Monday, September 30, 2013

Short Attention Span Theater

Some time ago I actually cited Talking Points Memo as a potential successor to I.F. Stone's Weekly, in a bloggospheric formula.  The reason was that JMM had just had his little mini coup crowd sourcing information that led to a better national understanding of a huge national scandal: the firing of the US Attorneys under Bush.  But since then he's proved me wrong--he has no interest in putting in the time, energy, or thought to actually reporting anything novel. The entire format of the front page and of his editor's viewpoint is clickbait.  I don't have any quarrel with that. A man's got to make a living and who am I to break his rice bowl?  If he is content to run an endless stream of one sentence clips from speeches, or to repurpose this morning's post with a new picture and a slightly sexier headline in the afternoon, who am I to criticize?  But, at the same time, there is something truly destructive about this approach.  For years we've all criticized the NYT and CNN and other major media players for failing to give their readers enough historic background and context to understand the significance of the events they are covering.  This is even more the case with TPM. The short, clippy, format they have chosen to cover, for example, the shutdown or the debt ceiling fight is trivializing and highly deceptive.

Take this:

With a government shutdown appearing imminent Monday, a Republican congressman expressed frustration with the conservative wing of his party.
"We're pretty much out of options at this point," Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said, as quoted by the Wall Street Journal."They're all giddy about it," he said in reference to Republicans most unwilling to compromise. "You know who benefits the most here from a shutdown? The Democrats benefit and they know that."
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) also admitted that Republicans will be damaged politically in the event of a government shutdown. Meanwhile, a poll released Monday showed that Americans will be more inclined to blame congressional Republicans for a shutdown than President Barack Obama.

What are we supposed to conclude from this little tidbit? It is actually the current headline piece on the site labeled "GOP Rep Exasperated..."  Think Progress has a similar roundup of startlingly unsympathetic things various Republicans have said about the showdown leading  Jed Lewison at Kos  to moan  "If these guys want to be seen as anything less than complete hypocrites, they need to reverse course and agree to approve a clean funding bill."

We seem to be having some trouble grasping the central fact of our political system: people say one thing and do another.  What is the point of quoting people saying things for public consumption when we know for a fact that what governs their actual votes in the legislative crucible are entirely different considerations? JMM is just giving his readers what he thinks they want, or will click on at any rate, which is a constantly updated stream of information-like-quotes that are utterly context free.  Is there a cost to this style of reportage? I think there is--when you read down into the comment thread at a place like Kos, where to do them credit people at least care about politics and have their hearts in the right place, you see almost as much confusion and misinformation as at a Fox site.  Because people assume that statements stand for actual thought, or that public positions can give you a clue as to private negotiations.  They can't. All 11 of the GOP reps who are quoted over at Think Progress as thinking that the shut down is bad politics and bad theater voted to send Boehner's amended, dirty CR back to the Senate. Why? Because voting is a team sport and none of these guys has the slightest intention of standing out in a crowd and taking the heat for an individual decision.  You can't understand politics unless you grasp this central fact: none of these guys are willing to stick their head out of the crowd unless, like Ted Cruz, they've made a conscious decision that they may reap more benefit by being an outlier than by following the other lemmings off the cliff.



Carol Ann said...

Well, gasp, they might have to actually do the work of reporting, such as reviewing what politicians did as well as what they said, and point out the contradictions. And you know, this might slow down the pace a bit, and we really live in a byte by byte world, not a thought by thought, or insight by insight!

All these bits and bytes are giving me the heebeejeebies

craig mcgillivray said...

Nice to have you here, well said.

Victor said...

Ditto, aimai!

It's great that Steve has a principled Liberal fill-in for him, while he hides in the 'Witless Relocation Program" for a few weeks. ;-)

TPM did, however, have a good piece by him this weekend, about Republicans driving deviancy, downwards.

What once was a 'never-in-a-lifetime,' is now, the norm!

Warren Terra said...

Yes, this. I won't lose respect for JMM himself, not on this basis anyway, but his enterprise isn't what it once promised it might be.

On a slightly more serious-reporting side, there's Ezra Klein's mini-empire, which also publishes click-bait but cares more about policy and legislation. Sadly, his mainstream employer and his innate careerism means that Ezra and his gang will never call anyone names, no matter how much they deserve it.

Arctor said...

Aimi, I've followed you for years, nice to see you here. Your past commentary on Megan McArdle was an exchange I STILL think about from time to time.

Strangely, I noticed a few years back I had stopped reading TPM. When I reflected on it, I wasn't sure why.
Recently I 'tried it out' again and just lost interest.

Then I read your incisive post and it became a bit clearer to me.

Red Sun

Arctor said...

Ugh, I meant Aimai.

Red Sun

aimai said...

A lot of people get my name wrong--even some people who like what I post.

In re JMM--I like him personally and don't fault him that he basically runs a news chop shop. But I find that reading him and linking to him is bad for my brain because it purports to give you information but its more like political junkie cotton candy. Which, come to think of it, ought to be the name for the NPR "political junkie" radio spot which also leaves you stupider than when you started listening.

Joey Blau said...

I have always tried to like TPM.. and yet when I go there I soon leave because there is no content worth reading...

"The entire format of the front page and of his editor's viewpoint is clickbait"

and stuff seems to get repeated on the same page.. and I find no synthesis of any ideas.. just some factoids I know already..

Brian Link said...

Hrm. Seems you've hit a nerve. Or is this an observation that's also been made by other bloggers recently?

Whetstone said...

I'm glad you wrote this, aimai. I used to cite TPM as an example of what the blogosphere is good at: a combination of original reporting and synthesis of others' reporting that adds to that work. JMM used his knowledge to tie a bunch of disparate threads together, stuff the original sources couldn't really do on their own.

I didn't expect TPM to maintain that standard every day, month, or even year, but somewhere along the line it got increasingly trivial. I think I finally gave up on it during a sex scandal: Rielle Hunter, or Eliot Spitzer, maybe.

I don't exactly want to blame JMM for that: the business of web journalism sucks, and he wouldn't be the first person to go into business with idealistic expectations only to find that the realities of business (and he's in a business that's in its infancy) make doing the right thing all the time prohibitively expensive. But I do share your general disappointment in what TPM was and is.