Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Ok, this thing between Tapped and Somerby is getting weird. Case in point is the latest Tapped piece on the matter:

We can see why he's embarassed, though. Somerby's email is a good example of what bothers Tapped about much, though not all, of his writing. Somerby wrote:

While editor of TNR, Chuck Lane wrote nothing about the War Against Gore. Result? Promotion to the Washington Post. At Brill's, Seth Mnookin went in the bag for Connolly and Seelye ion [sic] a major piece in 8/00. Result? Promotion to Newsweek. If they had written freely about what was going on at the Post, they would both be running web sites today.

Needless to say, Somerby hasn't the faintest clue why the Post hired Lane or Newsweek hired Mnookin. Yet he asserts that Mnookin was hired by Newsweek because the conservative boss-men at the Washington Post Co. wanted to reward him for a piece he wrote two years earlier about a couple of Post reporters; and that the Post hired Lane as a Supreme Court reporter as payback for not blowing the lid on how biased the press was against Gore. This is not serious media criticism. This is paranoia masquerading as media criticism.
One of the most effective ways of pushing criticism away from a real problem is to label the person who brings it up as mentally ill, and Tapped knows it, so why on earth are they (without proffering any evidence to the contrary) engaging in such a Stalinist tactic? To be blunt, this isn't the Tapped that I used to read on a daily basis.. this is more like something that Kurtz would write.


CLIFT: How does [Bush] get away with such crass duplicity? The media doesn't want to disturb the story line. Gore was the prevaricator; Bush was intellectually challenged. So when Bush fiddles with the facts, the media doesn't see malevolence. They see a man who’s not articulate, who doesn't speak with lawyerly precision. And they can’t believe how believable he is.

Sorry. Pundits have peddled that excuse since October 2000. We find it profoundly unconvincing.

"The media doesn’t want to disturb the story line," Clift writes -- offering one of the gum-toothed self-critiques permitted inside the media. Media regulars are allowed to chide the corps for wanting to stick to "story lines." But they are not allowed to ask why these "lines" were preferred to begin with. For example, why did the corps go so easy on Bush budget thrusts -- the tax cuts, the estate tax, the private accounts? Could it be because the corps' opinion leaders are all multimillionaires who benefit from the Bush budget plans? It's the law: Pundits are allowed to say that their cohort obeys "story lines," but they mustn't ask where the story lines come from. In this case, these "story lines" began with the corps' "Clinton backlash," and (almost surely) with its changing class interest. You will read many columns by Clift without hearing her wonder about that.

We agree that Bush has received a free ride. But Clift shows little curiosity about why that might be. But for the record, the Bush campaign had little to do with the nonsense known as inventing the Internet. That campaign was made a great cause by the press. Eleanor Clift surely knows that's true. She also knows that good pundits don't say it.

See the problem here? Without evidence, Somerby idly speculates that unnamed pundits actively suppressed the truth about Bush's tax and budget policies because, as millionaires, they all stood to benefit from them. Using his ESP, Somerby also intuits that Clift refuses to write about various topics -- the budget policies, the apparently secret "rule" about beginning all stories with a discussion of the Clinton scandals, the provenance of the "Gore invented the Internet" lie -- because she's protecting, variously, her class interests and her career as a pundit. It's hard to take this stuff seriously. And in fact, it doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.
I most certainly see a problem, but it isn't with Somerby. Somerby's taking the (fairly standard) "media whores online" position on Clift... that she's worried about getting attacked by the right, because her stories might be spiked, and because if you don't behave nicely with the Bush administration you might get frozen out of any access. He's also dealing with this tendency to deliberately move away from any explanation that might actually imply that the media softpedals stories about conservatism (which a damned near universal idea these days) by trying to attribute it to some sort of "love of narratives" or the like, which, while true, is entirely misleading and may well be only part of the story. Yes, he's polemical, but since when has that been an issue? It certainly isn't for the right... Rush says worse stuff than this on a regular basis.

And for that, he gets the stupid "ESP" crack? Tapped may not like that they're at the receiving end of Somerby's fire, but this is just dumb. More ominous is this "it's hard to take this stuff doesn't deserve to be taken seriously" line. Since when has a line of inquiry into the media been all of a sudden made verboten, and on what kind of authority does Tapped get to make that determination? Even if Somerby is wrong, he has every right and in fact a duty to ask these sorts of questions; to try to say that that entire idea is illegitimate simply because Tapped says it is... again, pretty damned Stalinist, comrades.

Heck, watch them continue:

Now, it's true that when Somerby is correcting specific errors or omissions of fact in the work of mainstream reporters, his work is very useful and on firm ground, albeit invariably shrill and sanctimonious. (See his grating favorite rejoinder, "Try to believe that he wrote it . . .") But when Somerby launches into one of his pet theories about why and how the media is biased, his posts frequently descend into little more than rampant innuendo and conspiracy theorizing.
Ok, this is getting even weirder, because it was the American Prospect THEMSELVES who brought the Wurlitzer to light in that article about David Brock. Whoever wrote this piece is either ignorant of or deliberately ignoring real evidence that one should be damned careful about whether or not "conspiracy theories" actually might have a basis in reality. The big revelation of Brock's book stripped of the sensationalism, after all, is the revelation that, yes, there really is a vast right wing conspiracy and one should keep it in mind. Even aside from that, however, Somerby's recognition that pundits have to be very careful about whose feet they step on nowadays isn't paranoia, it's simple common sense. The whole "alpha girl" idea was built pretty directly on that idea. It's hardly new, so why is Tapped going off on him?

In a sense, the way Somerby feels about the media eerily parallels the way conservatives do. The right imagines that Howell Raines, for instance, is a ruthless partisan who orchestrates New York Times coverage down to the sentence, forever looking for ways to screw Republicans. Somerby, for his part, seems to imagine that half the reporters in Washington sit around in a room together, drinking coffee and figuring out ways to screw Al Gore. From what Tapped has read, Somerby's arguments are incredibly reductionist -- in Bob's World, there is only one explanation for anything that happens in the world of journalism, and that is that reporters are Covering Up the Truth and Sucking Up To Power. When reporters criticize the Democrats for anything at all, it's because they're buying into GOP spin. When reporters don't write stories that Somerby feels they should be writing, like the Lott story, it's always because they are placating conservatives.
Curiouser and Curiouser. This sort of fallacious equality is one of the things that the media has been (effectively) accused of prior to the Lott affair; that they imagine that because one person on the right says something and another person (theoretically on the left, but usually in the center) says something else, they're being objective simply because they present both views equally- despite it being perfectly clear that the former is pushing a carefully-crafted, media-aimed spin and the latter is just trying to say their piece. This sort of nonsensical "objectivity" has been widely recognized, so why is Tapped engaging in it here by implying that what Somerby is saying is no more valid than the blather aimed at Raines? It's not only inaccurate, it's wildly illogical!

And what the hell is up with that silly-ass Gore comment?

This, on the other hand:
It never seems to occur to Somerby that there are many different pressures that affect what stories make the cut for a given newspaper or television show, and that most of them have nothing to do with partisanship or ideology per se. (Laziness -- leading to reliance on press releases and canned quotes -- is a big one. So is the reigning "dog bites man" sensibility; when liberals criticized Lott, it was par for the course, but when the National Review did -- that was a story.) Now, no doubt there are many cases where a reporter's politics or their personal animosity for the politician they are covering fuels biased reporting. But for Somerby, there is only one explanation, and it explains everything: Conservative Media Bias, of the crudest kind. Whatever Somerby thinks deserves coverage is, in his opinion, unquestionably the story everyone should be covering. And if they don't, they're patsies. In Bob's World, any edition of "Reliable Sources" that doesn't involve the panelists prostrating themselves on the studio floor to atone for their awful coverage of Gore represents a continuing stain on the soul of the press. just stupid. Period. On many, many levels. Everything from ad hominem attacks to acres of rich 'n meaty strawmen to answering questions that haven't been asked. Stupid. Which is weird, because neither the American Prospect as a whole nor Tapped specifically is stupid in the slightest. If they aren't stupid, though, then why make a stupid argument?

But then again, maybe we're just covering for conservatives, too -- right, Bob?
As of a week or so ago, I would have enthusiastically said "no". Now I'm starting to wonder. This may simply be a pissing match, though: Tapped doesn't want Somerby to gain the upper hand and is therefore trying to get in all the shots it can. Why on earth it would matter is beyond me; I happen to like both, and have no idea why Tapped would ignore trends and ideas that are neither excluse to Somerby nor originated with him.

To be blunt, We Don't Need This, Guys. I can understand the desire to eliminate simplistic reasoning, but to say that it's just about cliquishness or narratives is willfull blindness. There's a reason MWO became a sensation, and that's because there's more going on here. To deny it out of a desire for personal aggrandizement is attempt to be a key on the Wurlitzer that the Prospect recognized itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment