Beyond Therapy

Which story is front-page material: Kerry’s tan, or his position on loose nukes? Bush’s plans for immigration reform, or a bulge in his jacket? By fluffing rumors and stuffing their shirts, the political media this election season has constantly failed the public.

There’s a great—and very frightening—story in a recent issue of the New Yorker about the Note, a political tip sheet sent out by ABC News that has become the single most important daily reading in Washington. As a Beltway journalist myself, I can attest to the Note’s centrality. If you don’t read it regularly, you’re not doing your job. But if you do read it regularly, you’re likely to get swept into the whirlwind that is the Beltway media echo chamber. Indeed, David Grann, the author of the New Yorker article, argues that the Note is both a symptom and a cause of what can only be called the radicalization of Washington journalism: namely the disappearance of any barrier between reporters and the political operators they cover.

The Note is ostensibly a roundup of the day’s political journalism from around the country. But through subtle—and not-so-subtle—running commentary on the articles and the issues they cover, the Note has carved out a space unprecedented in American political journalism. It doesn’t just report; thanks to its near-universal readership within the Washington media and political classes, it directs the course and shape of political discussion.

What’s really great about Grann’s article is that it tweaks the traditional notion of Washington journalists and their too-close-for-comfort relationship with the political establishment. The conventional notion holds that Beltway reporters are too near their subjects to be objective; that they buy into spin too readily to give an accurate reading of the day’s issues. But while as a general description, that notion still holds, it also is not sufficient. Today, reporters create spin as much as they report it; they are part of the political establishment just as much as politicians’ handlers, even as much as the politicians themselves. Reporters aren’t just in bed with politicos; by actively influencing the course of politics, they have become politicos themselves. There is, for all intents and purposes, no more Fourth Estate within D.C. city limits.

The Note—whose chief, Mark Halperin, has been known to provide post-speech debriefings to political staffs—is only the most obvious case of the collapse of the Washington subject-object dichotomy. And it’s not nearly the first. Journalists, particularly opinion journalists, have been advising politicians for years. Walter Lippmann, co-founder of the New Republic and later a venerable columnist, played sage to most mid-20th-century White House occupants. But Lippmann was exactly that—a sage, not a spinmeister. He advised on matters of policy, not politics. But Washington has no place for sages anymore, because sages won’t get you elected. In their place we have elevated the spinner, the “domestic adviser” whose job is to make sure the candidate is clicking with the public. To be sure, there are still policies in campaigns, but they are more props than proposals, survey-group approved to raise polling numbers among the right people on the right places.

In a way, the new-breed politicos—many of whom have journalism backgrounds themselves—have replaced what was previously the primary job of the Fourth Estate. Today, the package, the interpretation, the research is already there for the reporter to imbibe. The calculated leak, the astroturf grass-roots group, all these things provide the sort of material that journalists once had to find themselves—and which was, as a result, more objective and reliable. At the same time, the journalist’s job is no easier, because he now has to wade through a dozen different spins to get at the right story. Is it any wonder that, after a few years, he throws up his hands, exhausted, and decides that there is, in fact, no right story, only spin?

Which is where we stand today. The spin is the story. How well candidates create and manipulate issues, rather than their actual position on any given issue, is what makes or breaks their standing with the media. And because, despite their insistence otherwise, Americans are even more dependent on the news media than ever before (with 24-hour cable channels, “real-fake” news shows, and so on), it’s the spin that reigns supreme.

It’s the spin that’s got the voters going, the media-facilitated message that each candidate plans to destroy all that his opponents’ supporters hold dear.

The funny thing is, most journalists feel bad about it. They recognize that they are too wedded to the political scene. It’s not so much a moral question, though, as it is angst over whether anyone outside their little world gives a damn. I’ve seen more than a few article ideas rejected because they were too “inside the Beltway,” too narrowly focused for the rest of the country to understand, let alone find interesting. Everyone recalls that even while the Washington media were obsessing over Monica Lewinsky, the rest of the country was changing the channel.

Or were they? To be sure, most Americans felt that Clinton’s impeachment was a waste of time, if not a national embarrassment. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t follow what happened. They followed it closely, joked about it constantly, debated it furiously. And they did so because the source of their information, the Washington media, brought it to them pre-spun. If anything, I’d bet that more people, not fewer, care about politics these days, and for the exact opposite reason that the Washington media would assume. Spin is addictive—like baseball stats, it’s easy to grasp though infinitely complex and interesting. And it’s tailor-made for drama, is itself a form of theater. That’s a lot more interesting than whether associated health plans are a good answer to the country’s medical-insurance crisis.

This year’s presidential election is roundly considered the most vituperative and spin-soaked race in memory. And yet people are paying attention, are activated, and are turning out in droves for their candidates. But they’re not up in arms over policy matters; in the long view, the candidates are pretty similar. It’s the spin that’s got the voters going, the media-facilitated message that each candidate plans to destroy all that his opponents’ supporters hold dear. The media, by accepting each camp’s contention that this election will decide the fate of the free world, have seduced the public into carefully following each day’s opinion polls, each day’s stump speech, creating a vast feedback loop of partisan vitriol based almost solely on meaningless spin.

It’s fitting that the election comes so soon after one of the most heated, dramatic matchups in baseball history, the 2004 American League Championship Series. To be sure, the series was amazing to watch. But what was really amazing, and frightening, was the hatred, however temporary, that Yankees and Red Sox fans loosed on each other. It’s nothing new to say that a baseball rivalry, once taken up by the fans, can take on a life of its own. But there was something special about this one. People who cared nothing for the game found themselves siding with one team or the other based solely on stereotypes—the Yankees were the spoiled but über-talented favorites, the Red Sox the fabled underdogs (forget that neither team is particularly lacking in talent or money, or that the players are equally, well, human in their foibles and arrogances). The spin, as it were, had nothing to do with what happened on the field. Just like the election. Except that, when it’s all over, the game is just a game, and we’re free to make of it what we will. Politics, on the other hand, actually matters, and it’s our civic responsibility to cut through the spin to find out why. And no one has done a worse job at that task than the political media.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen