Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Catch of the Day


The Catch goes to Ed Kilgore, who notes the similarities between this year's and last year's Republican obsessions. The key point, however, generalizes beyond that:
When a significant group of politicians decide to make some event or issue the center of media attention, they can often do so to a considerable extent whether it makes sense or not. When an entire political party becomes committed to an event or issue as of transcendent importance, it instantly becomes so regardless of the merits of the case.
That's right; we tend to assume that heavy news coverage is the result of the choices of editors and producers, but it's just as common for news coverage to be driven by whatever politicians believe, or pretend to believe, is important.

Plus it's a good excuse to tell my favorite GOP-scandal-obsession story, which I've told here before, but unless my search skills are awful it appears I haven't told it for some time now. This was about the Clinton-era White House travel office story...I tried to explain the scandal last time, so you can click over if you want a bit of context, but you don't need it (although if you do click through, you'll get the Frank Grimes theory of anti-Clintonism). The basic idea was that it was a major fizzle of a scandal, but that didn't prevent it from looming large for at least some Republicans trapped in the mid-1990s early and primitive version of the conservative information feedback loop.

Anyway, the story (which may be apocryphal, but is too good to drop; if anyone actually has a source for this, I'd appreciate it  see update below)) is that during the 1996 debates the Dole campaign arranged for the guy who had been fired from the travel office to sit in the front row. The theory, you see, was that Clinton would panic when he saw the victim of his supposed corruption -- I guess it's sort of on the analogy of Hamlet's "catch the conscience of the king" plan, except even less clever. Because, well, first of all, Bill Clinton was highly unlikely to be thrown off his game -- uh, had they ever actually watched Clinton in action? And second of all, because, as the story goes, Clinton wouldn't recognize the guy; he had never met him, and as president had less fictional things to pay attention to.

I'm sorry for repeating myself, but it really is my favorite Clinton story. The thing is that the important context for Clinton-era scandals is that Fox News didn't exist, and the blogs didn't exist, and still they managed to obsess about this stuff. And not just on the fringes, as was the case with some of the more bizarre left-based obsessions during the George W. Bush years; the Clinton "scandals" were very much mainstream within the GOP. So much so that (okay, if the story is really true, but I do believe it is) a presidential campaign fooled itself into believing that it was actual news, not puffed up silliness. Which, of course, hasn't changed a bit.

Oh, also: nice catch!

(Update: Dave Hopkins passes along an AP story confirming most of the story: that Dole's campaign did put him in the front row, and did it to "rattle" Clinton. Not confirmed by that story, but probably correct, is that Clinton didn't recognize him; at any rate, Clinton wasn't rattled. Thanks, Dave!).


  1. I know this is off-topic, but it's crazy.

    In Dade County, AL, a survivalist has murdered a school bus driver and taken a six year old child hostage in a bunker that he built on his own property.

    The Sheriff's office describes the man as "stand-offish." Really?

  2. Had not heard the Dole story before, so thanks for repeating it. As you say in your earlier post, these young kids nowadays probably don't remember what it was like in the Clinton years -- another trumped-up scandal every month, it seemed like. ("The Clinton Scandalabra," as John McGlaughlin called it.) I think one interesting question would be why there's been less of that with Obama. Oh, there's plenty of Obama Derangement Syndrome, there are attempts to trump things up ("czars," Solyndra, Fast&Furious, etc.), and people on the right greeted Obama's re-election with lamentations about how it was the end of America, the Founding Vision was dust, etc, which I don't recall them doing when Clinton was re-elected. But even the fake scandals of today are more about government actions or administration policies. Where are the House committee hearings on the Obamas' personal bank accounts, property deals, Christmas-card lists and so forth? Where are the dark insinuations that Obama has his political enemies offed? Something's changed. Is it because they're afraid of personally attacking a black guy, maybe?

  3. @Jeff There's still plenty of time for a House Hearing on an Obama "scandal".

    1. True, but they've had two years already -- what's the hold-up?

  4. But wouldn't the responsible, not actually that difficult style of reporting this then be: "a significant/powerful group of politicians want to make phony-issue/event the center of attention. This is worth our coverage because a) these people's actions are always notable, and b) it's perplexing/startling that their desired center of attention is actually (w/r/t to reality, as judged by non-partisans) a non-issue." Point being, this is just as much the fault of news media outlets as it is a group of politicians' fault.

    It's perfectly possible to cover the obsessions of an important group without tacitly ratifying that group's judgments. In fact, the story becomes all the more interesting and newsworthy, in some respects, the more there's an interesting divergence between those aspects.

    1. PF, certainly commentators can declare that something is "phony" and a "non-issue," but hard-news reporters and assignment editors can't do that nearly so easily. They would see it as inserting their own political judgment into the story, and would be nagged by a distant folk memory that Watergate, too, the paradigmatic political scandal, started out small and was widely dismissed (at first) as a non-issue. So if a party leader or congressional committee chairman is loudly insisting that something is a big deal, there's a lot of pressure to report that "straight" even if you suspect it may all be bogus.

    2. Yes, you're right. It's probably in many cases very hard to tell at the beginning of any story. But at some point, if the hard-news reporter is assessing events as he/she goes along learning more about the content of the issue/event and reporting further on its developments, he can make some limited judgments about what seems more or less likely to be trumped up. This is something we consistently expect in any good academic or long-form reporter as they become an expert in a matter or learn what respected experts to consult. Now of course, there will be matters that are irreducibly controversial and subjective, which should be respected and emphasized, but there is much that is factual which many reporters refuse to share with their readers for no good reason (which would pertain to their chief interest in informing their readers).

      Anyway, we don't need to rehash "view from nowhere" CJR-style debates here. I was simply trying to suggest that JB's initial point in this post may be underemphasizing how much politicians controlling the agenda is also due to a compliant news media that resists applying not just their partisan faculties of mind (understandable!) but also their basic faculties of judgment (perverse and disingenuous).

    3. Yes, that's all true, PF, and if I may cite myself from the subthread above, perhaps it helps answer the question I posed there: Why so little in the way of trumped-up Obama scandals, to this point? Why didn't the ones that Fox et. al. have tried to hype "have legs" like, say, Whitewater, even though the GOP congressional caucus is arguably more radical today, and at least as anti-Obama as their predecessors were anti-Clinton? (I certainly would have pegged Darryl Issa for more of a scandal-monger than Jim Leach, for instance, the GOP banking chair who held absurdly pointless hearings on the Clinton stuff.) Perhaps our friends in hard news actually learned lessons from the Clinton years, and in various ways have been signaling to the GOP crazies that they're not buying it, that the scandal approach is not going to work as well as it used to and that they're not going to get blanket coverage in the mainstream press unless they've really got the goods. Let's hope.

    4. 3 reasons, I suspect all of which contribute at least in part.

      1. The Obama WH is much better run than the Clinton WH, especially in the first two years.

      2. Permanent Washington, including especially the neutral press, really didn't like Clinton; they're fine with Obama. The reasons for rejecting Clinton are murky at best, but no question that it happened.

      3. The further development of the GOP-aligned press, especially Fox News, has made everyone within the GOP information loop rather lazy and very inward-looking.

  5. imo, a better explanation for the Clinton obsession is a favorite back here in a different context: norms. In particular, the violation of Lincoln-bedroom-type norms. The Clinton about whom Christopher Hitchens wrote prolificly, and really pejoratively. I may be missing something, and Hitch is regrettably not here to document, but I do believe that nothing about Obama offends those sensibilities anywhere near the way Bubba did.

    Which points to an interesting thing about violation of norms: your offense is entirely a function of your point-of-view. If you're a big-time Clinton fan, the guest list for the Lincoln bedroom, the astroturf in the back of the El Camino, heck Hughie Rodham's parachute pants - none of that stuff bothers you. If you hate Clinton, you couldn't get enough of Hitch's outrage.

    Bringing it back to the present: perhaps this helps explain how a large demographic is not bothered at all by Mitch McConnell breaking with tradition to press Republican advantage in the contemporary Senate.


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