Sunday, August 5, 2012


Jay Rosen throws a fit in the grand style over an especially slimy piece by Aaron Blake of the higher campaign criticism in the Washington Post bloglet "The Fix" (named, I guess, for the expression "the fix is in", for the first item in the Credo of the Church of the Savvy).

The item is a refined appreciation of Romney's continuing use of Obama quotations stripped from context to say things Obama did not say and then castigating him for saying them—a discussion of how such things work, how effective they are as a technique, without reference to how they knowingly deceive and distort (besides, everybody does it—the fix is in).
Uncredited portrait of Elijah. From the Archdiocese of Washington.
Rosen thunders:
Fight for what is true. That is how I would put the alternative to “first, show you’re savvy.” From this point of view, it is a regrettable loss for the polity, and for political journalism–and for the voters, the public–when dubious claims gain traction and quotes pulled from their context appear to “work.” What the press can do to prevent this is try to raise the costs of making false or misleading claims, which is the whole point of fact-checking.
Recognizing that there are no angels in competitive politics, recognizing also that our choices are typically binary, journalists can point out to voters (or at least the portion of voters who are users of political journalism) which candidate is stretching the truth more often or more strenuously. If it’s fair game (Blake’s term) to assess which candidate is connecting more effectively with voters or following a shrewder strategy, then it is equally fair to judge who’s being more deceptive.
Later, he starts saying something that I think is pretty new:
I could be wrong, but I think a growing number of Blake’s colleagues in journalism are losing patience with the kind of analysis on view in his rancid item. They are not for the most part political reporters, for whom the savvy is everything. They are journalists from other beats and other persuasions. And they’ve had it with the “who cares if it’s true? it works” attitude....
The savvy is still in charge. It is the worldview of choice in pro journalism; in the political reporting wing it wins maybe 95 to 5. But it has a potentially fatal weakness built in: it brackets questions of truth, suggesting that they have become either quaint (meaning: of interest only to the unsavvy) or irrelevant in making distinctions (because both sides do it.) The more open this attitude becomes among political reporters–and this is what distinguished Blake’s post, its baldness–the more repulsive it feels to their colleagues. 
To which I would like to add just a few words.

While it may be exceptionally sexy to be among the savvy, it also requires a lot less work than the truth, and less actual information about the world, and maybe rather less brain. Because savvy is what everybody (everybody who matters) already knows. It doesn't take digging through files, or interviewing people whose clothes aren't very nice, or learning economics or military science or what have you, the things that are relevant to government policy; all you have to do is get invited to the right parties. What a gig!

Those "journalists from other beats and other persuasions" have to do all these things, and more, and most strenuous of all, they have to use their own judgment; you can't just take down the quote, you have to ascertain (a) whether it's true or not and (b) why the speaker is telling you.* And my suspicion is that if Rosen is right and those journalists are starting to get annoyed with the situation in political reporting as it is, it is at least in part because the politicoes are lazy, shabby, and not very bright, in spite of the mountains of money that come their way. The Emperor in the story was savvy too, but as was eventually pointed out he was naked all the same.

*Why are you telling me that Valerie Plame works for the CIA? The answer to that question was the only newsworthy thing in the whole affair, but nobody ever asked. If an intelligence reporter instead of a savvy political reporter had been on the story, maybe we'd know.

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