Friday, August 9, 2013

No More Watergates

I just finished reading This Town by Mark Leibovich.  It reads as a 400 page indictment of the political class and their media enablers, symbolically represented by the marriage of Andrea Mitchel and Alan Greenspan.  Similar to Matt Taibbi's book The Great Derangement, Leibovich posits that the "partisan gridlock" is all for show and that the unfortunate reality is that the political parties are getting along far too well when it comes to making themselves, and their friends, very rich.

Approximately 45% of all retiring members of Congress retire to lobbying firms.  These jobs often pay eight figure salaries commensurate with the Congressperson's seniority and committee placement at retirement.  Leibovich quotes Jack Abramoff as saying the easiest way to get an elected official in his pocket was to tell them that him firm would have a position open for them whenever they chose to leave the public sector.  So simple.  So small.  So effective.

The media ends up being portrayed much worse.  Leibovich's book covers a series of "parties" with the Correspondence Dinner serving as a centerpiece.  It will make you want to stomp on the foot of the next person who calls it "Nerd Prom".  What it really represents is the complicity of our fawning media-types in the self-celebration of Washington, D.C.  It is bad.  The author even goes so far as to suggest that the raid on Bin Laden's compound was delayed due to the Correspondent's Dinner.  (Dinner was April 30.  Raid was May 1.)  In defense of those involved, the premise was that everyone would notice the President's absence and potentially tip off Bin Laden operatives, but that doesn't change the "ick" factor all that much.

It is hard to read this book and not be sickened by what has become of political journalism.  Instead of 48 hour coverage of Weiner's cell phone habits or how much money Wendy Davis made at a Washington, D.C. fundraiser, I would love to have more reporters covering the sausage making in Congress.  In the midst of the House of Representatives voting to repeal Obamacare 40 times, there are other laws being passed, mostly to the disadvantage of anyone who doesn't have a "friend in Washington".

Mr. Leibovich ends his book by lamenting the loss of Ben Bradlee as the end of an era.  Bradlee was cozy with politicians, but put the pride of his newspaper above those relationships.  Leibovich describes that time of almost being the inverse of how things are now.  The media was the center of the political universe with politicos chasing them around trying to get coverage.  Towards the end of his life, Bradlee told Leibovich that he didn't think there could be another story like Watergate.  The system has insulated itself with biased reporting.  The media conglomerate most likely to break a story about the other side of the ideological spectrum is the least likely to be believed by those in that party.

Benghazi is a great example.  Those on the right believe it is "worse than Watergate", those on the left mock these individuals as alarmists.  There was probably a middle ground that merited discussion long ago, but the platform for that discussion was never available.  How do you straddle "Impeach Obama" and "There were 11 embassy attacks under President Bush"?  Both of these narratives were adopted by Fox News and MSNBC respectively, with most other media groups covering the issue as a spectator sport "Today Congressman ______ filed _______ claiming to seek answers about the Benghazi attack."

That's not to say Benghazi is Watergate, but it is to note that we no longer have an authority to say "Hey folks, you might want to pay attention to this" and actually have credibility on that count.  In a way, the "democratization of media" has aggravated this further by providing us a steady stream of confirmation bias.  As I'm typing this, I thought "I bet you can find support for anything on the Internet" and on a whim Googled "Obama cancelling Christmas".  Sure enough, Obama is trying to cancel Christmas, and shutting down Facebook pages that stand in his way.

The greatest tragedy of it all is that those who consider themselves "watchdogs" are actually making things worse.  By barking on cue, and sharing every Facebook Meme that gets their blood pressure high enough, they are just adding to the noise.  That protective noise that covers up the much less malicious, but much more likely, fact that the worst thing going on in Washington is a bunch of rich people helping a bunch of rich friends to the disadvantage of everyone else.

So what do we do?

1) Pay attention;
2) Be informed;
3) Get involved.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love!  It's impossible not to.