Politico reviews the year in American "political journalism"

Its list of the top 10 "political scoops" of 2008 says far more about the state of our political press than they could have possibly imagined


Glenn Greenwald
December 27, 2008 8:15PM (UTC)

Politico's media reporter, Michael Calderone, does an unintentionally superb job of conveying the vapid, wretched soul of the American political media, with his list of what he calls -- without any irony at all -- "The Top Ten Political Scoops of 2008":

(1) Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin (CBS)

(2) McCain can't say how many homes he owns (Politico)

(3) Obama's "bitter" comment (Huffington Post)

(4) Sarah Palin's shopping spree (Politico)

(5) Turmoil in the Clinton camp (Washington Post and Atlantic -- "The behind-the-scenes tension was captured by the reporters in one memorable exchange: '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted. '[Expletive] you!' Penn replied. '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted again.")

(6) Jeremiah Wright tapes (ABC News)

(7) The Pentagon's military analyst program (NY Times)

(8) Bickering in the McCain camp (NY Times Magazine)

(9) John Edwards' affair (National Enquirer)

(10) Powell endorses Obama (Meet the Press)

It's genuinely disappointing that the intense controversy over Barack Obama's anemic bowling score and lapel pin, the riveting analysis of Hillary Clinton's laugh and her cleavage displays, and Brian Ross' groundbreaking  work in analyzing Hillary's White House schedules in order to determine where exactly she was at the moment when Bill was with Monica Lewinsky, failed to at least merit an Honorable Mention by Politico.

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Most notably, the only story on Politico's list that actually mattered in any meaningful way and to which one can apply the term "scoop" with a straight face -- namely:  David Barstow's superb exposé on the Pentagon's domestic propaganda program -- was the only story of the 10 that didn't receive endless attention from our nation's television journalists.  To the contrary, it was blackballed entirely.  There's the central axiom driving coverage by our American media:  the more significant a matter it is, the less attention it receives (if one wants to be generous, one could also include the Couric-Palin interview as a marginally meaningful story).

Having assembled this soap-opera-worthy list of "journalistic scoops," Calderone can barely suppress his giddy excitement over the last twelve months and, more perversely still, can barely contain how impressed he is with the probing diligence of his journalistic colleagues:  

As the curtain comes down on 2008, it’s hard to let go. Political junkies couldn’t have asked for a better year — even news veteran David Broder dubbed the 2008 election the best he ever covered.

Indeed.  For a politically engaged person, it is truly difficult to conceive of how any year could ever be more satisfying than one marked by riveting scandals over shopping sprees, bickering among campaign operatives, and an extramarital affair of someone who, at the time of disclosure, held no political office and was running for absolutely nothing.  Anyone surveying this mountain-high pile of Pulitzer-worthy investigations can do nothing more than echo the observation of Newsweek's legendary Senior White House Correspondent, Richard Wolffe, who famously gushed:  "the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general."  Who could review Calderone's glorious list of the year's top "scoops" and disagree with that?

In fairness to Calderone and his comrades in the political press, our media currently covers a country that has very few substantial problems and an administration that is renowned around the world for being competent, honest, conventional and quite uncontroversial.  In general, countries which enjoy great tranquility, prosperity, and stability -- such as the U.S. today -- can afford the luxury of fixating on the types of fun and trivial stories which comprise the list of top "scoops" heralded by Politico.  I made a similar point in defense of our political media last April, when I criticized those tiresome, humorless scolds who -- at the time -- were complaining and complaining that three straight weeks of unbroken coverage of Jeremiah Wright videos might be a bit excessive given their relative importance:

I think the most important thing to note about the Jeremiah Wright Story is that we're a Nation plagued by exceedingly few significant problems; blessed with a quite healthy political culture and very trusted political and media institutions; composed of a citizenry that is peacefully content with its Government and secure and confident about their future; endowed with a supremely sturdy economic foundation free of debt and other grave economic afflictions; vested with the ability to command great respect and admiration from the other nations of the world; emancipated from the burdens of war and intractable conflicts which have toppled and destroyed so many other great nations of the past; and, most of all, we're becoming freer and more prosperous by the minute.

Not only that, but we have an extremely impressive, serious and honor-bound ruling imperial class devoted to the preservation of all of these blessings.

So it isn't as though we really have anything else to talk about besides Jeremiah Wright. There are some countries in the world -- probably most -- which have so many big problems that they could ill-afford to devote much time and energy to a matter of this sort. Thankfully, the United States isn't one of them.

And that was before the little global financial collapse, the virtual disappearance of $700 billion transferred to those responsible, and, quite relatedly, wealth-destroying fraud on a previously unimaginable scale.  So things have improved and stabilized even further since the national media fixation on the Jeremiah Wright videos, thus further freeing our intrepid political press to delve fearlessly and tirelessly into the epic Penn-Ickes battles, Sarah Palin's shopping bills, and the whereabouts of Rielle Hunter.

By contrast, a country that was plagued by actual political problems might focus on such dreary, boring revelations as the choerographing and approving of torture techniques at White House Principals Meetings; or the creation of a massive, likely illegal domestic surveillance system of sprawling data bases built and maintained with no Congressional approval or oversight by the NSA; or the issuance of a memo by the Bush DOJ endlessly expanding the definition of "torture" and declaring the Fourth Amendment inoperative to "domestic military operations" inside the U.S.; or the massive contributions received from the telecom industry by Sen. Jay Rockefeller immediately before he became the key advocate of immunity for that lawbreaking industry; or the flagrant abuse of unchecked NSA eavesdropping powers for purely prurient and invasive ends; or the patently false denials by the U.S. military -- bolstered by an ostensibly first-hand report from Oliver North on Brit Hume's "news" broadcast -- of massive civilian deaths in Afghanistan; or the endless holes in the attempts by the FBI to blame the anthrax attacks on a dead scientist; or so many other similar boring disclosures.

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But not our media.  As Politico's own Editor-in-Chief John Harris put it earlier this year in one of his signature mea culpas that changes absolutely nothing about his publication's quite typical obsession with trivialities:

The signature defect of modern political journalism is that it has shredded the ideal of proportionality.

Important stories, sometimes the product of months of serious reporting, that in an earlier era would have captured the attention of the entire political-media community and even redirected the course of a presidential campaign, these days can disappear with barely a whisper.

Trivial stories — the kind that are tailor-made for forwarding to your brother-in-law or college roommate with a wisecracking note at the top — can dominate the campaign narrative for days.

It's hard to know what's worse:  journalists like Harris who know full well that their work is a frivolous and inane distraction yet continue to do it anyway, or ones like Wolffe who -- even in the face of all of this -- actually believe, or at least claim to believe, in the enduring, guffaw-provoking myth of the intrepid, adversarial journalist.  Ultimately, both types are the same, as -- regardless of motive or awareness -- they both spew the type of political coverage that generates a Top 10 "scoops" list of the kind Politico celebrates today.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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