Saturday, July 10, 2021

Nostalgie de la Boue Journalistique

Book cover by Lau Rivers, 2021.

A fascinating-appalling journalistic inside-baseball piece from Julia Ioffe, who seems to be engaged in the development of some as yet unnamed United Artists–like project where the journalists run the show, and in the meantime has started a sort of blog under the appropriately Russian-sounding title Tomorrow Will Be Worse, on a not very well-designed platform. The post ("The Agony and Ecstasy of the Trump Reporters, After the Fall of Trump") deals with the post-Trump crash in reportage futures:  

True to everyone’s predictions, cable news ratings have gone off a cliff. In the second quarter of 2021, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC each lost at least 30 percent of their audiences. Viewership at CNN, Trump’s favorite punching bag, was down a whopping 45 percent. “There’s a reason that TV networks cover plane crashes and condo crashes, and Trump was the plane crash of democracy,” said Susan.

That's Susan Glasser of The New Yorker, of course, spouse and occasional collaborator of Peter Baker of The New York Times, a couple of Ioffe's informants for this piece. I'm very fond of Ioffe in particular, of course, on account of the Russia connection, which leads her to do work that I think is often really valuable, unlike most White House political coverage, which she doesn't herself do, as she carefully points out, unlike so many of her friends and cable talking-head colleagues.

But the whole post is in that vein that got me so annoyed with the magisterial David Sanger, years ago now (2013 to be exact), complaining that the Obama White House was "the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered" when in fact the only other administration he'd ever covered was the W. Bush White House. As I said at the time, the thing they were nostalgic for was a contemptuous, slapdash operation that made a tremendous show of openness only to feed them the most extraordinary diet of lies and self-serving cuteness that had ever been dealt out by a head of state in any country, and what they were desperately resentful of with Obama wasn't even really a paucity of stories as much as the photography monopoly the White House had given to the great Pete Souza, leaving the press photographers in the cold, above all when it came to the puppy pix. 

Now, according to one anonymous reporter,

“It’s very difficult to go from a group of people who had contempt for their boss and are willing to leak on any subject, to a group of people who think they’re saving the world and who think very highly of themselves and are very disciplined." I asked the reporter how they’re managing to get scoops anyway. “I don’t fucking know!” they exclaimed. “I’m working my ass off!”

Some reporters I spoke with took issue with that sentiment. “It trivializes it to a degree,” said a broadcast White House reporter. “Covering Trump was not easy. They were looking to undermine you on every possible level. Every day you go in there like you’re going into battle. You have to watch everything you say and everything you do because they were trying to take you down. There was no good faith there. With Biden, it’s harder because it’s more policy-based. You have to know what the pay-fors are on infrastructure are, nuances that we never got into with Trump. With Trump it was like, what the hell is he going to tweet while I’m in the shower?”

It's really about the subject matter, you see: The Bush and Trump administrations offered you gossip stories, and the Obama and Biden ones give you government. The gossip was important, too, I'm not going to deny it, because it was an accurate account of what they were doing, catfighting, lying, and subverting democracy any way they could, and we certainly needed to know about it, and it would have been even better if they'd managed to make it clearer to the readers that that's what it was. 

There's a bothsides aspect to this, of course. If the Biden administration obstinately refuses to call the president a fucking moron, or to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on ridiculous office furnishings or pointless travel, or to subject themselves to criminal investigation, that just makes the reporters look biased for not reporting such things.

But when they complain that the Biden staffers are too "controlled" and "disciplined" and trying to save the world and policy-focused, they're betraying the mistaken belief that they ought to be purveying gossip for its own sake, because that's what they like to read themselves, or because that's what gets clicks, but essentially because that's their job, which isn't, or shouldn't be, the case. 

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