David Brooks' fictitious defense of his industry's behavior

Establishment journalists blame the interests of Americans for their coverage choices without having any idea if their claims are true.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published April 18, 2008 6:24PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II - Update III)

As I've noted more times than I can count, the premiere manipulative, deceitful tactic of the Beltway pundit is the pretense that they are the Spokespeople for the Regular Americans, and that the pundits' views can therefore be assumed to be representative of how Regular Americans think, even when there is no evidence remotely suggesting that to be so and ample evidence suggesting that it is false, and the prime practitioner of this corrupt method is David Brooks. Today, in his New York Times column, Brooks again defends the tawdry, juvenile ABC "debate" and hauls out this tactic to do so:

But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry's windsurfing or John Edwards's haircut as clues about shared values. . . . When Obama goes to a church infused with James Cone-style liberation theology, when he makes ill-informed comments about working-class voters, when he bowls a 37 for crying out loud, voters are going to wonder if he's one of them. Obama has to address those doubts, and he has done so poorly up to now.

As always, David Brooks knows how "they" think and what's important to "them" -- so much so that no proof is ever needed for his claims. As always, it's not David Brooks and his childish colleagues in journalism who are interested in insipid, Drudge-like storylines. No, not at all. They so wish they could be covering weightier matters. But they can't, because those stunted, unsophisticated Americans out there -- the ones Brooks is able simultaneously to look down upon and understand and speak for -- don't want to hear about any weighty matters. They are capable only of thinking about whether Obama can bowl and whether Edwards likes his hair too much (and, of course, it's the very same media stars who spout this condescension about the Regular Folk who have decreed that Barack Obama -- and Al Gore, John Kerry, Mike Dukakis, etc. etc. -- are elitists because they look down on Regular Americans).

Leave aside the question of whether those who hold themselves out as political journalists ought to report on substantive matters and be guided by objectives other than maximizing profits. Even with regard to what "Americans" want, David Brooks has no idea whether what he's saying here is true and he also doesn't care. He asserts these matters as fact because his only goal is to defend his "profession" and his colleagues. Thus, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos and all the rest of them have no choice but to be as petty and vapid as they are because that's what "Americans" want.

All available data proves the opposite. As the media assault on Obama's "character" intensifies using the petty, cliched personality themes that are the hallmark of their leader, Matt Drudge, Obama hasn't appeared to suffer much at all. To the contrary, he has steadily gained on Clinton in Pennsylvania beginning with the lapel pin/Michelle Obama/Wright/bowling/"bitter" controversies. Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the political coverage fed to them by the establishment media, which is held in almost as low esteem as the Bush administration, and complaints are common that the political process has little to do with their lives. Though it never occurs to him, the fact that the David Brooks of the world can't stop fixating on bowling scores and haircuts -- while the country spirals into extreme economic insecurity and more deeply into a Middle East occupation which the country hates -- might be one reason why:

The public, in turn, sees a news industry whose corporations increasingly act like other businesses. News outlets in an era of fragmentation seem more prone to produce content designed only to attract a crowd. Alerts of journalistic failures are coming more frequently from politicians, bloggers, mainstream press critics and, with more ways to add their own voice, even citizens themselves. Perhaps most important, with more choices, the public can easily see the limits of what any one news organization is offering.

The reason the establishment press fixates on these adolescent themes has nothing to do with what "Americans" want. It has everything to do with the fact that it's what these journalists always do; it's what they're programmed to do; and, at this point, it's all the empty and slothful media stars know how to do.

Critically, they're not just assaulting Obama (and, before him, Clinton and Edwards) with randomly selected petty trash. It's purposeful and familiar: all of these Drudgian paper cuts are intended to expose Obama as an exotic, bizarre, effete, vaguely American-hating elitist who is out of touch with Regular Americans and plagued by a personality so unlikable that you can't possibly vote for him even if you agree with him on all of the issues -- just as was true for virtually every national Democratic leader before him. All of this happens while the media reverence for John McCain and his character, "strength," likability and integrity grow -- far beyond even the affection they acknowledge they have long harbored for the amiable war hero, George W. Bush, and which is obligatorily directed at the canonized Ronald Reagan.

As I wrote in Great American Hypocrites:

As always, Drudge rules their world and they become his echo chamber. If he selects a petty, personality-smearing story to trumpet, and the media (as they always do) dutifully follows, then that alone constitutes "proof" of the story’s importance, evidence that "plenty of people" care about it, which in turn justifies the media's continuous chatter about it.

Most certainly, the press will pretend to be above it all ("this is not something that we, the sophisticated political journalists, care about, of course"). But they yammer about Drudge-promoted gossip endlessly, and then insist that their own chattering is proof that it is an important story that people care about. And because they conclude that "people" (i.e., them) are concerned with the story, they keep chirping about it, which in turn fuels their belief that the story is important. It is an endless loop of self-referential narcissism—whatever they endlessly sputter is what "the people" care about, and therefore they must keep harping on it, because their chatter is proof of its importance.

They no longer even need Drudge to lead the way. They find that path on their own now. Journalists like Brooks and his friends fixate on these issues because they're what interests them, because it takes no work and no thought to chatter about it, because they have been fed their trashy storylines by right-wing operatives ever since they formed their partnership with them during the Clinton sex witch hunts, and because the people who become media stars become media stars because this is what they do best (Digby has more on that here). Blaming the American public for the behavior of these journalists only compounds the deceit and scurrilousness of it, particularly given that nobody is more removed and insulted from what "Regular Americans" think than the coddled, pack-mentality media stars who fantasize that they are their spokesmen.

* * * * *


I was on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman this morning to discuss these matters. The video can be seen here.

UPDATE: One of the most deceitful aspects of this Brooksian "they-think" theme is that there is an actual, reliable method for ascertaining what Americans think. It's called "polling data." Making assertions about what "Americans believe" without resorting to it is inherently suspicious and typically intended to mislead.

Here is one poll in which the Philadelphia Daily News asked its readers what they thought of the way the ABC debate was conducted:

I don't know how reliable the polling method was, but still, that's rather decisive -- 85% said the debate was either "disappointing" or "terrible" due to its focus on petty matters. It's the exact opposite of what their self-anointed Spokesman, David Brooks, claimed they believe.

UPDATE II: Rasmussen Reports today:

The Democratic Presidential Primary in Pennsylvania is getting even closer. The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the state shows Hillary Clinton with 47% of the vote and Barack Obama with 44%. This election poll was conducted Thursday night, the night following a nationally televised debate between the candidates. Last Monday, Clinton was leading Obama 50% to 41%.

It's a bit difficult to maintain that Americans find the tiny personality assaults from Brooks and his friends to be relevant when, as those assaults are directed more and more at Obama, he rises more and more in the polls. There are, of course, other possible explanations, but this data along with that cited above offers yet more evidence to negate the self-justifying claim from journalists that they cover insipid, Drudge-like trash because that's what Regular Americans care about.


I'll note once more the media stampede back in late December/early January during which they proclaimed as a pack consensus that the various pre-Iowa "gaffes" of Mike Huckabee doomed his chances to win that primary. Days later, Huckabee won by 9 points -- because huge numbers of voters, quite plainly, find extremely unimportant the small-minded, pointless chatter on which national journalists obsess.

UPDATE III: Ironically enough, I was just on a show on News Channel 8 in Washington (which will be re-broadcast at 11:00 pm tonight) and the guest immediately preceding me was, as the host called him, "the great David Broder of The Washington Post." Broder had just returned from one of his sociological field trips -- this one to Western Pennsylvania -- where he studies the cute little voters "in the diners and barbershops" as though they're zoo animals and was there to report on what and how "they" think.

"They're a really interesting group of voters because they're very unpredictable," he said with a sympathetic smile, and then added that they don't really know the details of anyone's policies but they sure do have strong opinions. Unlike Barack Obama, there's nothing condescending about how our media stars think of the Average Voter.

In any event, Broder said that while some Pennsylvania voters talked about Jeremiah Wright, what they really cared about was the economic crisis and Iraq, and that not a single one of them -- not once -- even mentioned the "bitter" comments made by Obama in San Francisco that have been dominating our news cycle for more than a week. Moreover, Broder said that they cared about Iraq so much that it was an insurmountable obstacle for many of them for supporting John McCain no matter what other issues there are, since they want to leave Iraq, not stay longer. Both Brooks and Broder fancy themselves Spokesmen for the American Heartland Voter yet they don't seem to be on the same page, at all, concerning the beliefs and thoughts of the Regular People whom they represent.

Glenn Greenwald

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