Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 7, 2011

KNOWING HOW TO TELL THE MEDIA WHAT IT WANTS TO HEAR.... Politico's John Harris and Jim VandeHei have an interesting item today on how President Obama "is playing the press like a fiddle." At first blush, the premise seems way off base -- the relationship between the White House and the D.C. media establishment is often strained and almost always adversarial.

But that's not really the point they're getting at. Rather, the piece is about the president and his team recognizing -- and exploiting -- what political reporters are looking for. Most notably, "their favoritism for politicians perceived as ideologically centrist and willing to profess devotion to Washington's oft-honored, rarely practiced civic religion of bipartisanship." (via Steve M.)

Conservatives are convinced the vast majority of reporters at mainstream news organizations are liberals who hover expectantly for each new issue of The Nation.

It's just not true. The majority of political writers we know might more accurately be accused of centrist bias.

That is, they believe broadly in government activism but are instinctually skeptical of anything that smacks of ideological zealotry and are quick to see the public interest as being distorted by excessive partisanship. Governance, in the Washington media's ideal, should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

In this fantasy, every pressing problem could be solved with a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Sam Nunn and David Gergen that would go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base for a week, not coming back until it had a deal to cut entitlements and end obesity.

That sounds largely right to me. When push comes to shove, it's a D.C. industry filled with David Broders. I generally believe the media establishment is "wired" for Republicans -- news organizations internalize GOP talking points, and unknowingly take more of an interest in stories Republicans promote -- but when it comes to ideology, the cult of centrism is surprisingly strong.

For Harris and VandeHei, this relates to President Obama's improved fortunes as he's taken steps that make the Broders happy. For example, he struck a deal on tax rates with congressional Republicans, which the media loved, in part on the substance, but mainly because of the obsession with "bipartisan process." This is reinforced with presidential outreach to conservative foes, as evidenced by Obama's speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today.

But there's a larger context to this that Harris and VandeHei overlook -- by even making this observation in print, they're implicitly acknowledging one of the left's more common media criticisms. Greg Sargent, who emphasizes the fact that Harris and VandeHei "carry tremendous respect with the Beltway establishment," had a good post on this today.

The claims that Washington's political and media establishment fetishizes bipartisanship regardless of policy details, and that this establishment is all too willing to confer the label of Very Serious Beltway Wise Man on those who profess outsized concern about the deficit, have long been twin pillars of the left's critique of our political discourse.

I don't really expect the Politico's recognition of this to generate any introspection -- the media culture in D.C. is too ingrained -- but it's heartening to see the acknowledgement of the problem anyway.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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VandeHei and Harris don't acknowledge that Politico is just as big a part of the problem as the rest of the media.

Posted by: Sam on February 7, 2011 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: big fan on February 7, 2011 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Politico is the breached birth of a thirty year Republican labour .

Posted by: FRP on February 7, 2011 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

VandeHei and Harris either don't have an ounce of self-awareness or they are just trying to undermine and/or discourage any positive press for Obama. Knowing they embody everything that is wrong about the beltway press, I'm betting it's the latter.

Posted by: Holmes on February 7, 2011 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

When it first came out, I was hoping Politico would serve the purpose of looking at how The Village really works and thinks. After reading it for a few days, I realized that wasn't what it wasn't going to do. It was swallowed whole on its first day, if not before.
Oh well, we've still got the internet and the Daily Show and Colbert to do that.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on February 7, 2011 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Truly, this is serious Hall-of-Mirrors stuff. I mean, Politico reporting on how the Beltway crowd skews political reporting? Seriously?

I'm surprised their entire website didn't annihilate itself when that story was posted. Talk about matter meeting antimatter.

Posted by: jvwalt on February 7, 2011 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

"Centrist" is like "Fair and Balanced." It really just means the Republican point of view.

Posted by: SaintZak on February 7, 2011 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

I won't believe Politico's report until it is confirmed on the Drudge Report! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on February 7, 2011 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Most of the media establishment would deny that there is such a thing as "centrist bias"; rather, they believe that the Broder view of the world is fundamentally unbiased, mature, adult, fair, responsible, and correct, not to mention savvy.

kevo, it's not quite the Republican point of view as much as the corporate point of view. The extremely wealthy don't care about the social agenda of the far right, they just care about their money and making more of it while sharing less of it with workers and the federal treasury.

Posted by: Joe Buck on February 7, 2011 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for this, Steve. Politico has been one of the key bad players in all of this; the fact that THEY might have been played by Obama, who is really very masterful, is just dawning on them, and will probably anger them a great deal eventually.

Posted by: jjm on February 7, 2011 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, everyone, let's acknowledge the obvious: The Beltway press admires bipartisanship from DEMOCRATIC politicians. Those of the other party can proceed with their scorched-earth tactics, because, hey, they're just guys you'd love to have a beer with and give reporters cute nicknames!

As for Obama's alleged new approach, I have a work buddy who is a typical right-wing, Fox-News clown, and I have not a whit of respect or patience for his perspective on current events. But he made one statement to me that was prescient, which is why I've never forgotten it: "Great Centrists In History" is a book that will never be written.

Posted by: DZ on February 7, 2011 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

DZ - I agree the media only expects Democrats to be centrist/bipartisan. The republicans are expected to play to their base and the media seems fine with that. I suppose that says something about the relative influence of the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party versus the ultra-conservative/tea party wing of the Republicans.

Posted by: DK on February 7, 2011 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK



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