THE INCREDIBLE SELF-REBUTTING NEW YORK TIMES
Jacques Steinberg has a page-one story in today's New York Times in which he writes about the decline in the number of print publications assigning reporters to ride campaign buses and planes. Steinberg struggles to list the reasons why this is a bad thing. Among them:
In the past, one advantage for those reporters who committed to spend as many as two years on the campaign trail was that they were often vaulted into the White House press room; many of those assigned to cover the next president will not have had the benefit of such seasoning, or exposure to the new president's advisers.
Yes -- now they might have to report campaign news without this excellent extended opportunity to cozy up to political insiders, and that's a bad thing, you see, because when one of the candidates eventually becomes president and is making terrible decisions about, say, war or the economy, we want to get our news from reporters who are really, really chummy with the people urging the president to make those bad decisions. Right. Got it.
"What you have lost," [Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times] said, panning the other seats and seeing few faces from previous campaigns, "is the benefit of getting 6, 12, 15 different perspectives."
"Now you may get three or four," he said....
Never mind the fact that the 6, 12, 15 all reflected the same groupthink -- it was really much better, because they used different words to express it!
But today's Times has a neat auto-rebut function: On the op-ed page, Neal Gabler describes what we actually get from the boys on the bus in the case of John McCain. First, the 2000 version:
... Over the years, reporter after reporter has remarked upon his seemingly unguarded frankness. In 1999, William Greider wrote in Rolling Stone that, "While McCain continues examining his flaws, the reporters on the bus are getting a bit edgy. Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs?"
Imagine, reporters protecting a candidate from himself! But, then again, since the reporters on the bus liked Mr. McCain too much to report on his gaffes, he really didn't need protection. His candor was without consequence. It was another blandishment to the press....
And now the 2008 variant:
...Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of individuals who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency -- the first to turn his press relations into the basis of his candidacy.
... On the bus, Mr. McCain openly talks about his press gambits. According to [Ryan] Lizza [of The New Yorker], Mr. McCain proudly brandished an index card with a "gotcha" quote from Mitt Romney that the senator had given Tim Russert of "Meet the Press," a journalist few would expect to need help in finding candidates' gaffes. In exposing his two-way relationship with the press this way, he reveals the absurdity of the political process as a big game. He also reveals his own gleeful cynicism about it.
... If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who "gets it." He sees what the press sees. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the "coolest kid in school."
... the reporters, so quick in general to jump on hypocrisy, seem to find his insincerity a virtue....
In other words, this time around McCain is running the bus charm offensive like a new-style marketing campaign aimed at hipster youths who think they're above being manipulated by marketing campaigns. As is often the case with hip marketing, the telegraphing of the manipulation makes the manipulation more effective.
But the overall problem, eight years ago and today, is that the press cares too damn much about its own relationship with the candidates. We know what happened in 2000 when McCain dropped out: George W. Bush ran an even more successful charm offensive with the press, Al Gore didn't, and we got the worst presidency ever. That's why we're better off when more reporters report from off the bus.