In recent days a number of mainstream political commentators and members of the Washington press corps have been sputtering with indignation that Hillary Clinton is treating them as something less than the fiercely independent champions of the American public and noble guardians of American democracy.
Here, for example, is Jason Horowitz of the New York Times, loudly harrumphing his resentment at Hillary’s refusal to treat the press with what he considers the proper respect and attention.
The solution for [Hillary’s] team has been to keep the press at bay as Mrs. Clinton reads the scripts to her daily campaign shows…”The media was confined between the bar and the stove,” Gary Swenson said, describing an event with Mrs. Clinton at his home in Mason City, Iowa, on Monday.
…There is no one to force her out of her Rose Garden. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Martin O’Malley has applied significant pressure on her. That leaves the news media as her only real opponent so far on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination, and while it may not be great for an educated populace or the furtherance of American democracy, it makes all the political sense in the world for Mrs. Clinton to ignore them, too.
And just in case anyone missed Horowitz’s modest identification of himself with nothing less than the furtherance of American democracy itself, he also promoted his article on twitter with the following painful attempt at wit:
In Iowa, Queen Hillary and the Everyday Americans of the Round Table distribute alms to the clamoring press
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, on the other hand, took a pretentious “more in sorrow than in anger” approach, piously lecturing his readers on the invaluable role and value of the press:
The role of the media is to show voters who these [candidates] are, really, and to explain how these people would govern the country if elected. Like the media or not, that’s a very important role — and one that is essential to a functioning democracy.
Other mainstream commentators and journalists took essentially similar stances. They were the noble defenders of American democracy; Hillary was the cynical politician who was refusing to follow the rules.
Progressive commentators responded with fierce and entirely justified expressions of contempt for this sanctimonious posturing. They pointed out that for many years the Washington establishment press had been obsessed with trivial, horse-race coverage, had continually sought “gotcha” moments instead of substance, had ignored important policy questions and had focused on finding superficial “flip-flops” while ignoring the growth of genuinely pernicious views. Many progressive commentators noted the long and grotesque history of articles about scandals regarding the Clintons that turned out to be totally devoid of content (e.g. whitewater, Vince Foster’s “murder,” Benghazi) and the equally pathetic way the D.C. press had repeated and legitimized a variety of clinically delusional charges against President Obama – charges they knew perfectly well were nonsense.
For Democrats, it is always deeply satisfying to watch progressive commentators energetically mock and ridicule the breathtaking conceit, vanity and narcissism of the mainstream media and their absurd pretentions. But it is imperative to note, however, that the progressive criticisms do not adequately emphasize one centrally important point.
The problem with the mainstream D.C. press is not simply that they are obsessed with seeking scandals and “gotcha” moments. It is that for all practical purposes many have become salesmen for a clearly and unambiguously partisan anti-Democratic narrative. This fact has significant implications for Democratic political strategy.
This is not to say that the group of mainstream commentators in question says exactly the same thing as Fox News and the overtly pro-GOP press. Quite the contrary, the distinct role these commentators are playing in the American partisan ideological debate is leveraging their pretence of neutrality in order to minimize and conceal the massive extremist trend within the GOP. Their method is to continually insist upon a false equivalency between the two parties.
In the latest issue of The American Prospect Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson provide one of the most carefully documented demonstrations of this point. They conclude:
Despite the evidence of increasing Republican extremism, elite discourse–in journalism, academia, and foundations–resists the notion that Republicans are primarily responsible for polarization and deadlock. To argue that one party is more to blame than another for political dysfunction is seen as evidence of bias, not to mention bad manners. Foundations will fund nonpartisan vote drives; they will not fund efforts to shame right-wing Republicans for crippling governance. Academics worry about seeming biased when the truly biased perspective is the one that treats the parties as equally extreme. And while Fox News takes an avowedly partisan line, most of the media world retreats into self-defeating denials of the truth that stares them in the face.
Consider what happened in 2013 when Mann and Ornstein, who had probably been the most quoted observers of Congress during the previous two decades, issued their well-documented critique, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. The book emphasized the responsibility of the GOP for government dysfunction. After it came out, the authors were not quoted in the press or invited to the public affairs shows on which they had regularly appeared. As Mann explained, “I can no longer be a source in a news story in The Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I’ve made the case for the Democrats and therefore I’ll have to be balanced with a Republican.”
Balance is one thing when you are talking about ideological differences; it is dangerous when you are talking about basic facts of American political life. In too many crucial venues, the mainstream media’s desire to maintain the appearance of neutrality trumps the real need for truth-telling. The inevitable complexity of the governing process further increases the temptation to offer narratives that do not help more casual observers of our politics to determine accountability. This isn’t just bad journalism; it’s a green light for extremism.
To repeat, this has substantial implications for Democratic political strategy.
In the first place, it means that Hillary is entirely right in refusing to play by the traditional rules. The mainstream political press has itself rendered these rules obsolete by failing to report on the most important political story of recent years – the extremist conquest of the GOP. Reporters and commentators who refuse to report this reality as an objective fact about modern American politics cannot possibly also play the role of impartial arbitrators or objective journalists when covering a Democratic political candidate.
Second, Hillary’s decision to act in accordance with this insight presents a profound challenge and threat to the GOP crypto-partisans among the press corps, one which will inevitably engender a deep and profound hostility and desire to cut her down to size. As Greg Sargent notes:
I suspect that to at least some degree reporters share conservatives’ frustration that all the Clinton scandals and mini-scandals and pseudo-scandals haven’t taken them down. In a way it’s an affront to the power of the press. When we splash headline after headline about allegations of misbehavior across our papers, when we devote hour after hour on television to the fact that “questions are being raised,” well that’s supposed to make an impact. It’s supposed to drive the politician in question to the depths of ignominy. It’s not supposed to leave them in exactly the same position as they were when it started.
Everything [Hillary is] doing communicates to the press that they aren’t as important as they once were. It’s bound to get them angry and make them like her even less than they already do, which could make their coverage even harsher.
As a result, Democrats should prepare themselves for the uncomfortable fact that in the coming months the mainstream press will become increasingly and stridently anti-Clinton. So long as she does not play by their rules they will describe her as “remote,” “fake,” “robotic”, “inauthentic” “scripted”, “cynical” “manipulative”, “dishonest” and “insincere”. Her Republican opponent, whether it is Bush, Walker, Rubio, or any of the other contenders will then be described in contrast as much more “real” “down to earth” “authentic” “open” “honest” and “sincere.” Fueled by their wounded vanity and the very real threat to their influence, the mainstream commentators will create a narrative that continually frames the 2016 election in precisely this way.
Democrats must be prepared to fight back. The necessary rebuttal must be to insist that – although the press may genuinely be in denial about their own motives – their failure to tell the truth about GOP extremism makes it impossible for honest Americans to treat them as objective or honest. The Democratic response must be the following:
Until you are willing to tell your readers the truth about GOP extremism, for all practical purposes you are promoting an ideologically partisan, pro-Republican point of view. As a result you cannot simultaneously claim to also be neutral or objective or that you are acting as the unbiased representatives of the public or as guardians of American democracy. Either tell your readers the truth about GOP extremism or accept the fact that honest Americans have the right to view you as partisan advocates for the GOP.
This is important because the Washington press has always been entirely untroubled by criticisms that they are sensationalistic, superficial or cynical. Part of their vanity, in fact, is based on their self-image as the grizzled veterans who have “seen it all.” What does get under their skin, on the other hand, is the accusation that behind their protestations of independence they are basically carrying water for the GOP. It gets under their skin because, deep down, they know that it’s true.