Jonathan Chait

Pseudo-Scandal Self-Justification

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Marc Ambinder says the news media should be ashamed for chasing the Sestak pseudo-scandal:

I will grant that the statutes themselves can be interpreted in such a way as to prohibit virtually all political activity by anyone remotely connected with the executive branch. But practice -- and not simply underhanded practice, but open, above-board practice, since the time those laws were written suggests that the law's authors intended them as a bulwark against official corruption, not against the mixing of politics and policy.  In other words, if you apply an originalist reading of these statutes, you will not end up with anything remotely resembling an indictable offense. What keeps this story alive is the media's feeding off the energy that can be generated from deliberately misconstruing the law and its intent. ...

More potentially pernicious than liberal bias, than the false equivalences bias, than really just about any other bias that journalism that injects into a public discussion of a story, is the power that comes from merely selecting which subjects to cover. Whatever the collection of facts about White House officials attempting to influence primary elections is, it is not a scandal. It is not the type of story that journalists with credibility and experience should be selecting to cover. It's the type of story that journalists ought to resist covering, precisely because the act of giving it attention elevates the arguments that don't correspond with the truth.

I think the press has finally started to figure out that the charge of breaking the law or even some established behavioral norm is absurd. But, of course, the media's coverage of the pseudo-scandal has itself had an effect which the media can now comment upon.

Michael Kinsley's famous column on gaffes contained a lot of brilliant observations. One of them concerned the news media's self-justifying habit of obsessing over trivia, such that the behavior of the media itself becomes the story:

Political journalism has evolved somewhat the same direction as literary criticism, which is now dominated by people called deconstructionists. Deconstructionist criticism is indifferent to the literary value of the "text"--novel or poem or whatever--it is analyzing. The "text" is just grist for arcane and self-referential analysis. A work of no special merit is even preferable in a way, since it doesn't distract from the analysis, which is the real show.

Similarly, political journalism dwells in its own world of primaries and polls. If necessary, journalists can take a significant fact such as Jesse Jackson's continuing embrace of the repellent Louis Farrakhan--drain it of all its moral implications, and turn it into a gaffe. But campaign mechanics make for preferable subject matter. And the ideal "text" for political journalism to chew on is an episode of no real meaning or importance--such as a small joke about New Jersey--which can then be analyzed without distraction exclusively in terms of its likely effect on the campaign. The analysis itself, of course, is what creates that effect: a triumph of criticism the deconstructionists can only envy.

Consider this analysis in light of the media's more recent wave of Sestak-gate coverage. The initial theme was that this was a scandal -- an illegal act at worst, and unseemly Chicago-style thuggery at best. Now the line is that the fact that such stories have been written shows that the White house is politically incompetent. Here's Politico:

Taken together, the Sestak and Romanoff cases suggest a White House team that is one part Dick Daley, one part Barney Fife. 

They undercut Obama’s reputation on two fronts. Trying to put the fix in to deny Democratic voters the chance to choose for themselves who their Senate nominees should be is hardly consistent with the idea of “Yes, we can” grass-roots empowerment that is central to Obama’s brand.

And bungling that fix is at odds with the Obama team’s image built around the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Obama himself as shrewd political operatives who know the game and always win it.

And here's the Washington Post:

Defenders of the administration ... play down questions about whether the administration offered possible jobs to Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Colorado to entice them to drop primary challenges against candidates favored by the White House. But they also note that whether these problems are large or small, there is a danger that they will affect public perceptions of the administration's competence.

It's no longer necessary to argue that there is anything of substance whatsoever to the allegations. Now one can merely state that the media's decision to act is if there was has weakened Obama.

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