Observations about John Harris' replies

An exchange with the Politico's editor in chief highlights some interesting points about what really motivates our nation's journalistic elite.

Published March 30, 2007 1:09PM (EDT)

(updated below)

The Politico's Editor-in-Chief, John Harris, has responded via e-mail to the posts I wrote earlier this week, as well as to questions I sent to Politico reporter Mike Allen about the Politico/Drudge relationship (posted in the first link). Due to its substantial length, I have re-printed the exchange I had with Harris in the post below [Harris' email to me in its entirety is first (which he agreed for me to post), followed by my reply, and then another reply from Harris].

Previously, Harris was National Political Editor of The Washington Post and was co-author with former ABC News' Mark Halperin of the 2006 book The Way to Win (which famously declared that "Matt Drudge Rules our World," that Drudge "is the Walter Cronkite of his era," and that more than any outlet other than Associated Press, Drudge's "dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts"). In sum, Harris has long resided in the belly of what is referred to as the "mainstream media."

I didn't intend for this to be Politico Week here, but I think it's only fair -- given the serious criticisms voiced here and elsewhere about The Politico -- to post Harris' responses. Independently, I think The Politico -- for better or worse -- is going to be one of the most influential media outlets throughout the 2008 campaign, which by itself makes it a worthwhile topic. And I think the exchange with Harris sheds some insight on how our national journalists think about their role.

A few observations about the exchange with Harris:

(1) Beyond the emails below, Harris sent another lengthy reply to my response to him, which he asked not be publicly posted. That request wasn't motivated by anything nefarious. Given the length of his reply, he indicated he did not want to have to scrutinize every word in our exchange the way one would if it was being published. He indicated if I thought there was anything overwhelmingly noteworthy in his subsequent replies, we could agree to publish just those parts. So far, there have been none.

(2) The Media Matters report on Drudge's extraordinary efforts to promote The Politico -- referenced by Harris -- is here. Ironically, at exactly the time I received one of Harris' e-mails last night, someone e-mailed me to point out that Drudge had just linked to yet another Politico article -- and not just linked to it, but made it his premiere, featured link at the top of the Drudge page, with the typical Drudge-like attention-generating hysteria.

What makes the whole relationship particularly unusual is that Drudge, historically, is extremely hostile to online political ventures. He has traditionally ignored them, except when he mocks them (he almost never, for instance, links to any blogs, including the right-wing ones which are natural objects of his affection). And yet here he is, promoting Politico with great enthusiasm and fervor, from the very start.

And, as the Media Matters item demonstrates, he links to articles which have nothing remotely "exclusive" or unique about them. Most of those Drudge-promoted Politico articles -- including the one Drudge last night gave top billing -- are just ordinary news stories which are all over the wires and everywhere else, but Drudge has clearly devoeted himself to propping up The Politico.

(3) Eric Boehlert has documented that many of the Politico pieces which plainly promote standard right-wing narratives are predicated on shoddy journalism -- not merely the "Obama-has-problems-with-the-truth" innuendo Mike Allen spewed the other day, but also stories asserting that Obama has a "Jewish problem" and that Bill Richardson is plagued by "questions regarding his 'behavior with women.'" Not merely the lowly content in these Politico articles, but also the unreliable journalistic methods, are exactly those which are the Drudge hallmark.

(4) In the wake of Mark Halperin's self-abasing campaign to beg right-wing demagogues to believe that Halperin is one of them, Harris engaged in a public dialogue with Halperin over at Slate in which Harris rebuked Halperin for some of his more inappropriate comments. At the time, I developed the impression that Harris (in stark contrast to Halperin) was an earnest and decent journalist who believes he is acting professionally and in accordance with journalistic standards -- an impression that was bolstered by my e-mail exchange with him. But that underscores an important point.

Like every other group, elite Beltway journalists are not monolithic. There's a natural tendency to search for One Simple, All-Clarifying, Unifying Theory that explains everything bad in the world ("reporters are paid to lie for their corporate masters to promote corportism"), but human beings are complex, and such theories -- while perhaps accounting for partial and isolated influences -- are almost never valid standing alone. Even among journalists who produce wretched and mindless reporting, they are driven by different motives.

Analyzing the dynamic of how the national media works is an extremely complex undertaking and the factors are virtually endless -- some of those journalists are genuinely malicious political operatives; others are just politically biased. Large numbers are just careerist sycophants, while others still simply lack critical faculties and/or the initiative to do anything other than recite what they hear. And the socioeconomic transformation of journalists into coddled, rich elites -- along with the dependence of journalists on those in power for access and scoops -- obviously create a greater identification with the political officials they are supposed to investigate, scrutinize and check.

But one overarching influence affecting the group as a whole is that they have been enmeshed in the culture of national journalism for so long that they are incapable of viewing it critically. In every environment and every profession, broken and corrupt behavior becomes commonplace and then normalized. When that happens, even decent and well-intentioned people can engage in such behavior believing that it's constructive and proper. And because those rules of behavior are normalized, they actually come to believe that the more they adhere to them, the more appropriately they are acting.

As Atrios recently noted, Washington -- with some exceptions -- has been a town dominated by the Republican power structure for close to two decades now. For the last six years, Democrats have been almost completely irrelevant (as but one example, I paid almost no attention to, and had no opinions about, Nancy Pelosi until October of 2006, because prior to that, she was completely inconsequential).

Journalists like Harris who want to break stories and have meaningful sources -- for years -- have needed to cultivate relationships primarily with Republican sources, and that process of currying favor with the Republican power structure, listening to Republican sources, being dependent in their careers upon Republican favors and Republican access, unquestionably influences how they think and who they like and how they view and talk about the world, even among the most well-intentioned and ethical journalists. And the fact that, by their own admission, their world is shaped by a right-wing hack with the most unscrupulous partisan behavior only exacerbates those influences.

The effect of that process -- whereby currying favor largely with powerful figures on the Right is a prerequisite for career success -- is substantial even for the best journalists. And the cumulative effect on the craven careerists who compose the bulk of our media elite is virtually limitless.

Much of the deep-seated dysfunction of our national press is the result of the fact that many of our national journalistic elite simply do not believe in the real purpose of political journalism. But it is also true that even the more earnest and well-intentioned ones are enmeshed in a culture that produces dysfunctional, deeply biased and corrupt journalism, and it will just naturally be very difficult, perhaps close to impossible, for those who are such a vital part of that culture -- and whose careers depend upon thriving within it -- to view its operating principles as anything other than normal, proper and even honorable, even when they are anything but.

UPDATE: Based on many of the comments, I want to add one point which I think goes to the heart of this matter. When Newsweek's Richard Wolffe recently criticized blogs while chatting amiably with his friend, the White House Press Secretary, and afterwards when he responded to criticisms of his commentary, Wolffe made exactly the same claim that Harris, in essence, makes in his reply here: namely, that media criticisms of journalists are "ideological" or "partisan" -- that what bloggers really want is for journalists to advance the bloggers' partisan agenda -- and those criticisms can and should therefore be dismissed, because that is not the role of journalists.

But that is not the principal criticism of journalists at all. It's a distortion of the media critiques made by most bloggers -- a total strawman.

In fact, virtually all media criticism is based on the exact opposite premise -- namely, that the problem is that journalists are partisan, because they now reflexively spout government claims and right-wing narratives and, worst of all, do so lazily (i.e, uncritically) and often with extreme factual inaccuracies.

For me, there is one fact that illustrates as vividly as possible the crux of the real problem with our political journalistic class. It is this, from USA Today in September 2003:

Poll: 70% believe Saddam, 9-11 link

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, says a poll out almost two years after the terrorists' strike against this country.

Sixty-nine percent in a Washington Post poll published Saturday said they believe it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it's likely Saddam was involved.

Even six months after this country invaded Iraq, 70% of Americans continued to believe that Saddam helped personally plan the 9/11 attacks. That heinous fact, by itself, should have provoked a major crisis in political journalism -- a desperate effort to find out what went so fundamentally wrong. Yet it did nothing of the sort. Most of the energies of national journalists are devoted instead to defending how they operate and, most of all, condescendingly disparaging their critics as shrill partisans who don't understand the real role of journalists.

I honestly find it unfathomable that any national journalist like Wolffe or Harris can defend their profession, and deny that there are deep-seated and fundamental flaws in it, when this country started a war with the overwhelming majority of citizens -- 70% -- believing an absolute, complete myth, a known falsehood, one which, more than anything else, caused them to support that war. Leaving aside every other issue of gullible, government-propaganda-based reporting, that fact standing alone is a towering indictment of our country's press corps, and the fact that they continue to believe that the way they operate is proper, that they are sufficiently adversarial to the political powers that be, and that it is their critics who are "ideological" and therefore easily dismissed -- all reveals that they have not changed at all.

They may not know it, but the disaster of the Iraq War and the absolute myths which they allowed to take root -- and which they never investigated, exposed or attacked -- is an inescapable indictment of what they do. That is the foundation on which media criticism rests, and there is nothing "partisan" about it. It is the opposite of "partisan." It is instead a demand that the media fulfill their core responsibility -- to serve as an adversarial check on government -- a responsibility which they have profoundly abdicated.

By Glenn Greenwald

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