The ornery pride of the political journalist

Jim VandeHei and John Harris claim that the one thing political reporters can't tolerate is the suspicion that they're not being tough enough.

Published March 4, 2008 9:07PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

The Politico's Jim VandeHei and John Harris claim today that the press is being much harder on Obama now because they've heard all the complaints -- from Saturday Night Live and the Clinton camp -- that they've been too soft on Obama. According to the Politico duo, reporters, being the proud and ornery professionals that they are, simply cannot abide accusations that their coverage of a political figure is too uncritical. You see, nothing makes them as aggressive as that does:

Never underestimate the power of shame in journalism. "SNL's" mockery went straight to reporters' insecurities. Being accused of falling "in the tank" for a candidate is the journalistic equivalent of a nerdish high school freshman getting a wedgie from the jocks.

It is no coincidence that the past few days have seen reporters acting tough with stories about Obama’s relationship with a Chicago influence-peddler, his sincerity in opposing NAFTA and his stiff-arming of questions from the press. . . .

[Howard Wolfson] holds a conference call every day to tell reporters they are worthless and weak (not to mention fat, lazy and stupid -- no way to go through life) because of their soft Obama coverage. Again, reporters' self-justifying mechanism kicks in when someone says they are being too tough. But their self-loathing mechanism kicks in when someone says they are being too weak. Read Dana Milbank's account of Monday's Obama press conference to see if Wolfson’s hectoring is working.

The answer: Damn straight.

Oh, absolutely. Nothing changes press behavior more than accusations that they're "in the tank" for someone. After all, it's only been eight short years since the national press corps fell in love with then-candidate George W. Bush, depicted him as the swaggering, friendly, regular, down-home American male with whom you'd want to have a beer -- unlike that pompous, annoying, boring liar, Al Gore.

Once they got him elected, they then proceeded to click their heels and loyally salute for the next several years or so in the presence of the manly Commander-in-Chief War Hero, as they unquestioningly marched behind him into Iraq, mindlessly trumpeting every word that came out of his mouth, too afraid (according to the NYT's Elisabeth Bumiller) even to ask him questions, and abdicating every basic journalistic duty to such an extent that they voluntarily inflicted on the country what Salon's Gary Kamiya called "one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media."

After that, they swooned in unison over how manly and powerful the Leader was when he pranced around that aircraft carrier declaring -- five years ago -- that we had Won the War. They then spent the 2004 election season glorifying the Conquering War Hero while mocking his opponent as a wind-surfing, flip-flopping, French subversive loser and his running mate as a vain, hair-obsessed, effeminate weakling. The next few years were spent overlooking, justifying and dismissing away revelations that the President had tortured people, broken the law repeatedly, spied on Americans without warrants, promulgated theories of presidential omnipotence, sent detainees to other countries to be abused, and had his top officials repeatedly and transparently lie to Congress.

Just as VandeHei and Harris say, the one thing reporters better not hear is that they're "in the tank" for someone, or boy -- watch out -- that will really get their hackles up and they'll begin to get very aggressive, very adversarial. This is a real proud and ornery group and if someone thinks they're being insufficiently scrutinizing, why, all hell is going to break lose. As VandeHei and Harris put it so appropriately, reflecting the hard-core draft-beer toughness of their journalistic colleagues: "Damn straight."

VandeHei and Harris are far too modest to mention it, but there are two other sterling examples showing the core toughness and profound professional pride of our political press corps. It's been said since 2000 that the media reveres John McCain, that they're his base, that they can barely contain their glee and happiness when he deigns to address them.

But just behold all the great investigative reporting, all the reactive tension, all the aggressive scrutiny those claims have spawned. Why, just this weekend, these prideful reporters went to "McCain's ranch" and, in exchange for having him cook them some ribs and chicken and give them a grand tour of the property, agreed to have the event just be a fun, playful social affair where no real questions would be asked (as though the Straight Talk Express tour is ever something other than that). The one thing these professionals can't tolerate is when it's said they're in the tank for someone.

And then today we learned that, last night, Hillary Clinton's campaign actually rented a men's bathroom and assigned the traveling press corps to sit there to do their work. It was an actual, fully functioning public bathroom -- complete with running urinals and stalls, situated just a few feet from where they were told to sit and work for five hours . . . and eat. Many of them, including Time's Karen Tumulty and The Los Angeles Times, actually contentedly described what happened and even posted pictures of the bathroom they all worked in.

And what did these proud professionals do? Exactly what they were told to do -- they sat there, just a few feet from urinals and bathroom stalls, and worked for hours and ate the dinner they were given. The pictures and video are really quite shocking. Seriously avoid looking at them if you've just eaten. As Kagro at Kos wrote:

Is there anything the political press corps won't roll over for?

They served them food in there. And they ate! . . . .

And I can appreciate the fact that these people have to file on pain of losing their jobs, but seriously. Would you sit in there? Would you eat in there? Would you ask anyone else to?

Oh, and here's some Alpo for you, too, Mr. Respected National Political Reporter! And you'd better eat it, or you'll lose "access."

This may be the most depressing thing I've ever seen involving people in business attire.

And this is where we get our "news," America.

This isn't the most significant story ever, but it might actually be the most symbolically revealing.

The reality is that the Clinton campaign has been complaining bitterly for months and months that the media has not subjected Obama to any real critical scrutiny. For the most part, that fell on deaf ears. The only thing that has changed over the past couple of weeks is that the right-wing noise machine, which now sees Obama as the likely Democratic nominee, began complaining just as bitterly that the media is "in the tank" for Obama. That is what moves them. As Harris himself wrote in his own book, it is Drudge -- not Howard Wolfson or SNL -- who rules their world.

I just need to repeat the boastful Vandehei/Harris claim: "Being accused of falling 'in the tank' for a candidate is the journalistic equivalent of a nerdish high school freshman getting a wedgie from the jocks." That's true except when the candidate for whom they're "in the tank" is the jock giving them the wedgie -- the faux-frat boy George Bush who earned their reverence by taunting and mocking them, and his fighter-pilot successor-in-tough-guyness John McCain who does the same -- in which case they are perfectly content, even happy, with their lowly status, apparently even if it's right next to a urinal, literally.

Here's Margaret Carlson, then of Time Magazine, explaining why the press fell so deeply in love with candidate George Bush: "Bush knows how to push the buttons of your high school insecurity. . . .[Bush] wasn't just any old breezy frat brother with mediocre grades . . . He was proud of it."

The truth is the exact opposite of what VandeiHei and Harris said today. If the last couple of decades have demonstrated anything, it's that the press loves being weak and "in the tank," as long as it's in the tank to those whom they perceive to be powerful, which, for the past 15 years or so, has been the GOP power establishment. It's only when the people for whom they're in the tank begin instructing them to become more aggressive against others do they pay heed. That's all that has changed over the past couple of weeks -- they're now getting pushed around for being "too soft on Obama" by the only people to whom they actually listen, quite respectfully.

UPDATE: I can't bring myself to provide any excerpts from this account, from Newsweek's Holly Bailey, of the truly lovely time the traveling reporters had with McCain and his wife, Cindy, this weekend on their Arizona ranch. The whole thing should be read. As you read it, keep in mind that when journalists hear that they're in the tank for a candidate, they get really aggressive and adversarial, just like The Politico said.

* * * * *

I'll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m. EST (roughly) to discuss FISA and telecom amnesty matters. Local listings or live video feed can be found here.

UPDATE II: McCain, of course, never repudiated, but rather continues to embrace, Pastor John Hagee, and yet the media has decided that's all but a non-story. A TMP reader has an excellent analysis of that development, along with the ramifications of the NYT McCain "consultant" story, in the context of looking at its ongoing love affair with the presumptive GOP nominee.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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