The Politico sewer

The gossip rag's latest scoop reveals much about its standards, but even more about our largest media outlets.

Published July 17, 2007 11:53AM (EDT)

[updated below (reply to James Joyner)

updated again (reply to Marc Ambinder)

Update III]

The Politico today is prominently touting on its front page another vapid, petty, and inane "news story" -- the type of story which has, in just a few short months, become its hallmark:

Romney spent $300 on makeup 'consulting'

What kinds of things do you think of when you hear "communications consulting"?

Speechwriting? Message strategy?

Well, "communications consulting" is how presidential candidate Mitt Romney recorded $300 in payments to a California company that describes itself as "a mobile beauty team for hair, makeup and men's grooming and spa services."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden confirmed that the payments -- actually two separate $150 charges -- were for makeup, though he said the former Massachusetts governor had only one session with Hidden Beauty of West Hills, Calif.

Impressively, they followed up their Romney scoop with a hard-hitting, probing interview that marks the outer limits of journalism of which their "reporters" are capable:

But Stacy Andrews, who made up Romney for Hidden Beauty, said he barely needs makeup.

"He's already tan," she said. "We basically put a drop of foundation on him . . . and we powdered him a little bit."

This is not some throw-away blog item, but one of The Politico's featured front page news stories today:

One of the reasons why vapid petty-personality "journalism" of this sort has so disadvantaged liberals and so advantaged right-wing fanatics is because the latter are not only willing, but droolingly eager, to exploit these sorts of themes, while liberals in general are highly reluctant, almost embarrassed, to do so. Thus, even after months of John Edwards being mauled in every media venue as a result of the Pulitzer-worthy haircut "scoop" by The Politico's Ben Smith, these are representative reactions by liberals to the Romney "story":

Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly:

MAKE IT STOP....From the front page of The Politico on Monday: . . . Seriously. Can we just stop this stuff? Does anyone really think that the problem with presidential campaign coverage is that it isn't vapid and half-witted enough already? Jeebus.

Melissa McEwan, Shakespeare's Sister:

OMG -- Who GIVES a Shit?!

I swear to the fates, if there's ever a museum of internet journalism, celebrating the best the web has to offer, The Politico would best be represented by a turd in the unfinished basement bathroom.

The only remotely non-critical reference I can find to the Romney story is this seven-word statement from Oliver Willis, which seems more satirical than anything else.

The real issue here -- aside from the complete lack of journalistic standards at the Politico, which is old news by now -- is whether this trashy, worthless item will be given anywhere near the coverage and attention which the Politico's equally trashly, equally worthless Edwards item received. It goes without saying that the hordes of right-wing commentators who spewed one Edwards hair insult after the next will not do anything similar with Romney. Their utter lack of consistency is far too established to be worthy of commentary.

But it is worth recalling how intense and endless the coverage of the Edwards hair item was -- and continues to be -- in our establishment media. Ever since Ben Smith broke this story, we have been subjected to countless references -- one after the next -- not just by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but in The New York Times -- multiple, repetitive "news" articles for months, along with "news analysis" and substance-free Op-Eds. All of that is just from the NYT news and editorial pages alone (the Times' coverage of Edwards' haircut almost exceeds that of The Politico itself). It was also, needless to say, endlessly repeated by one television pundit after the next and other news outlets as well.

In fact, as Greg Sargent noted weeks ago, our broken, petty media's "coverage" of this "story" was so intense and endless that far more Americans were aware of it than they are of some of the most politically important facts:

Buried in the new Fox News poll is a startling number that doesn't reflect terribly well on the priorities of our political media:

From the new Fox poll of registered voters:

32. Do you happen to know which presidential candidate has been in the news recently for paying four hundred dollars for a haircut?

Edwards 44% Hillary 2% Obama 1% Other 1% Don't know 53%

As Greg noted, a recent Harris poll had found that only 45% of Americans were aware that Saddam had no WMD's at the time we invaded Iraq. As Greg said: "the same number know about Edwards' haircut that knew the truth last year about Saddam and his phantom weapons."

And citing the poll numbers showing that Americans overwhelmingly believed even as late as September, 2003 that Saddam personally planned the 9/11 attacks, Greg observed:

So nearly 20 percent more know about Edwards' haircut than believed Saddam wasn't behind 9/11 -- two years after the attacks and six whole months after the invasion.

Something's wrong here.

Yes, something is quite wrong here. But the establishment media will not voluntarily change its behavior. Why not? Because they do not think there is a problem at all. Quite the contrary. Let us turn to Newsweek's Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe and hear again what he thinks about such matters: "the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general." Fantastic.

It isn't only that the press is petty and obsessed with worthless gossip at the expense of real reporting. It's also that their pettiness is so transparently one-sided. As MyDD's Jonathan Singer put it:

A whole lot of words have been spilled -- far too many, indeed -- over John Edwards' decision to spend $400 of campaign contributions on a haircut. But in the interest of balance, I suppose we should expect as much media attention to be poured on Mitt Romney's decision to spend nearly as much on a makeover this quarter. . . .

It has only been about three hours since The Politico ran with this story online, but to this point not a single other news service running its stories on Google news has run with the Romney makeover story, and the particular article quoted above has been scantly mentioned within the blogosphere thus far. This might change -- but I'm not betting on the right wing echochamber working too hard on bringing this story to the attention of the broader electorate.

There is a reason The Politico is referred to in some circles as "Drudgico" and/or "Drudge's little sister." But those terms are increasingly apt for our largest and most influential media outlets as well.

* * * * *

On a not entirely unrelated note, one of the panels I am on at Yearly Kos this year is entitled "Blogs and the MSM: from Clash to Civilization". The panel, to be moderated by The Nation's Ari Melber, also features Jill Filipovic of the Feministe blog and Mike Allen of The Politico, whose journalism I examined here.

UPDATE: James Joyner disputes what he says is my claim that "Liberals [are] Just Too Darn Nice to Play Politics." I don't actually think, and did not argue, that liberals are "nicer" or too elevated to engage in hard-core political warfare, including below-the-belt personality attacks, though there is, admittedly, an ambiguity in what I wrote that could account for that misreading.

When I said that conservatives are far more eager than liberals "to exploit these sorts of themes," I am referring to the gender-based personality attacks that have become a staple of right-wing campaigns and -- far more than the supposed "hypocrisy" from Edwards' poverty platform -- is what has made the Edwards hair story resonate. The standard right-wing attack on liberals generally, and on John Edwards specifically, is to attack them as being effeminate (in contrast to the swaggering, pseudo-tough guy GOP brush-clearing ranchers and (play-acting) military commanders and fighter pilots).

For some time now, it has been commonplace for Democratic candidates to be depicted as gender-confused freaks -- Al Gore, emasculated with earth colors at the hands of the controlling Naomi Wolf; John Kerry, the wife-dominated, French windsurfer; Hillary Clinton, the domineering, emasculating, pants-wearing dyke; and John Edwards, the pretty, womanly faggot obsessed with his hair. One can make a strong argument, as some have, that those personality-attack themes have played a far larger role in the outcome of the last two presidential election than any substantive issues, and liberals simply have nothing close to the potency of the right-wing filth machine in advancing these gender themes.

The muted, even critical reaction to the Romney story -- as compared to the still-ongoing feeding frenzy about Edwards' hair, not just among right-wing pundits but our establishment press -- demonstrates that point rather conclusively. Are there any right-wing commentators of any note who have ever objected to the "Edwards hair" theme -- which has endured for years -- as the worthless, petty, vindictive distraction that it is?

UPDATE II: On his Atlantic Monthly blog, Marc Ambinder makes a common argument that I find completely bewildering -- namely, that the Edwards hair story was a legitimate news story because "the centerpiece of Edwards's campaign is his anti-poverty efforts" and "[h]is credibility as a messenger comes into question when he spends money ostentatiously." I hope Ambinder or anyone else who believes this will address the following.

Many of our nation's greatest advocates for the poor -- including Robert Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt -- were born wealthy and lived rich lifestyles from infancy onward. Was their "credibility" as poverty advocates undermined as a result? By contrast, Edwards lived most of his early life in extreme poverty. Doesn't it stand to reason that he understands those issues and has an authentic commitment to them as a result of his own personal experiences, even if he ended up financially successful, solely as a result of his own efforts, later in life?

Beyond that, every politician claims to understand and be devoted to the plight of the "working family." Mitt Romney and George Bush, born to great wealth, certainly make those claims, even though they haven't been anywhere near "working families" since the day they were born. Ronald Reagan was endlessly held up as the fighter for "working families" despite his personal wealth. If Edwards' wealth makes him so suspect when he claims to be devoted to the poor, why doesn't the in-born, unearned wealth of Bush and Romney -- and every other non-poor politician -- make them equally suspect as advocates for "America's working families"?

Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson have made millions of dollars over the last several years. When they prattle on about America's middle-class, should we start digging into the luxury items they have purchased and the exorbitant fees they pay for a whole litany of services as proof that they are insincere?

Worse still, the claim that there is something "hypocritical" about Edwards' wealth -- now a pervasive premise of Conventional Wisdom -- is premised on a complete misunderstanding of "hypocrisy." The attribute of "hypocrisy" is one who advocates "Principle X" and then acts contrary to that principle (as in: "I believe in Traditional Marriage and I'd like you to meet my third wife," or "I believe in Traditional Marriage and I'm in a rush to make my appointment at the escort agency/to meet my young aide and mistress/to consult with my divorce lawyer").

John Edwards isn't advocating for the elimination of private property or for prohibitions on personal wealth, so his personal wealth isn't remotely "hypocritical." He is advocating for government policies designed to address the plight of America's poor. His own personal wealth -- just as was true for Robert Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt or even Lyndon Johnson -- is irrelevant and not even remotely "hypocritical" for those who understand that term.

UPDATE III: Unsurprisingly, Think Progress is able to unearth this quote from the endlessly pandering Mitt Romney, who previously responded to the Edwards haircut story by boasting that "he pays $50 for a hair cut including the tip" and then snidely added:

You know I think John Edwards was right. There are two Americas. There is the America where people pay $400 for a haircut and then there is everybody else.

Take note, Marc Ambinder: that -- Romney's scornfully mocking Edwards for paying unusually large amounts for beauty care while concealing the fact that he does so himself -- is an actual case of "hypocrisy."

By Glenn Greenwald

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