At Attytood, where I check in regularly, Will Bunch had some news for me over the weekend. Liberal bloggers declare war in Philly over media, McCain. He later changed it to, "Liberal bloggers say media-McCain love will be the battleground in the fall." Having just written about that affair, I was interested in his report:
The left-wing blogosphere is declaring an all-out war against the mainstream media -- desperately concerned that inside-the-Beltway reporter-love for D.C. fixture McCain is already creating too large a mountain for any Democratic nominee to scale.
"This campaign is not going to be between the Democrats and the Republicans," said Philadelphia's Duncan Black, who writes under the name Atrios and whose highly popular progressive political blog, named Eschaton, inspired the gathering of bloggers and political activists called Eschacon '08.
"It's between the Democrats and the media."
Really? I look forward to learning more about how "the media" stepped in for "the Republicans" in 2008, such that the media now have to be defeated for the Democrats to win. But even that provocative idea stops well short of war.
How in-your-face and personal to get?
If Bunch's report is correct, and the left blogosphere is declaring some all-out war, there's a few things I want to understand about it: against whom, exactly? Is this a war of the pen, a matter of what we think and write about as critics? Or is this... let's take culture war to the next level and de-legitimate the media in front of as many people as we can? (Of course, the right had that idea already.)
Will's updated account said "there was a lot of discussion and debate over how to deal with the media love affair, [over] how in-your-face and personal to get with allegedly wayward reporters, and what is fair game in undercutting the McCain narrative. For example... is McCain's past divorce and speedy remarriage into the rich Arizona family that helped launch his political career in the early 1980s, something to go after?"
This is from Sinfonian, who live blogged the day.
Digby: one idea, like Josh Marshall did, is to have readers cover local press and submit them so that there's a national clearinghouse of information. Media Matters is good at media criticism, but they can't go after reporters "on a very personal and ugly basis if we have to" like the blogosphere can. "The press must be shamed ... by a relentless public."
Responding to the PressThink version of this post, Digby said that by "personal and ugly" she meant "laying out the critique in edgy, irreverent, aggressive terms," and making fun of journalists when they do something craven, like schmoozing with McCain over BBQ at his Sedona ranch.
Certainly that's what bloggers are for. Huff Post author Eric Boehlert of Media Matters was there in Philly. He emailed me after the conference:
The point Duncan and others were making this weekend is that the press doesn't really respond to '"good blogging." For instance, Media Matters for the last month has noted again and again and again and again that McCain clearly flip-flopped on immigration and yet almost nobody in the press mentions it when the topic, in reference to McCain, comes up... So sure, it'd be nice if bloggers simply had to point out reporting deficiencies and the press then responded. But the blogosphere is tired of politely, and repeatedly, pointing out the media's errors regarding McCain. So i think many within the blogosphere will declare war.
Over at Firedoglake, Eli explains that a declaration of war on the mainstream media is meant...
not to completely discredit them as an institution (although, come to think of it, that might not be such a bad thing), but to hammer them ruthlessly every time they attack Democrats with lazy stereotypes and high-school sniping, and every time they fawn over McCain or any other macho Republican manly men who might set their loins a-quiver. And maybe, just maybe, we can scare some of them into occasional honesty, or raise a big enough stink to damage the worst offenders' credibility.
Targeting whom, exactly?
On February 21, the New York Times published a front-page expose on McCain's ties to Washington lobbyists. Remember that? It blew up in their faces because the article insinuated that the Senator had an affair with one of the lobbyists, Vicki Iseman. But it tried to do what I believe the liberal blogosphere is calling for. "Here's a man who holds himself up as different, a man of principle, of rectitude, but is that the real McCain? We found troubling evidence that it isn't..."
So is the war going to target the people at the New York Times who tried to take on the "upright character" part of the McCain mystique and -- in journalistic terms, at least-- blew the story? And are they going be warred on for blowing it (losers!) or for failing to ask if the McCain of legend is the real McCain?
"Neither, actually," Digby said in her reply. "The derision emanating from the blogosphere about the Iseman story was mostly about the run on smelling salts down at the Village drug store --- The New York Times unethically published a front page story about McCain's private life based on rumor and innuendo! The humanity!"
Same day that I published Where Did McCain Get What He's Got "in the Bank" with the Press? Digby posted Cosmological Flyboy. It's excellent blogging, her reaction to Neil Gabler's compelling op-ed on the pose of ironic detachment that McCain and the press share.
Obama is cool, but not in the proper ironic, post modern way the press loves so much. His call to hope and change is probably going to give McCain and his fanboys a lot of laughs down the road. Look at all the silly hippies. And even if he were a cynic and a ironist, which he isn't, Obama is stuck with the liberal party and they are, like, totally uncool with all their useless blabbering about icky women's issues and goo-goo anti-war crap and talk about poor people. Talk about a bunch of bringdowns.
This relationship between the press and McCain is lethal. They're already subject to GOP narratives about the faggy, mommy party and having their awesome maverick actually in the race is a perfect opportunity to show their cool, manly bonafides. They'll be on the straight talk express no matter what crazy bullshit McCain spews out. Because they know he really doesn't mean it. He's a cool guy, just like them, and they don't mean anything they say either.
Digby is right to emphasize how much it's a guy thing between McCain and the press. "Because of his POW history and his savvy manipulation of their hero worship, they have imputed the character of the young man of integrity who stood steadfastly by his fellow prisoners forty years ago to the older sleazy, self-serving, intellectually lazy politician he became."
Something like that did happen. But I don't think it's right to see this relationship -- which is deeply neurotic -- as a fixed thing. It's in motion, and about to come under a lot of stress, some of it from within journalists themselves. We're in a dynamic situation. And one of the biggest unknowns is: will Obama match McCain in radical openness with the press?
The best indications are that McCain is about to play a press policy wild card. We don't know what difference it will make because it's never been tried by one nominee in a head to head presidential race, as far as I know. (Corrections welcome.) As with so many other things this year, none of the pros had predicted it would happen. And maybe it won't pan out as the pressure builds. But McCain says he is going to continue to open himself to questioning by reporters throughout his run for the White House. You travel with McCain, you get to ask him questions. On the record, with lots of different opportunities, day and night. (To see the difference it makes, compare the the treatment of all three candidates in this dispatch.)
"It keeps me intellectually stimulated."
Can you really run for president like that? Most campaign advisers campaign against it. Besides the risks of gaffe and misstatement, they know that their own control over the campaign -- the whole idea of message discipline -- is diminished when the candidate is constantly sounding off to reporters. The handlers insight: you can't run the campaign and be the nominee at the same time. (The 1972 movie, The Candidate, is all about this.)
Howard Kurtz asked McCain about it in January.
As the JetBlue charter from Michigan touched down in South Carolina, I strolled up to John McCain's front-row seat -- none of his aides batted an eye -- and asked if he would continue to chat with reporters around the clock if he won the Republican nomination.
Most candidates, after all, grow more cautious around the media mob as the stakes get higher.
McCain said he couldn't stop, because "that destroys credibility." And besides, he said, "I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be."
Can't stop. Destroys credibility if I change now. Keeps me thinking. Reporters: lower level of human being. Kurtz was supposed to chuckle at the insult, which is the towel-snapping part of the deal. "They keep me thinking" is subtler business. The man who is benefiting from hero worship is well advised to tell the worshippers that they instruct him. This allows them to think the interaction more equal than it really is.
"Access and New Hampshire townhalls."
Kurtz's check-in was more than two months ago. The other day in my comments section I asked Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason, who wrote a recent book on McCain mythology, whether the kind of aides now being added to his campaign, as it bulks up, were the kind who wouldn't bat an eye at unrestricted access by Washington Post reporters with open notebooks. Welch said:
Back when he was still running as the presumptive GOP front-runnter -- in 2006 and early 2007 -- he surrounded himself with Bush media types who erected some protective layers around him: Barring rabble like me from having any sit-downs, and (more importantly) eschewing the cozy bus rides for incessant (and largely unsuccessful) fundraising events.
In July of last year, when his campaign was on the verge of implosion, he fired a whole hell of a lot of those people, and got back to the basics of Access & New Hampshire townhalls. The architects of that story arc -- of Getting Back to What We Do Best -- are not likely to jump so quickly back into protective mode. Especially since he'll likely be going up against a candidate who the media also adore, and therefore will have to compete for their favors.
Political reporters are in the main still astonished and impressed with Obama. He defied their odds, and proved himself better at horse race punditry than they are. Welch predicts a "competition" for the affections of the press between two candidates, both of whom the media pack adores. How weird is that?
An alternative to declaring some all-out war against the mainstream media lies within these coordinates:
*Call on Obama to match McCain in radical openness. (He did it here and it worked.)
*Press for more liberal bloggers included as "press" on the McCain bus. One reference point: Washington Times, Blogger outreach boosts McCain. It's about direct access for conservative bloggers, a whole other thing. My guess: McCain would think, "I can handle any blogger."
*Keeping pounding on the press for what it refuses to ask McCain, or hasn't tried to report upon. This is the most legitimate kind of criticism there is, and--as Atrios once noted--part of what the blogosphere was originally for. If the "war" means that, I am all for it.
*Check it out: If the press has the opportunity to ask lots and lots of questions, the demand for good questions goes up. Someone may ask yours, especially if bloggers develop the background narrative that shows why the unasked questions matter to the nation.
*"The journalists who covered McCain in 2000 feel very self-conscious about the criticism that the press came under for apparently being so taken with John McCain" says Ana Marie Cox in Kurtz's January 20 report. She's been covering McCain for Time.com, so she's been on the bus with the gang. "There's a sense that the first time was so fun and exciting, but this time we're really going to be sober and critical and the dispassionate observers we're supposed to be." Doesn't mean "sober and critical" will happen. It does mean they feel uneasy about it. They feel watched, and the blogosphere is definitely part of that. So... watch!
* Robert Stacy McCain, coming from the right and reacting to Bunch's report out of Philly. "If liberal bloggers want to chastise the MSM for its long love affair with Senator Amnesty -- hey, get in line. Michelle Malkin, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin have been complaining about this MSM-McCain romance for years, and Rush Limbaugh's been doing it since at least 1999." This is worth more thought.
*Try to feature the best of the Arizona press as a "check" on the worst of the national news media. Here's a place to start (courtesy of Matt Welch): The Pampered Politician. Welch told me that McCain kicked the Arizona Republic off the Straight Talk Express for a while in 2000.
*What Paul Waldman said at Firedoglake this weekend. He's co-author with David Brock of Free Ride, a new book on McCain and the press. "Our book alone may not be enough to convince the entire Washington press corps to do some introspection on the way they've been covering McCain. But we hope we can start a conversation -- one that will be enhanced in the blogosphere -- that will ultimately push the issue to the point where they can't ignore it. And while some of my friends might not agree, I do believe that reporters want to do a good job. So our hope is that they can be persuaded to take a step back and ask whether their coverage of McCain has been what it should be, or whether they're just repeating that he's a principled maverick delivering straight talk, over and over and over."
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