The Politico: Exhibit A for our broken political press

The publication's "senior political columnist" writes its eighth story on John Edwards' hair in two weeks.

Published May 3, 2007 11:16AM (EDT)

This week, the Bush administration sought vastly increased powers to spy on the telephone conversations of Americans, and then threatened to begin spying again illegally and without warrants. It was revealed that Condoleezza Rice would meet with Syrian officials, a significant shift in Middle East policy.

Yesterday, it was disclosed that Iraq's government is actually purging itself of anyone who seeks to impede lawless Shiite militias. And one of the right-wing's most influential academicians published an article on The Wall St. Journal Op-Ed page explicitly advocating "one-man rule" in America whereby the President can ignore the "rule of law" in order to fight The Terrorists.

None of that -- or virtually anything else of even marginal significance -- was reported by The Politico, an online political magazine founded by some of the nation's most prestigious and admired (in Beltway terms) political journalists. But yesterday, The Politico's so-called "chief political columnist," Roger Simon, published a 674-word article -- prominently touted on The Politico's front page -- exclusively about John Edwards' haircuts, cleverly headlined "Hair today, gone tomorrow."

To begin his article, Simon pronounces:

It is the haircut that will not die.

He can spin it, he can gel it, he can mousse it. But it is not going away.

Simon marvels at how enduring the story is -- as though there is some phenomenon keeping the story alive independent of the fact that the gossipy, tiny-minded, substance-free "political journalists" plaguing our nation -- from Roger Simon and Maureen Dowd to Adam Nagourney and Mickey Kaus and Matt Drudge -- have not stopped talking about "the story." It's tantamount to someone who keeps chewing their food and spitting it across the room and then marvelling at how filthy things are and writing columns bewilderingly examining how and why the floor is covered with crusted food and what that signifies.

This is at least the eighth time that The Politico -- which gloriously "broke" the story -- has referenced Edwards' haircut. The featured article yesterday is the second on this topic from Simon, who is not a mere columnist, but is The Politico's "Senior Political Columnist."

Even The Politico -- for which no story is too petty or Drudge-following -- seems embarrassed by its obsession. Thus, Simon claims in his article that he "was willing never to write about the haircuts again," and The Politico's front page headline claims: "Roger reluctantly takes another look at the haircut that will not die." In the article itself, Simon offers up this excuse for why he is writing his "newspaper's" eighth story in less than two weeks about John Edwards' hair:

This is bad: When you go to Google and enter "Edwards haircut," the first item that comes up is a story by Bill Wundram in The Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa. . . .

The article got 324 comments from readers. When people inside the Beltway are talking about your haircut, it doesn't matter much. When people in Iowa are talking about your haircut, you may have a problem.

So Simon uses the excuse that the item in the Iowa paper received 324 comments as proof that this is a huge story outside the Beltway, that there is this spontaneous groundswell of interest among salt-of-the-earth ordinary Iowans in John Edwards' hair. Therefore, he simply has to write about it.

But what Simon omits is that the reason the item in the Iowa paper received so many comments is because Matt Drudge linked to it, just as he linked to The Politico's story on this "issue." That fact was something that countless commenters to the Iowa item mentioned, including the sixth comment, followed by many others.

The Politico's Senior Political Columnist tries to claim that there is some sort of groundswell of interest in the Edwards/haircut story compelling him to write about it, when in reality, it is nothing more -- as usual -- than the fact that he and his colleague Matt Drudge and other similar types are chattering about it, and they mistake that chatter, which is all they know and understand, for what the "ordinary people" find important. And that, in turn, makes them chatter about it more and more, feeding that self-affirming, self-important, self-centered Beltway journalist cycle endlessly.

Earlier this week, I recorded a BloggingheadsTV session with The Politico's Ben Smith, who "broke" the "Edwards hair story," about some of the media issues I've been writing about generally and with regard to The Politico specifically. A technical error prevented its being recorded, and we will re-schedule shortly, but Smith offered up the defense which literally every mainstream journalist spouts when defending themselves from blogger criticism.

Bloggers, you see, are critical of journalists because bloggers are partisan but journalists are not. Journalists deal only in objective facts and have no political agenda. Bloggers, by contrast, don't care about facts, only their crass partisan agenda. Thus, they want journalists to adhere to that partisan agenda, and because that is not what journalists do -- journalists are separate from and high above partisan agendas -- bloggers get angry at journalists.

It all stems from the fact that bloggers do not understand the important, objective, nonpartisan role played by journalists. That is what all of this "media criticism" is about -- just the misguided, angry confusion on the part of the masses who do not understand the Proper Role of Journalism. It's what virtually all of them assure themselves when dismissing the criticisms aimed at them.

I'm not sure what can be done to make it any clearer that media criticisms have nothing to do with a desire that journalists be more "partisan." Most media criticisms that I hear -- and the criticism I voice -- so plainly have nothing to do with that. Here are three of the principal criticisms made:

(1) Mainstream journalists pompously spout claims that are factually, objectively, demonstrably false -- and then, in their pomposity, refuse to acknowledge or correct their error.

Time's Managing Editor, Richard Stengel, tells viewers that Americans do not want Karl Rove questioned under oath even though all relevant polling data shows the exact opposite. Andrea Mitchell tells her viewers that Americans want Lewis Libby pardoned and that Nancy Pelosi now is just as unpopular as Denny Hastert was before the November elections even though those statements are the opposite of reality. None of that gets corrected, because it's spouted lazily or without the slightest concern for whether it's true.

Does that sound like a demand that journalists be more "partisan"?

(2) Journalists mindlessly pass on government statements without bothering to investigate if they are true. And they grant anonymity to government sources to do nothing but spew false government propaganda with impunity.

Hence, Jessica Lynch fought off evil Iraqi terrorists in a brave firefight. Saddam Hussein had aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons and extensive ties with Al Qaeda. The Government found bentonite in the anthrax used to attack the U.S. and that strongly suggests Saddam was behind the attacks.

No investigation is conducted to determine if the government claims are true. They are just passed along by journalists who claim that repeating what they are told is the essence of their job now. And even when it turns out that their sources deliberately lied to them in order to plant false claims with the journalists' viewers or readers, they continue to protect the identity of the sources and refuse to tell the American public who was behind the deliberate falsehood.

Does that sound like a demand that journalists be more "partisan"?

(3) National journalists wallow endlessly in vacuous, vapid, empty-headed, petty gossip, obsessed with meaningless chatter and snide, personality-based assaults more appropriate for a junior high clique than anything else. And they do so while ignoring the most substantive and consequential political matters.

One example illustrating this criticism would be a flamboyantly launched "new" online political magazine, run by the nation's most institutionally prestigious "political journalists," expending extraordinary amounts of time and energy writing about John Edwards' haircut, rather than covering any number of political scandals, matters concerning war, and a whole variety of other issues with profound impact on the lives of millions of people.

Does that sound like a demand that journalists be more "partisan"?

The Politico's own Editor-in-Chief, John Harris, wrote in his book that political journalism is a "Freak Show" ruled by Matt Drudge, which makes it, by definition, a Freak Show devoted to advancing the Limbaugh-led right-wing agenda. More than any other journalistic outlet around, The Politico has conducted itself so as to feed off of the core of that right-wing Freak Show.

This is what Harris wrote when explaining to me in the most generously patient way the difference between the elevated work of political journalists and the rambunctious, lowly partisanship of bloggers:

Although we are a new publication, Politico has several reporters and editors who have been in this profession for two decades or more. They know that what counts is reputation over the long haul, not any individual story or any uproar du jour on the blogs. . . .

In your case, much of your criticism comes from a distinct ideological perspective. That's fine, but surely you must appreciate that not everyone acts with your degree of ideological motivation. In the case of people at Politico, our motivations are simple -- to write interesting and worthwhile stories and to put those stories before largest possible audience.

That pious lecture was delivered by an individual who oversees a "newspaper" that has published no fewer than eight items in the last two weeks about John Edwards' haircut, including a front-page-promoted article yesterday devoted exclusively to that matter by his "Senior Political Columnist."

The sprawling, glaring, and ever-widening discrepancy between (a) how journalists like Harris preeningly describe what they do and (b) the empty-headed trash they churn out on a regular basis, is the actual crux of most media criticism. At one of the most consequential times in our nation's political history, during a presidency that few can dispute has been radical and among the most nation-changing in history, our national political press is symbolized by Roger Simon's chatter about John Edwards' hair (and Simon, with no embarrassment at all, even shares that he has debated the True Meaning of the Edwards Hair issue with "many of my friends and colleagues").

And when one objects to this state of affairs, journalists like John Harris look down their nose and proclaim that complaints are just coming from the lowly masses who do not understand the lofty, elevated and important function journalists fulfill. And then they go and edit their next Edwards Haircut story.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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