BloggingheadsTV session with the Politico's Ben Smith

A discussion with the journalist responsible for some of the most controversial Politico articles.

Published May 17, 2007 11:45AM (EDT)

The BloggingheadsTV session that I did with The Politico's Ben Smith is now posted here. I'm not an enthusiast for this medium -- largely for the reasons which Julian Sanchez has set forth here (ironically by video), and because the format tends to place a premium on excessive amiability at the expense of substantive exchanges -- but one constructive attribute it has is the ability to engage someone's arguments much more directly and immediately than a written back-and-forth permits. Particularly as the discussion evolved here, I think that feature becomes evident.

The first BloggingheadsTV session I ever saw was one featuring Jonah Goldberg and Mickey Kaus, and that came close to souring the medium for me permanently. I honestly could not (and still cannot) understand why anyone would want (or how anyone would be able) to sit there for an hour watching super-up-close video of those two, sitting in their homes, chatting affectionately and aimlessly about, more or less, nothing.

But with the passage of time, the trauma from that experience has subsided somewhat, and I thought the opportunity to be able to engage directly with the Politico reporter responsible for many of the most Drudge-promoted articles since The Politico's inception might be worthwhile. As the discussion unfolds, and it takes a little time for it it do so, I think it was worthwhile.

One point that I think is notable is that Smith -- notwithstanding the series of highly questionable and Drudge-affirming articles he has churned out -- is no fire-breathing, Machiavellian, scheming right-wing operative. By all accounts, including from many people who are familiar with him and his pre-Politico journalism, he's perfectly decent and ethical and almost certainly not someone who subscribes to right-wing political views.

And yet there he is, producing "news" content that serves Matt Drudge's agenda as much as any other single working reporter -- not only the Edwards hair stories, but also Barack Obama's alleged "Jewish problem" and his lack of substance, Bill Richardson's alleged problem with womanizing, and a seemingly endless series of other items which focus on what his Editor-in-Chief, John Harris, described as the Drudge-ruled "attacked-based personality-obsessed politics that is the Freak Show's signature."

I think what this illustrates -- and this is now independent of Smith particularly -- is that what produces the type of "journalism" that merits such strong criticism often has nothing to do with any specific biases or motives of the individual reporter. Often, the causes that produce skewed or petty journalism are systemic, not individual malice or even individual political bias.

In many cases, the dysfunctional political journalism that plagues the country is the result of people who -- as is true in all professions -- have as their very modest goal wanting to do their jobs to the satisfaction of their employers. But in the case of establishment "journalism", that means churning out "John-Edwards-haircut" stories while neglecting substantive issues and major investigative stories -- not because the individual reporter is ideologically motivated, but because that is what the environment in which he works demands. That is not intended to mitigate or excuse or defend anyone or anything. It's just descriptive.

While much of the bias and dysfunction in the press is due to corruption or ideology of the individual reporter, a substantial portion of it, on the level of the individual reporter, is just more banal than that. Many of them are just dutifully adhering to the mores and demands of their working environment, and that is why so many of them are bewildered by media criticisms that they are serving a right-wing narrative. They don't think they are doing that. They think they are conscientious reporters who are adhering to the prevailing rules and standards they are taught. And they are doing that.

But -- due to the reasons that have been frequently discussed and which I tried to raise with Smith in the Blogginghead session -- that bias and corruption is intrinsic to the establishment media culture and how it operates. That creates great pressure on those who work within those conventions (and particularly those who do not actively resist them) to produce journalism that is biased and corrupt, even if that is not their goal. There are, of course, establishment journalists who do resist those pressures and produce very worthwhile journalism, but those are the rare exceptions.

By Glenn Greenwald

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