Answers for Joe Klein

Time's pundit asks some questions about media criticisms, and some answers are provided.

Published May 10, 2007 4:42PM (EDT)

(updated below - with a reply to Klein's "response")

In response to this post from last night, Time's Joe Klein asks:

I don't understand this. Is he saying that people like Broder and Ron Brownstein and me shouldn't talk to people outside the Beltway?

Look, the blogospheric media critics have served a valuable function at times, and at other times it's just vitriol for vitriol's sake. I thought an essential part of the critique was that some of us are out of touch with reality...but now Greenwald is saying that any efforts to actually report what's going on outside the Beltway are bad, too?

It ought to go without saying that I argued nothing of the kind. My point was that Beltway pundits are far too insulated and detached from the people whom they baselessly claim to represent, not that leaving the Beltway is bad. The fact that it is supposed to be some sort of commendable or distinguishing attribute that Broder goes on field trips to America in order to study how the "ordinary people" think -- much the way a zoologist travels to the jungle to observe the behavior of different species -- illustrates that point.

Klein's reply creates an opportunity to try to convey a crucial point. Directly contrary to how it perceives itself, the elite Beltway opinion-making class could not be any more unrepresentative of how most Americans live and how they think about their government. Their careers require access and information, which in turn requires the currying of favor with the political officials they purport to cover, to say nothing of the media corporations for which they work.

To most Americans -- the vast majority of whom believe that our country is headed in the wrong direction -- the "Beltway" is the source of the problem. That is the epicenter of the political and media culture which is so profoundly failing the country. Every Beltway institution -- from the President to the Congress to the media -- is held in such low esteem by Americans across the board.

But for the Beltway pundit and our media stars -- those who see David Broder as their Dean -- the "Beltway" is the opposite. For such individuals, the "Beltway" is their habitat. It is the source of their importance and status and wealth and prestige. They naturally love the "Beltway" because they are integral parts of it and that system -- and those who rule it -- lavishes them with all sorts of rewards. As a result, they are naturally inclined to view it with great enthusiasm and to defend it as the superior system. Dogs don't attack the master who feeds them, and people don't generally attack the system that glorifies them.

Why would David Broder -- or, for that matter, Joe Klein -- possibly view the Beltway political system as anything other than something to celebrate, in light of the fact that everything they have in their public life -- from their prestige to their access to their financial wealth -- emanates from that system and, more importantly, is dependent upon the preservation of their good standing within it? Because our media stars are not outsiders looking in on the Beltway power systems (as journalists of the past were), but instead now are glittery and eager participants within it, their view of that system is naturally and inevitably worlds apart from (and vastly more favorable than) the views of most people.

The analogy between those who are members of the royal court and those subject to its rule is almost exactly apposite. For most Americans, the "Beltway" is the distant, corrupt and closed system that rules the nation. But for our star national pundits, the "Beltway" is what gives them their careers, their friends, their wealth, their purpose and their identity. Exactly to the extent that most Americans are alienated from that system, Beltway pundits are invested in its preservation and defense. For that reason, among others, the very idea that Beltway pundits are the "voice of America" is ludicrous on its face, no matter how many field trips they take into America.

And, as I indicated yesterday, as ludicrous as the conceit is that insulated Beltway pundits generally are representative of the American heartland, that absurdity is elevated by many magnitudes when it is David Broder who is the one held up as the saltiest-of-the-earth True Voice of America. As many of Klein's commenters quickly pointed out -- and as Atrios highlighted recently when offering the definitive definition of High Broderism -- David Broder sees himself as the Guardian of Beltway Power, as the Elevated and Wise Warrior protecting it from infection by the dirty and lowly masses.

Broder's entire body of work is devoted to that vision, and nothing illustrates it more potently than his now iconic proclamation -- conveyed, appropriately and revealingly enough, by his fellow Elite Guardian, Sally Quinn -- that Bill Clinton, the elected and popular President of the United States, "came in here and he trashed the place and it's not his place." The Beltway belongs not to the American people but to its permanent ruling class. It belongs to David Broder.

The reverent view of Broder as the Man of the People actually crystallizes as much as anything what I think is the principal source of tension between bloggers and national journalists like Klein. And beyond that, it crystallizes why the blogosphere has been embraced as such a critical alternative to our decaying and failing Beltway institutions, including both our media organs and our political organizing instruments such as political parties.

The blog-media dividing line is not about ideology or temperament, at least not principally. The dividing line, more than anything else, is one's view of the Beltway political and media culture -- is it (a) basically a healthy and constructive system filled with good, capable and decent people which just needs some reform here and there, or is it (b) fundamentally broken, corrupt, barren, devoid of any vibrancy and integrity and real purpose?

National journalists, because they and their lives and careers are so integrally woven into that system, instinctively believe the former. And that, more than anything else, renders them incapable of fulfilling the core journalistic function, which is to report on our government adversarially and to view it as a target of scepticism. They are far too integrated into it and dependent upon it to do anything other than view it as intrinsically good and therefore reflexively defend it. And that is true no matter how many foreign outside-of-the-Beltway excursions David Broder courageously undertakes. They are spokespeople for the royal court of which they (and typically their spouses and friends and close associates) are such a critical part.

Bloggers, by stark and vital contrast, are (along with blog readers) almost uniformly people who function outside the Beltway system, i.e. they are the "ordinary Americans" whom people like Broder and Klein claim to represent. And they are largely motivated by animosity towards that system, by a belief that it has become broken and corrupt. For that reason, they are uniquely positioned to perform the adversarial and watchdog functions which our political press is intended to perform but which -- due to its becoming far too integral a component of the Betlway system -- it has now almost completely abdicated.

As many of Klein's commenters pointed out, having David Broder go and speak with tiny audiences of people who want to sit with David Broder and share their political views is so woefully insufficient to render him the "Voice of America" that it is difficult to believe anyone can embrace such an idea. All of us impose our own biases and preconceptions on anedcotal experiences. We all seek out confirmation of our views even when we think we are doing otherwise. Claims that one's own views are what "Americans think," when unaccompanied by empirical data, are worthless. And patronizingly joining the "real people" in a coffee shop a few times a year is meaningless. It certainly does not make one qualified to speak on behalf of anyone.

The tactic of taking one's own views -- and then baselessly (i.e., with no empirical evidence, such as polling data) attributing them to what "Americans" believe -- has become one of the Beltway pundit's favorite, and most dishonest, manipulative weapons. And beyond being manipulative, it is what enables pundits to preen around as the Voice of Real Americans. But the disconnect between such pundits and most Americans is rooted in virtually every social, cultural, economic and political level possible, and the pundit's claim to represent "how Americans think" is as fact-free as a claim can be.

[And while I have Joe Klein: Can you or someone at Time please ask Rick Stengel why he thinks he is entitled to go on national television and make factually and demonstrably false statements (see Update) about what Americans think and not retract, correct or clarify what he has said once he realizes it is false? Ana Marie Cox linked to that discussion and said she passed it on to him, yet he has never corrected his falsehoods. He's Time's Managing Editor. Why is nobody at Time bothered by that behavior?]

I've complimented Klein and the other Time bloggers before for blogging and, more significantly, interacting with bloggers and responding to critiques. The reason I think that is an important process is because journalists so frequently misunderstand the primary criticisms bloggers make, and instead, respond to caricatures or strawmen.

The principal media criticism, at least in my view, is not that journalists generally subscribe to a right-wing political ideology across the board and therefore are the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. Nor is it that they are "insufficiently partisan."

The criticism is that the social and political circles in which they operate are so warped, render them so dependent upon the dominant political factions in Washington (which, for the last couple decades, and certainly for this decade, has been the right-wing Republican faction), and so detached from reality and from the lives of most Americans, that whatever else they are, "voice of the American people" is not it, and whatever else one can say they do, adversarially scrutinizing our government is not it.

UPDATE: One other point that arises with some frequency: I'm always amazed when journalists who use terms like "disgrace" and "idiots" to describe their political opponents accuse bloggers of excess "vitriol," particularly where the bloggers in question tend to refrain from using such personal epithets. Vitriol is vitriol no matter how justifiable one might think it is, and one who uses name-calling insults like that in lieu of substantive debate really is not in much of a position to lead the crusade against blogger vitriol.

UPDATE II: Klein has added another Update to his post which is apparently intended to "respond" to this post. It's a little dizzying trying to follow the ever-changing issues Klein is refuting (ever-changing but never actually related to the original post), but now he says: "it would be nice if Greenwald could point out an instance where Broder's outside the beltway reporting was defective."

Broder's defective "reporting" was never the point here; it was his alleged status as The Voice of the People. Independently, I don't consider what Broder does to constitute "reporting," but rather punditry. To the extent that, by "reporting," Klein is referring to Broder's field trips to America where he speaks with a few wonderful "ordinary people" and then writes down what they said, the point is not that he transcribes those chats inaccurately.

The point is that such anecdotal chatter is worthless for learning anything other than what his selected conversation partners believe. In order to know what "Americans believe" in a broader and more generalized sense, people who are "reporters" use "polling data" to find that out, not patronizing chats that they start up in coffee houses a couple times a year with the lovely ordinary people who live near their summer home (the cute little people who eat "a half-chicken, roasted on an outdoor grill; mounds of mashed potatoes and gravy; sweet corn; cole slaw; home-baked biscuits and pies; coffee and cold drinks, $10 for adults, $5 for children").

In fact, I'd say that taking isolated, anecdotal chats and holding them out as representative of what "Americans believe" is, by definition, "defective reporting." I would say the same for Managing Editors of Time who go on The Chris Matthews Show and baselessly (and falsely) attribute their own personal views to "what Americans want." That is not reporting; it's fantasizing and masquerading one's own biases and views as "the views of the people." It is lazy, deeply misleading and manipulative.

But to the extent that Klein is interested in Broder's defective "reporting," he should begin here. That is where Broder, after listening to what he thought was some clever phrasing by George Bush in a couple answers about Iraq which Bush gave at a February press conference, announced: "President Bush is poised for a political comeback."

Broder seems to have absolutely no idea that the country has turned against George Bush and his war to a historic and irreversible degree, and no cute and clever Rove-designed platitudes at a Press Conference will change that. Anyone remotely in touch with the political sentiments of "Americans" would know that.

Klein should also look here, where some of Broder's most out-of-touch and obtuse observations are collected -- including:

* Broder's 2005 canonization of Bush ("the quest for freedom . . . is a central purpose of his administration");

* his November, 2004 criticisms of Bush critics for what he said were misguided concerns that the Bush presidency was radical ("he will have to work within the system for whatever he gets. Checks and balances are still there");

* his November 1, 2004 proclamation that the country likes Bush personally far more than Gore and Kerry and that "the country is truly conservative";

* his April, 2003 decree that "there is little the Democrats can do to shatter the reputation for strong leadership Bush has built, and not much their presidential candidates can do to win equal reputations for themselves";

* his May 2003 confession that "I like Karl Rove" followed by a very moving reminiscence of the quality time he was able to spend with Rove in Austria when (just like the ordinary people): "Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and I were assembling a cast of American politicians to address a group of 40 emerging political leaders from Western Europe, the former Soviet bloc, Asia and Africa, I suggested we invite Karl Rove to be one of the instructors";

* his October 2002 "report" where he explained how Don Rumsfeld personally invited him to the Pentagon to explain how Iraq is such a grave threat, and at the meeting, Rumsfeld "pulled out a pencil and drew me a simple chart -- a downward sloping line tracing the erosion of Iraq's conventional military strength in the decade since the Gulf War, and an upward sloping line showing its growing store of WMD - weapons of mass destruction." Based on Rumsfeld's crude and condescending scribblings, an obviously flattered Broder pronounced: "Rumsfeld left me with the impression that he is aware of the risks of war with Iraq, but confident they can be handled." And finally:

* his October 2002 attack against protestors trying to stop the Iraq War with meetings in Iraq: "It was all too reminiscent of Jane Fonda in Hanoi or antiwar protesters marching under Viet Cong flags."

Last year, Broder decided to spew pure caricature and cliche about the ordinary people he loves so much by claiming that only few Democrats "have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military."

In sum, Broder has propped up one of the most unpopular and corrupt presidencies in history, all after he spent years waxing hysteric over a deeply popular President and a sex scandal that Americans by and large thought was petty and inconsequential. Time and again, David Broder is on the wrong side of every critical political issue. His judgment proves again and again to be worthless and misguided. And his opinions could not be any more detached from the "ordinary Americans" he thinks he represents.

Since I've answered the many questions posed by Klein, and dutifully followed his rapidly shifting rhetorical shell game, I was hoping to have the return courtesy of a response -- from him or anyone else at Time -- to Rick Stengel's lingering, uncorrected factual falsehoods. All journalists -- and everyone else -- make mistakes. The credible ones face up to them, acknowledge them, and correct them -- especially when they're made on national television and involve indisputably false statements about vitally important political matters.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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