THE BLOG

Think Again: Our Trivial Political Media, Continued...

11/08/2012 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013
  • Eric Alterman Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

I turn away from the euphoria of the post-election moment to mention the current issue of the newly-revived journal, The Baffler, which contains a fascinating long-form dissection of the underlying ethos--both professional and ideological -- of two web (and occasionally print) publications that have lately set the pace for the rest of the insider political media: Politico and Buzzfeed. At more than 6,300 words, author Alex Pareene makes many more points than I can profitably summarize here -- and you can easily read the article for yourselves. Go ahead: It's right here, and I'll be happy to wait for you to read the whole thing and then come back to consider my take on one aspect of the argument about what these publications -- particularlyPolitico -- are doing to our political debate.

Though I'm drawn by the many excellent points Pareene's essay makes regarding Politico's tendency to pander to right-wing ideologues, I want to discuss The Baffler's enthusiastic embrace of Politico's focus on political triviality. I did my own investigation of the issue of press coverage of the 2012 election, finding that triviality was very much at the center of that coverage. But I did not have the space to properly dissect the debilitating effects of Politico's reduction of crucial differences in policy and ideology to matters of insignificant minutiae.

Even leaving aside the constant -- though sometimes nuanced -- conservative reverence, such coverage cannot be justified on the basis of the simplest common-sense analysis. Politico rarely does anything to illuminate the issues, clarify the questions facing voters, or even shed much light on the characters of the respective candidates -- any of which is usually the justification for such contentless coverage.

Instead, this "news" gets reported because it's there -- because it flatters someone's ego or because it might produce a few page views or perhaps a faux debate on cable news. These stories hardly ever relate to any question or issue facing a prospective voter, instead building the strange, internal narrative formed by a combination of the participants (and would-be participants) themselves.

When I mentioned in The Nation, for instance, that unforgettable George Pataki presidential candidacy, I lacked the space to note that Politico's Maggie Haberman covered the former New York governor's "withdrawal" from the race by writing that sources had confirmed that, "Former New York Gov. George Pataki has decided not to seek the Republican nomination for president." She had a great deal of trouble explaining, however, why she was bothering to say so. The balance of Haberman's story ran thusly: "It's hard to say what, if any, impact this has on the GOP primaries. Few believed until this month that Pataki was really serious about getting into the race. And even then, it wasn't obvious where the moderate, pro-environment, abortion rights-supporting Pataki would find a niche in the field."

Well, yes, but in that case, why in the world was Politico covering it? It's a question I doubt anyone at the publication could answer.

In the same Nation piece, I also mentioned former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton's memorable presidential candidacy--which garnered a 1,600-word promotional piecefrom Politico's Molly Ball. For some reason, Ball felt it necessary to deny, in her opening sentence, that the premise of the piece was merely "an attention-getting stunt," insisting that Bolton was "seriously considering running for president." But so, one assumes, are any number of people confined to institutions for the mentally and emotionally disturbed all across the United States. Where was her evidence that this hypothetical candidacy might ever pass from the confines of Bolton's (and Ball's) minds into the realm of tangible reality, much less the kind of reality that can be said to matter to voters?

With all those words, Ball could not find a single person in Republican or conservative circles who thought a prospective Bolton presidential run made any sense whatsoever. Still, it somehow merited 1,600 words on Politico's website. (In contrast, the New York Times devoted 2,576 words to something real -- an investigation of permafrost and planetary warming -- in the same week.)

It's no surprise, of course, that Politico led the coverage in these nonstories. To say that Politico sets the terms for contemporary political reporting these days is an understatement. Its up-to-the-millisecond style -- originally pioneered by then-ABC's (and now Time's) star reporter, Mark Halperin -- pays next to no attention to the implications of anything upon which it reports, up to and including war, save in the narrow political terms of how it will affect who's up and who's down on a moment-to-moment basis. Led by Mike Allen's not-to-be missed "Playbook," which sets the agenda for much of the media each morning, the entire publication offers a kind of legitimacy for storylines that might otherwise not be judged sufficiently serious or important to make it into mainstream reporting. But given its obsessive need to be at the center of any and every story simultaneously, it's difficult to discern any judgment at all by its editors in regard to attribution of space and topics chosen to be newsworthy.

But where Politico really outdid itself in this election cycle was in its Donald Trump coverage..

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