attacked a new poll being run by The Atlantic, and now Andrew Sullivan is MIA on his pro-Obama Atlantic blog. So things seem to be heating up.

But this background is less interesting than the point about the Ambinder-Yglesias dust-up that was recently made by Ezra Klein over at The American Prospect. In a post that is perhaps the *most* insightful of Ezra's career and even the campaign to date, Ezra begins (and please read the whole thing -- seriously, it's that good):
I think one aspect of the modern press that doesn't get enough attention -- either among folks in the media or folks critiquing it -- is the transition from the fundamental scarcity being information to information being in abundance and the fundamental scarcity being mediation. For instance, the attitude on display in this Marc Ambinder post is fully understandable if you take a newspaperman's attitude towards the whole thing. If everyone got a newspaper once a day, and there were eight political stories, and all of them were different each day, and one of them had pointed out that Palin actually did support the Bridge to Nowhere, then the press would indeed have done its job. The job was to report the story, and they reported it.

But cable news and blogs and radio sort of changed all that and now there's too much information, and so consumers largely rely on the press to arrange that information into some sort of coherent story that will allow them to understand the election. And the press assumed that role -- they didn't create some new institution, or demand that the cable channels be credentialed differently and understood as "political entertainment."

Ezra's aim here is to reinforce what Matt Yglesias was suggesting: it's the job of the press to sculpt the narrative of the campaign. When they choose to ignore this role, they abdicate this responsibility and give free reign to the campaign spin meisters with the best curveball (c.f. Karl Rove).

Moreover, I don't think that this situation *is* all that different from the Press's role under the old media regime, when they also relied upon a continuity of narrative to cover the areas of their interest (in national politics, their decision not to cover F.D.R.'s handicap or J.F.K. rumors come to mind). It's worth noting that the need to tie information to narratives to make it intelligible is larger than journalism. As Ezra points out, it's a broad feature of fiction, including T.V. serials, but also anthropology and history, to name a few (c.f. Hayden White on Metahistory). Journalists in general live within a forced cognitive dissonance between the nature of their work and the nature of their object. While they strive to be objective, and locate the facts of the story, they daily experience that process as sifting various points of view and weaving them together into an intelligible story. For an example, take finding the "lede," the nuggets of information or key quote that will encapsulate, in a single sentence, the entire story. No individual sentence can actually accomplish this, of course, and the process of creating or choosing one foregrounds the creative process of making news into a story on the news page.

Of course, most journalists avoid thinking in these terms -- they are passionate about their craft, and committed to the public service of bringing the "truth" to their audience. Admitting too much of the relativity and creativity of this craft would be debilitating (a journalistic equivalent of the German dramatist who shot himself in the head after imbibing Kant's skepticism). In reading the responses to Ezra's post, it becomes clear that many readers do not recognize a distinction between "fact" and story, between information and narrative. Even worse, many think of the former as true, the latter as false. The reasons for this confusion have ancient roots in the philosophy of language, rhetoric, and even science (and constitute, in part, a glancing subject of my dissertation).

The inability to parse information and story is so woven into the texture of our common-sense perception that it forms an essential feature of our politics. Just look at the Republican convention: in order to answer the question of why McCain would make a good president, we were given McCain's life story instead of his ideas or proposals. And, in turn, when convention goers were asked why he'd be a good president (or why he can't remember how many houses he has, or what rich is ...) they answered: he was a P.O.W. It doesn't matter that this story has nothing to do with his future performance -- because what matters is that we are given a good story. To take another example, look at the Republican mantra of Palin's "small-town story" and her "small-town values." It's a phrase that is very effective in establishing an Andy Griffiths contrast with Barack Obama (and his high-fallutin' community organizing) but it is a story that contains almost no information. Watch the Daily Show response:

As long as reporters see their job merely as reporting this story as a fact, as well as reporting other facts, they allow the McCain campaign to tell the story for them. The question is not whether the press should manipulate their readers, or shape their political perceptions, but whether the press can recognize that all presented information tells some kind of story, and it is their job to choose which story is most accurate.

P.S.> On a side-note, I think journalists tend to select the narratives they use a bit unconsciously -- and the narratives tend to reflect, for this reason, their assumptions and predilections. (For instance -- hypothetically -- if someone happened to be a pretty strong and disappointed Clinton supporter, this might have a huge effect on which narratives seemed appropriate. It's not that you'd "choose" to emphasize one or another, but rather, that some would seem relevant, and others, Glen-Greenwaldian media criticism.)

Update: Spiny ears tingling, the terrible Greenwald-zilla opts to weigh in, too:
While it's not surprising that the journalists who shape our campaign coverage think that way, it is unusual to see it expressed as explicitly and brazenly as Ambinder expresses it here. It's far more common for journalists to maintain the pretense that they are members of a "profession" which, by virtue of the impact they have on the country and the privileges conferred on them by it, does actually entail "duties and obligations," and that those "duties and obligations" are a matter of legitimate public interest and debate. Some form of ignoble credit, I suppose, is due Ambinder for candidly acknowledging his petulant indifference to such notions ("read elsewhere if you want to play that game. I'll abstain").

Update2: I think Brad Delong agrees with me:

First, we don't look to Ambinder to fill this role. The fact that he has decided to report on campaign-minus-media disqualifies him from filling it. We hope to prevent others from looking to Ambinder to fill this role by pointing out what he and his fellows are doing. We have limited success.

Second, this isn't new. This isn't the result of radio or the internet. This has been the case ever since Odysseus's press agent first got people to refer to him as the guy you could always count on to come up with a clever plan.

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