Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Brad DeLong asks why American political journalism fails so pathetically to do its job

Brad DeLong asks some good questions in the piece below (from Project Syndicate). For example:
It was the summer of 2000 when I began asking Republicans I know – generally people who might be natural candidates for various sub-cabinet policy positions in a Republican administration – how worried they were that the Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, was clearly not up to the job. They were not worried, they told me, that Bush was inadequately briefed and strangely incurious for a man who sought the most powerful office in the world. [....] Bush knows his strengths and weaknesses, they told me. He will focus on being America’s Queen Elizabeth II, and will let people like Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill be America’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

By the summer of 2001, it had become clear that something had gone very wrong. By that point, Bush had rejected O’Neill’s and Christine Todd Whitman’s advice on environmental policy, just as he had rejected Alan Greenspan’s and O’Neill’s advice on fiscal policy, Powell’s and Condoleezza Rice’s advice on the importance of pushing forward on negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and – as we learned later – George Tenet’s and Richard Clarke’s advice about the importance of counterterrorism.

A strange picture of Bush emerged from conversations with sub-cabinet administration appointees, their friends, and their friends of friends. He was not just under-briefed, but also lazy: he insisted on remaining under-briefed. He was not just incurious, but also arrogant: he insisted on making uninformed decisions, and hence made decisions that were essentially random. And he was stubborn: once he had made a decision – even, or rather especially, if it was glaringly wrong and stupid – he would never revisit it.

So, by the summer of 2001, a pattern was set that would lead British observer Daniel Davies to ask if there was a Bush administration policy on anything of even moderate importance that had not been completely bollixed up. [JW: Daniel Davies is rarely right on anything, as it happens, but he was right on that one.]
How did they get away with it? Part of the reason is that too much of the press--which, during the 2000 election, was fixated on Al Gore's (!) supposed lack of honesty and integrity--gave them a free ride.
But if you relied on either the Washington Post or the New York Times, you would have had a very hard time seeing it. Today, it is an accepted fact that the kindest thing you can say about the Bush administration is that it is completely incompetent, which is the line now taken by hard-line Bush supporters like the National Review and the commentator Robert Novak.

Why didn’t the American press corps cover the Bush administration properly for its first five years? I really do not know. I do know that the world cannot afford to rely again on America’s press for its information: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. [....]
This criticism might seem harsh, but it is hardly undeserved or exaggerated. The sad truth is that, to a quite astonishing degree, the bulk of what passes for mainstream political journalism in the US is pathetic: superficial, insubstantial, fundamentally unserious, and--when it comes to really important issues of politics and public policy--more distracting and misleading than informative. This situation didn't start in 2000, and Brad is right to regard it as a long-term danger to the republic.

He adds:
There are honorable exceptions. Ron Suskind. Paul Krugman. McClatchy--the news service and organization formerly known as Knight-Ridder. David Wessel and the crew at the Wall Street Journal's Washington Bureau got medieval on economic policy missteps early. The Financial Times was measured but accurate, and didn't follow the strategy of keeping its good reporters off the front page.

Suggestions for other notable candidates for the honor role would be welcome...
I can think of some, but not enough--and most of them involve magazines rather than big-circulation newspapers (let alone TV news).

To mention one example that might not leap immediately to Brad's mind ... the New Republic started hammering away pretty effectively on the dishonesty and incompetence of the Bush/Cheney team from the moment they took office. To quote one of Paul Krugman's columns from August 28, 2001 ("Truth and Lies"):
Let's remember the way the debate ran during the spring. Back in May, The New Republic's cover showed a picture of Mr. Bush, with the headline "He's Lying." Inside were two articles about the tax cut. One, by Jonathan Chait, showed that -- contrary to administration claims -- the tax cut would mainly go to the richest few percent of the population. The other was an excerpt from my own book "Fuzzy Math," refuting the administration's claims that it could cut taxes, increase military spending, provide prescription drug coverage and still avoid dipping into the Social Security surplus. The New Republic cover caused much tut-tutting; the magazine's editors were accused of hyperbole, of rabble-rousing. But the headline was a simple statement of fact. Mr. Bush was lying. It was obvious from the start that the administration's numbers didn't add up.
Or an on-line TNR piece from July 17, 2002 that has stuck in my mind ("Funny Business":
The sordid details about Harken and Halliburton have already spotlighted a pretty big lie central to the Bush image--the notion that this administration's experience in corporate America made them top-notch managers of the federal government.

Remember all that nauseating talk during the campaign about how these guys had been "out there" in the real world, running businesses, creating jobs, making money for America? Sure, George W. didn't have much political experience, we were told, but look at all his years as an entrepreneur. [....] The claims on Cheney were even more audacious. Although he had spent just a few years in the private sector--after a quarter century as a political hack--campaign supporters touted him as some sort of super executive. "He's as top-notch a businessman as he is a statesman," Roger Enrico, CEO of PepsiCo, told USA Today back in July 2000. With all the gushing about Cheney's tenure at Halliburton, you'd have thought the guy was Lee Iaccoca.

In reality, both Bush and Cheney were lousy businessmen. Their rise through the corporate ranks had nothing to do with financial or management acumen--and everything to do with cronyism and a gift for exploiting their insider status.[....]

Bottom line: Bush and Cheney don't have a clue how to succeed in business without inside connections, powerful friends, and the sorts of gray-area accounting acrobatics we're now expecting the administration to control. That's why, far from wishing the president or vice president would take a more active role in the current push to reform corporate behavior, I'm hoping they clear out and let someone else tackle the job. From what we know about these guys' business track records, I wouldn't trust them to manage my child's milk money--not because I question their ethics, but because I question their competence.
Alas, truer words....

--Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Brad DeLong (Grasping Reality with Both Hands)
May 5, 2007
While America's Watch Dogs Slept...

Mark Thoma tells me that I am live at Project Syndicate:

I want to deviate from my usual economic themes this month and focus instead on the system by which the press – mostly the American press – covers government nowadays. But perhaps this is not too great a deviation, for the behavior of the press affects not only politics, but economics as well.

Consider an editorial written in March by the Washington Post’s editorial director, Fred Hiatt, in which he makes a very small and limited apology for the newspaper’s coverage and evaluation of the Bush administration. According to Hiatt, “We raised such issues” as whether the Bush administration had properly thought its proposed adventure in Iraq through, “but with insufficient force.” In other words, Hiatt finds fault with himself and his organization for saying the right thing, but not loudly enough.

Next, consider a comment by the former editor of the New York Times, Max Frankel, about how the Washington ecology of media leaks is healthy, because “most reporters do not just lazily regurgitate...leaks.” Instead, “they use them as wedges to pry out other secrets” and so oversee the government. The system may be “sloppy and breed confusion,” but “tolerating abusive leaks by government [that misinform] is the price that society has to pay for the benefit of receiving essential leaks about government.”

So, where Hiatt sees a press corps that was a little too cowardly about overseeing the Bush administration, Frankel sees a press corps where a sloppy and confusing process is nevertheless doing a reasonable job.

I see a very different picture.

It was the summer of 2000 when I began asking Republicans I know – generally people who might be natural candidates for various sub-cabinet policy positions in a Republican administration – how worried they were that the Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush, was clearly not up to the job. They were not worried, they told me, that Bush was inadequately briefed and strangely incurious for a man who sought the most powerful office in the world. One of President Clinton’s problems, they said, was that the ceremonial portions of the job bored him – and thus he got himself into big trouble.

Look at how Bush had operated as president of the Texas Rangers baseball club, they said. Bush let the managers manage the team and the financial guys run the business. He spent his time making sure the political coalition to support the Texas Rangers in the style to which it wanted to be accustomed remained stable. Bush knows his strengths and weaknesses, they told me. He will focus on being America’s Queen Elizabeth II, and will let people like Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill be America’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

By the summer of 2001, it had become clear that something had gone very wrong. By that point, Bush had rejected O’Neill’s and Christine Todd Whitman’s advice on environmental policy, just as he had rejected Alan Greenspan’s and O’Neill’s advice on fiscal policy, Powell’s and Condoleezza Rice’s advice on the importance of pushing forward on negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and – as we learned later – George Tenet’s and Richard Clarke’s advice about the importance of counterterrorism.

A strange picture of Bush emerged from conversations with sub-cabinet administration appointees, their friends, and their friends of friends. He was not just under-briefed, but also lazy: he insisted on remaining under-briefed. He was not just incurious, but also arrogant: he insisted on making uninformed decisions, and hence made decisions that were essentially random. And he was stubborn: once he had made a decision – even, or rather especially, if it was glaringly wrong and stupid – he would never revisit it.

So, by the summer of 2001, a pattern was set that would lead British observer Daniel Davies to ask if there was a Bush administration policy on anything of even moderate importance that had not been completely bollixed up. But if you relied on either the Washington Post or the New York Times, you would have had a very hard time seeing it. Today, it is an accepted fact that the kindest thing you can say about the Bush administration is that it is completely incompetent, which is the line now taken by hard-line Bush supporters like the National Review and the commentator Robert Novak.

Why didn’t the American press corps cover the Bush administration properly for its first five years? I really do not know. I do know that the world cannot afford to rely again on America’s press for its information: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. So I appeal to all of you working for newspapers, radio, and television stations outside the United States: it is to you that we – including those of us in America – must look to discover what our own government is doing.


There are honorable exceptions. Ron Suskind. Paul Krugman. McClatchy--the news service and organization formerly known as Knight-Ridder. David Wessel and the crew at the Wall Street Journal's Washington Bureau got medieval on economic policy missteps early. The Financial Times was measured but accurate, and didn't follow the strategy of keeping its good reporters off the front page.

Suggestions for other notable candidates for the honor role would be welcome...

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