Friday, July 1, 2011

Shitty Journalism is the Biggest Dick of Them All

Mark Halpern getting suspended for calling Obama a "dick" is like Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion. I agree with Greg Sargent entirely, and this rant hits all the right notes:
I’m sorry, but this is crazy. Halperin’s crack was crude and dumb, but it doesn’t deserve indefinite suspension. Halperin’s use of an expletive is trival when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others — degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.

I care less about Halperin’s use of the word “dick” than I do about the argument he and Joe Scarborough were making — that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal. This notion that Obama’s tone was somehow over the top — when politics is supposed to be a rough clash of visions — is rooted in a deeply ingrained set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable political discourse that really deserve more scrutiny. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Michele Bachmann says deeply insane things about us not needing to raise the debt limit, but it should be seen as an enormously newsworthy gaffe when she commits a relatively minor error about regional trivia. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Republicans continually claim that Dems cut $500 billion in Medicare, even though fact checkers have pronunced it false, but it should be seen as “demagoguery” when Dems argue that the Paul Ryan plan would end Medicare as we know it.

Halperin has certainly done his part to encourage these unwritten rules, and so maybe there’s a certain poetic justice in the fact that he’s now been suspended indefitely for violating them, but still, this is over the top. I care that Halperin uncritically claims that Drudge rules the media world, and acts accordingly. I care that Halperin published a book that accused public officials of using explosive, racially charged quotes that were paraphrased, without guaranteeing their accuracy, in order to gin up media controvery. I care that Halperin does dumb things like parroting GOP predictions of a big victory when all available evidence is pointing the other way, as he famously did in the runup to the 2006 elections. I don’t care that he used the word “dick” to describe the president. Suspending Halperin for this only reinforces the bogus idea that a crass and dumb slip into foul language is worse than all this other stuff we see on a regular basis.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves about our political culture. Politicians and members of the media curse pretty much constantly, for reasons good and bad, big and small. This fact is backed up by anyone who has worked in that world. Yet, when when it leaks that someone has used bad language, everyone feels the need to condemn and shame the person who made the remarks. (You can replace everything I just said in relation to sex scandals as well)

Whatever your feelings on bad language (if you read this blog, you know I don't find it offensive, but I'm aware plenty of people disagree), to me it's a matter of what you find offensive. Is it more offensive that Rahm said "fuck" a lot, or that he has been a corporate whore during his entire political career? Is it more offensive that Larry Summers is kind of dick (GASP) or that his decision to not allow a larger stimulus directly led to the extended unemployment crisis we have now? Does it matter more that Tim Geithner is by all accounts a nice guy (he would never call someone a dick!), or that he is a tool of the banking industry?

Not only are those real issues far more important, but bullshitting about civility and focusing on personal traits is done precisely so that media figures don't have to tackle harder questions where they might be forced to do their job and come to a conclusion other than "adultery is bad" or "using bad language is mean".

It's easy to grandstand on those issues, because you can get as sanctimonious as you want with little downside. No one will stop your acesss. Your sources won't stop feeding you their unimportant gossip first.

If you look at the facts and state your conclusions (you know, the actual job of a journalist), you might piss somebody off. Worse than that, you might get held up as evidence of "liberal" bias (the type of bias many facts carry).

So we talk about the stupid stuff. We rarely hold people accountable for anything other than sex scandals (and in that case, you have to be a Democrat for it to count). Our presidential elections turn into debates over who you'd rather have a beer with, or who looks the most "presidential". When our media has debates actual policy, it rarely departs from the elite consensus surrounding an issue. Medicare and Social Security may be insanely popular, but any time they're brought up on TV it's in a roundtable discussion over who has the courage to cut them because everyone knows this needs to happen.

Joe Scarborough can lie constantly for an entire segment about how Medicare is like Chocolate Cake, and keep his job, probably more popular than ever within the beltway media for saying what everyone knows out loud. Mark Halpern can be one of the shittiest journalists on the planet for the last whoever many years, but what gets him kicked off TV is saying a bad word, that 99% of DC reports would say to each other without even blinking.

It's definitely up for debate how much a role our political media plays in the problems our country faces, but it sure as hell isn't making anyone smarter. I don't know exactly how you change this, but it is worth pointing out from time to time how terrible it is and a few of the reasons why that's the case.

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