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Lousy J

God but American journalism sucks when it’s ordinary.

Take story (link will break tomorrow) on the front page of the Boston Globe today. It’s fine. It’s ok. It’s typical. It sucks. The headline is a pretty good summary of the article:

On Trail, Dean hones
a populist message

Oh, sure, there’s a whiff of cynicism: Dean is honing a message, not speaking from his heart. The media is fully complicit in the transformation of politics into marketing; that’s the filter the media themselves use.

Then the article itself begins.

As a presidential contender, Howard Dean has made a name for himself as a verbal rough-rider — arguing his case against the war in Iraq and President Bush’s tax cuts with the kind of unstinting rhetoric that has won over Democrats eager to see a bruising battle against Bush next fall.

That is: “Up until now, we’ve focused on Dean as a verbal rough-rider.” In fact, the author may pretty much admit this in the next paragraph:

But on the campaign trail, Dean’s throw-down-the-gauntlet mantra is woven with another message, one strikingly different in tone, that preaches the virtue of community and the evil of corporate behemoths unconcerned, he says, with the collective good.

This is just plain old bad writing. The two paragraphs draw a distinction between Dean throwing down the gauntlet and Dean preaching. Is the article saying that he’s been delivering two different messages in different venues all along or Dean has recently (when?) made a change in his theme? This is basic to the idea behind the article.

Then there’s a juicy paragraph quoting Dean talking about corporations being blind to the human soul and the alienation that results from their pursuit of efficiency above all else.

Jump to the inside of the paper where the story is continued. This message, we are told, “strikes a chord in some quarters.” And now we get some full-bore stupidity: a single Iowan states his support.

“I love that talk about community because we are supposed to be a Christian nation, and if we are a Christian nation, I have to be concerned about you, I have to be concerned about him,” said Paul McFarland, 62, a retired military man who listened to Dean at an Ottumwa VFW Hall. “That’s the way God wanted it, that’s what a Christian nation is all about and we have strayed away from that.”

This is a Boston paper. Surely the author expects us to cluck over this as dumb remark. “Poor, stupid, Iowans,” we’re supposed to respond, “We know better than they that this nation belongs to no one religion.”

Even if the author had chosen someone whose views we couldn’t write off so easily, what is the point of running any one individual’s views? What does that tell us? That there’s at least one person in Iowa who agrees with Dean? No, this quotation was included not to give us information but to affect our attitude towards Dean’s new “message”: It is simple-minded and has been dumbed down to appeal to the herd-like Midwesterners who lack our East Coast intellecual sophistication. And if I’m wrong in reading this sub-text, it still seems to me that there has to be some sub-textual reason why the author included this particular Iowan’s views.

The author now tells us that “Dean’s message is tactically sharp” (the author’s cynicism again being imputed to the candidate). But then she moves off that tactically sharp message and says that it “dovetails” with the critique against special interests that “virtually all” the Democratic candidates have proffered.

How sloppy can you get? First, does “virtually all” mean anything more than “I didn’t bother checking them all on this issue?” Second, what does “dovetail” mean? What’s the actual connection of these ideas? Third, why are we now transitioning to a critique of special interests? The theme of article is supposed to be Dean’s gentler side. Yet, the author extends the special interests slant by saying:

Dean, in particular, has used the anti-special interests idea as a battering ram.

That doesn’t sound gentle. Ah, so the author now remembers what she’s supposed to be talking about:

But in the quieter settings, Dean often launches into the theme of uncontrolled power to highlight social policy issues. He points out the importance of structuring the sale of Canadian drugs in the United States without enriching middlemen, so that Main Street pharmacies can be saved. He talks of the need to do away with “No Child Left Behind” legislation, to give control back to local school boards.

So, now we have a third theme: uncontrolled power. But the two examples she gives aren’t about the perils of uncontrolled power. The Canadian drug issue could be taken that way if Dean’s critique is that US pharmaceuticals have used their excessive power to prevent US citizens from buying high-quality drugs at lower cost. And that is in fact what Dean says. But according to this article, it has something to do with middlemen. And Dean’s argument against W’s education policies isn’t that they result from uncontrolled power but that they over-centralize control. There is a difference. Further, Dean complains that W left “No Child Left Behind” unfunded. Neither of these make the point the author wants to make.

Now we’re told that this softer side “can be jarring for those accustomed to seeing him in attack mode” (i.e., seeing him as the media has chosen to show him):

It comes, after all, from a man seemingly determined to keep his personal biography — and sentiment — out of his campaign, and often seems oddly juxtaposed with Dean’s militaristic march though his stump speech

What? Dean has tried to keep his biography out of the campaign? A guy who routinely refers to himself as a doctor? A guy who is publishing his biography as a freaking book?

Trying to keep sentiment out of his campaign? What does “sentiment” mean here? It implies a cold-hearted, pure rationality, especially coupled with the militarism of his march through his speech. “March” implies that his heart isn’t in it. This is, to use the technical term, bullshit.
Now the article quotes one more Iowan and then trails off in a cloud of psychological speculation, an explanation by Dean of the genesis of the theme, and “Some say…”s, as in “Some say there is a risk in too much dilution…”

We are left without clarity about the central idea behind the article: is the softer side of Dean something new? We are told it is a “side” of him, an “alter ego,” dependent on “quieter settings,” a “message,” a “tactic,” “rhetoric” … Which is it? It makes a difference.

What’s really going on, in my opinion, is that a journalist is seeing something that was there all along but that she, and most of the rest of the media, have missed because Fire-and-Brimstone Howie is better copy. As the author writes:

For a man not given to idle chatter, with an extreme aversion to small talk, Dean seems surprisingly comfortable offering up his emotive meditation on the nation’s soul…

Who’s surprised here? The crowds who have heard, amidst the “thunderous” denunciations of Bush’s policies, a message of deep hope and true compassion? That’s what’s sent the chill down my spine when I heard Dean speak. That’s why I’m working for Dean. I’m not surprised at all by this “side” of Dean because it was there in plain sight. No, the surprise is the journalist’s. And that should be taken as an admission of failure.

I am not saying that the Globe is picking on Dean. I wish I thought that. No, this article, which is by and large quite favorable towards Dean, strikes me as typical of so much of the media’s sloppy, lazy and marketing-centric way of working.

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5 Responses to “Lousy J”

  1. Surely Journalism Can Be Better

    It’s hard to see how it could be worse

  2. Remember, this is the newspaper that tried to convince its readers that Kerry committed a grave, grave scandal by failing to tell people he wasn’t Irish.

  3. Dave: Your analysis is dead on, your frustration fully justified, your example well chosen. Her piece illustrates practically all that is lame about political journalism today.

    What’s most apparent to me in it are all the little devices she has for manufacturing surprise– it’s the plot turn watered way way down. These have internal validity only, lacking reference to the political world as it stands beyond the lenses and rituals of journalism. Her “surprises” (like, “But in the quieter settings, Dean often launches into…) are only about the grammar of surprise, which is to say the “plot turn” is made entirely from cliches internal to the account.

    That’s why you, Dave, keep saying: surprise? why is that any surprise? That’s why you keep asking: where in the real world is there any referent for this?

    To draft an account like Sarah Schweitzer’s of Nov. 26–and, more important to *believe* in it as a work of journalism meeting Globe standards for news & analysis–you really have to accept on principle the master narrative of mainstream campaign journalism, the operating system for all the cliches that appear on the surface of this account.

    This is where money, polls, tactics, positioning, manuevering, posturing, pandering and the horse race, etc… are the dead givens, the always that is always coming on, which is a reality urged upon us by the campaign press, pre-candidate, and then asserted over any individual candidate, regardless of what kind of campaign is run. Sometimes, it matters more than the facts because it seems to be producing the facts that follow from all script’s operative cliches.

    That’s why you keep asking, “now where does that come from?” Why this Iowa voter, and so on. Much seems abitrary, but not if Master Narrative is assumed to be author here. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. (It happens now and again.) Cheers.

  4. Corporate media is a business, just a business, and only a business. The bottom line is profit, and the levelled-down average-everyman is the target audience. I heard a ridiculous, go nowhere piece about re-locating wetlands today. The new ones developers create, to replace the ones they destroy, are neglected–they need maintenance, so environmental erosion intensifies.

    People are now converting farms into wetlands for gov. $, instead, but these, not being natural, do not sustain themselves. The people, meanwhile, have given up on independant farms for quick $, and forfeit the enterprise to giant corporate farms. I could go on…

    There really should be a TV channel dedicated solely to the war, and to all of our engagements around the world, with 24/7 discussion, for the public to know what the government is doing, and thinking, from day to day. They spend our hard earned tax $, no?

  5. Dean exits

    I like much of what Dana says. He’s clear-headed and hugely passionate at the same time. And a heck of a writer. (FWIW, he’s angrier at Kerry than I am.) I also like Joan Walsh’s piece in Salon. Joan has…

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