January 28, 2009
Over the last several years, my expectations for the media elite to adequately and accurately process the events of the world and pass them along to the mass public in a consumable yet meaningful way have diminished. Dramatically. I don’t need to point to anything other than the media’s response to the Bush Administration’s Iraq War sales pitch to make my case, though an offhand mention of the cavalier and superficial nature of the 2008 election coverage makes the point, too. Although my shaken faith in the media establishment extends to just about every nook and cranny of the newsroom, from investigative reporters to lifestyle columnists, I am especially troubled by the performance of our leading print pundits, the folks that grace the editorial pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and online periodicals like Salon and Slate.
Sunday, while catching up on stories I missed toward the end of last week, I came across an example par excellence of the type of shoddy, incurious, inaccurate journalism to which I refer in the form of Jacob Weisberg’s slate.com article, “What Does Obama Think Government Should Do?,” an article with the suggestive sub-heading “He still hasn’t told us. That’s worrisome.” and filed under the laughable column title, The Big Idea.
Weisberg is a smart man and a seasoned journalist, as evidenced not only by his past work but also his career trajectory, from a staff writer at his college newspaper to a high-level editor at The New Republic in less than a decade and from there to his current position as chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group in little over another decade. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of Yale and a student at Oxford, the author of a few books that have received critical acclaim. In other words, he is no slouch. At least, not when he tries.
But apparently he likes to mail it in on occasion, and last Saturday’s piece seems to be a prime example. In the article I referenced, Weisberg endeavors to make the case that Obama lacks an ideological rudder, that his policy preferences and proposals are grounded in what will work best rather than what the new president believes to be the morally or philosophically right course of action. Weisberg alleges vagueness in Obama’s rhetoric, comparing his inaugural (which from my perspective was possibly the most specific and policy oriented we’ve seen in that genre in quite some time) disfavorably with nearly every other modern president. He specifically cites LBJ’s phrase, “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty” and Bush 41’s reference to voluntarism as “a thousand points of light” as examples of clarity of ideological purpose.
Excuse me? Is there a single part of either example that seems like a firm statement of ideological rigor? At the same time, did you, Mr. Weisberg, miss the stinging indictment of the outgoing administration that permeated the speech? That indictment wasn’t personal, at least not fully – it was fundamentally ideological.
The knock on Obama as vague has been a much abused frame, understandably (if unfortunately and dishonestly) used by the new president’s political rivals as a minor line of attack. It has also been used by lazy journalists, as well as poorly informed ones, who choose to pass along a shallow meme rather than seek out the actual substantive positions that were easily accessible online, not to mentioned shoveled on a daily basis into every journalist still drawing a breath’s email inbox.
A journalist of Weisberg’s stature, skill, and experience should not need to rely so heavily on straw men, yet this is what his work has done, both in his coverage of the new president and much of his work on the recent president (see especially his book, The Bush Tragedy). Unfortunately, it seems he has become a writer led by his convictions, one who makes up his mind where a story is going to go and then structures the inferential logic around the initial premise.
Interestingly, in an article published three days previous in Time, Joe Klein referred to the same speech that Weisberg and many millions of other Americans watched as one that “contained few catchphrases for the history books but did lay out a coherent and unflinching philosophy of government.” In a fitting twist of irony, Klein quotes the very same sentence as Weisberg – “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified” – but finds in it evidence of an operating political theory, rather than Weisberg's alleged indication of ideological ambivalence. I leave it to you to decide which writer is closer to the mark, though I don’t think there can be much of an argument.
It requires noting that Weisberg stretches out this particular quote a little longer, though, including the next two sentences, as well: “Where the answer is yes [to whether government is working], we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
These two sentences are where Weisberg considers Obama damned, as the pragmatism embedded in it constitutes an invalidation of the liberalism one would expect to imbue the new president’s policy proposals and, indeed, the quite large component of the platform upon which he campaigned. According to Weisberg, Obama’s stated pragmatism risks blurring execution with intent. Weisberg concludes from this passage and from his years-long observation of Obama that the new president will simply delete programs that do not work, thus taking a hyper-literal interpretation of a particular phrase and, in doing so, willfully ignoring the body of written work, in both position papers and the admittedly small amount of thoughtful substantive journalism that exists on the matter.
In particular, Weisberg makes the case that simply because a program is not working does not mean the goal is flawed, as if Obama or any other sentient being would contend with that banal observation. Weisberg’s money sentence in making this case? “That the programs that constitute the war on drugs have mostly failed isn’t a decisive argument for legalizing heroin and cocaine.” Who on Earth suggested such a thing, Mr. Weisberg?
The notion that Barack Obama will simply identify unsuccessful programs and get rid of them, without reforming relevant agencies or policy or at least replacing them with something more likely to succeed is absurd. More than that, it is offensive and intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, it fundamentally rejects the proposals the Obama team went to great lengths to present to the media establishment during the campaign and the exceptionally rigorous efforts the transition team made over the last two months, creating 25-50 page reports on every executive branch agency, identifying strengths and weaknesses for each and containing structural and policy recommendations for enhancing the strengths and addressing the weaknesses.
Weisberg knows this, he just didn’t write it. Why, I can’t say, but I suspect it is because it got in the way of his hook. Or conflicted with the mind he had already made up. It is a shame, really, not just because this does an immense disservice to the polity, but also because it does a disservice to his own talent. America put a lot into Jacob Weisberg’s career, nurturing his talent and allowing him to climb and prosper. The very least he could do is write the easy truths and focus his challenges to the new administration on problems that actually exist.