Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Skippy and the Mystery of the Missing Journalism

(A strange but familiar tale - with pictures!)

(AP photo)

Economic issues remain a top concern for voters this year, unsurprisingly enough. Back on Friday, June 20th, Barack Obama held an economic roundtable with 16 Democratic governors. It received some straightforward write-ups, such as one by Ann E. Kornblut of The Washington Post for their campaign blog, The Trail. The short piece reported:

"You deserve and you need a partner in the White House and a president who understands our prosperity doesn't come from Wall Street or Washington," Obama told the group, with whom he also had dinner the night before. "We should be investing in the skills, the human capital, the education and well-being of your constituents."

The group complained widely about President Bush's stewardship of the economy and treatment of their states. Granholm [of Michigan] said 400,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in her state since he took office. Strickland [of Ohio] said that, last week alone, he took calls from companies in his state informing him that up to 12,000 jobs are about to be lost. And Freudenthal [of Wyoming] said that, on environmental issues important to his state, he was looking forward to having a "partner for a change, as opposed to a dictator."

Also on June 20th, the AP's Nedra Pickler wrote "Play of the Day: Obama Debuts New Seal," a short piece about the modified presidential seal the Obama campaign put on the podium. Pickler's piece was widely picked up by newspapers and of course, the Drudge Report. Coverage of the seal the same day on the CNN, USA Today and Tribune sites was fairly neutral or light in tone. Meanwhile, The New York Daily News actually sought out comment from both campaigns, not on the economic roundtable itself or economic issues, but on the seal:

Asked to explain the new seal, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "It's a mix of presidential politics and a call for hope and change."

Snarked John McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, "I think we can all agree that we need presidential candidates that are serious enough not to play make-believe on the campaign trail."

"It's laughable, ridiculous, preposterous and revealing all at the same time," Bounds said.

Over at neocon outlet Weekly Standard, also on June 20th, John McCormack asked, "Is Obama's Great Seal Illegal?"

(Viewers of The West Wing may recall that, in fact, official seals must be altered (as Obama's was) or permission must be sought for their use, lest one risk trouble. Still, anyone passing the many merchandise carts near the National Mall in D.C. can guess that strict enforcement may not exactly be a top law enforcement priority.)

The "illegality" issue was actually brought up as well by McCain campaign blogger Michael Goldfarb. (If the timestamps for both sites are Eastern Standard Time, Goldfarb beat McCormack by 40 minutes on this angle. Neither links the other. Perhaps they came up with this angle independently, although more likely, it's a case of pass-the-meme.)

Some other outlets picked up the story, with a few right-wing blogs linking the Weekly Standard piece.

On Saturday, June 21st, Mike Allen at Politico ran a piece titled "Cindy on Newsweek cover -- Obama’s presidential seal, plus his 15-point lead over McCain … Playbook weddings." Obama's seal was not Allen's lead item, although on the subject, he wrote:

Politico’s Ben Smith says it’s for “events meant to feel presidential.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper is waiting for “a remix of ‘Hail to the Chief.’ ”

National Review’s Greg Pollowitz: “Audacity defined: Changing the seal of the United States of America and inserting the ‘O’ logo for the American flag.”

Rich Lowry, channeling Jonathan Martin: “Obama's own presidential seal. With its own Latin slogan. You can't make this stuff up.”

Tapper's brief piece was actually titled "An Audacity of Hype." On Los Angeles Times blog Top of the Ticket, Andrew Malcolm wrote "Barack Obama gets his own nifty Great Seal; all he needs now is votes," a pretty snide piece taking Obama to task for the seal, but also raising money and foregoing public funds. This is probably the standout passage:

Plus [the seal's] got Obama's website right up there too. Lord knows, he needs more donations because the poor White Sox fan from Chicago's impoverished South Side has only raised a little under $290 million so far.

(Interestingly enough, if you look at the top of the Malcolm post, you'll see a menu link to one of his previous posts that day, "John McCain may lag in money, but RNC out-raises DNC by 5 times." Ah, context.)

Also on June 21st, The Washington Post reported a tidbit, that in its entirety read:

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign raised a good deal of curiosity yesterday when it used a campaign seal that looked an awful lot like the presidential seal. Spokesman Bill Burton said the campaign wanted to give an event with Democratic governors a more formal flavor. "It seemed appropriate today," Burton said. "We'll see if it does in the future."

On Sunday, June 22nd, Democratic blogger Mark Nickolas exposed the hypocrisy of the Weekly Standard's accusations about the "illegality" of Obama's seal.

Well, it took me about 15 minutes on Google Images to discover that John McCain's (R) own caucus -- the National Republican Senatorial Committee -- uses three different likenesses of the official seal...for fundraising purposes:

(Click for a larger view.)
Nickolas closed by remarking:

Of course, the right-wing never lets their own hypocrisy get in the way of another shameless political attack. But will the media even take notice, or are they too excited about the latest game of 'gotcha' to even pay attention?

Hmm, tough one there.

On Monday, June 23rd, CNN and many other news organizations and blogs, including the AP, noted that the Obama campaign said they were dropping the seal: "That was a one time thing for a one time event." CNN's ending line was a classic of non-attribution and passing on "allegations" without evaluating them:

Many wondered whether a seal – with Latin phrasing no less - was the best idea for a candidate fighting for the working class vote and trying to fend off allegations of elitism.

Also on June 23rd, highly-trafficked site Crooks and Liars posted "Republicans Whine About Legality of New Obama Logo. Their Use of Similar Logos Doesn’t Bother Them," linking the Nickolas piece. In an update, they noted that Obama had dropped the seal.

Over at ABC, Jake Tapper wrote:

We've all had some fun at Sen. Barack Obama's "Audacity of Hype" ersatz presidential seal from last week.

And apparently the folks at Obama HQ got the message.

Tapper reported the seal being dropped, and also reported the National Republican Senatorial Committee's use of similar seals. However, he didn't credit Nickolas. (Hmm. Where did he get this?)

At Salon, Alex Koppelman covered the seal being dropped, the mockery over it that weekend, Goldfarb's illegality accusation, and Tapper's piece about the GOP seals, "an item Obama spokesman Bill Burton brought to my attention."

Over at the LA Times' Top of the Ticket, Malcolm's colleague Don Frederick reported the dropped seal and recapped some of the mockery, as did Mark Silva at The Tribune's blog The Swamp. Both linked Tapper's earlier post, "The Audacity of Hype," but missed Tapper's more recent piece mentioning the GOP seals (both Frederick and Silva appear to have posted before that Tapper post was up, and did not mention it later).

Virtually everybody, including Reuters, linked Marc Ambinder's post at The Atlantic on the affair:

I've had my fun with the Obama campaign's seal, and now that fun ends. I'm told that Obama recognizes that it was a silly mistake, that the universal reaction at Wacker and Michigan was, "Boy, was that dumb," and that they don't think the seal staging will matter to actual voters.

Does the press think Obama is arrogant? Yes. Does the seal represent arrogance? Only tangentially, actually. The worry for Obama's image managers is that it gives the press a pretext to call Obama arrogant, an example for them to add to a list of arrogant moments, and a way to distract them from what Obama is saying.

Wonkette also took a "the seal was stupid, but all this fuss is, too" attitude in "Obama Nixes Stupid ‘Great Seal’ Remake":

The national press corps is not used to covering a “confident” Democratic presidential candidate, at least in this decade. So much confidence, in fact, that the candidate won’t always bend over backwards to talk to the press, or to leak internal drama to the press! Ergo, the press has decided that Obama is arrogant. And when they saw Obama speak behind this new “great seal” of his on Friday — definitely the lamest stunt we can remember from Hopey — this confirmed to the press that Obama is too arrogant. Obama arrogantly got the message and arrogantly ditched the great seal and did some other arrogant stuff, like believe he might actually win this thing.

Whew. All right, we had our fun, but now surely that would be the end of this silly story!

(Bill Sammon)

Alas, no. Even in writing about the seal's demise, some scribes were hitting the "arrogance" theme harder than others. On June 23rd as well, Bill Sammon (background on the Bush-friendly Sammon here) wrote a piece for The Examiner, "Obama campaign drops seal on podium," notable for its snideness. In its entirety:

After days of media mockery, Barack Obama has decided to stop using a presidential-looking seal that his campaign designed and affixed to his podium on Friday.

Journalists said the seal, which features an eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch, smacks of arrogance. John McCain's camp had a field day, calling the seal “laughable, ridiculous, preposterous and revealing - all at the same time.”

The seal was conspicuously missing from Obama's lectern when he spoke to a group of women in Albuquerque on Monday. Not surprising, given how much grief Obama took from a normally laudatory press corps after unveiling the seal at an appearance in Chicago on Friday.

“What a bizarre and dumb idea,” railed NBC political director Chuck Todd. “It really feeds the arrogance narrative.”

The oversized blue seal was emblazoned with the Latin phrase “Vero Possumus,” which roughly translates into “yes, we can.” It also featured a plug for the candidate's website.

“The Audacity of Hype,” cracked ABC's Jake Tapper. “No word on whether they played a remix of 'Hail to the Chief' as Obama walked in.”

Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times observed that Obama “has decided not to wait for any of the formalities like a presidential election, an inauguration or even a nomination, which he still hasn't actually officially won yet.”

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic magazine was the first to note that Obama would deep-six the seal.

“I'm told that Obama recognizes that it was a silly mistake,” Ambinder said. “Does the press think Obama is arrogant? Yes.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the episode reinforces this media perception of Obama.

“The press corps adopts a subtext for each candidate,” Sabato told The Examiner. “Daddy Bush was 'a nice guy but out of touch.' Bill Clinton was 'smart but randy.' Bob Dole was 'heroic but too old.' Gore was 'brilliant but a fibber and a bore.' Dubya was 'pleasant but dumb.'”

He added: “Obama's subtext is rapidly becoming 'charismatic but arrogant.'”

The Obama campaign declined to comment.

It's very interesting to note what Sammon chose to clip and obscure here, isn't it, and the overall narrative he's selling? (Also, the Obama campaign had already commented to CNN. What exactly did Sammon or a staffer ask? "How do you respond to the accusation that you're arrogant?")

Ever timely, on Thursday, June 26th, high-profile Republican operative Karl Rove saw his latest Obama-bashing piece, "It's All About Obama," run in the Wall Street Journal. Rove accused Obama once again of arrogance, using the seal as his point of attack. His second graf:

His seal featured an eagle emblazoned with his logo, and included a Latin version of his campaign slogan. This was an attempt by Sen. Obama to make himself appear more presidential. But most people saw in the seal something else – chutzpah – and he's stopped using it. Such arrogance – even self-centeredness – have featured often in the Obama campaign.

(Reportedly not an actual photograph)

Enter at last our intrepid pal, skippy. In a June 26th post, "quote of the day," skippy linked a Jesse Taylor post at Pandagon on Rove's piece. As skippy noted, "the only attack the gop can muster seems to be to discuss something that obama has already abandoned." In an addendum, skippy linked Mark Nickolas' post about the GOP presidential seals.

In " the audacity of "the audacity of hype" - action alert," skippy linked the Sammon piece and posted the letter he'd written to Chuck Todd, Jake Tapper and Andrew Malcolm over their remarks. Follow the link to read the entire letter, but in it, skippy linked the Nickolas post, and asked:

as you are most certainly aware, john mccain's own caucus, the national republican senatorial committee, uses at least three different permutations of the presidential seal for their campaigns (granted they are senatorial campaigns and not presidential campaigns)…

my question to you, sir, is two-fold:

why would you characterize sen. obama as "arrogant" (or "hype") and yet not say anything about the republicans' similar use of the presidential seal, and any implied arrogance on their part?

and, do you not feel it is your duty as a journalist to report to the public this same usage of the seal by the republicans, thus providing context to events, as opposed to letting a narrative get fed into, when there is, at least in this case, no basis for that narrative to exist?

Tapper had actually covered this angle by this time (although it sure seems he or whoever tipped him off didn't credit Nickolas). However, even Tapper ran with the Obama slam first without considering, and certainly without bothering to check, the hypocrisy angle. How big a deal any of this was or is remains a matter of judgment. Still, surely skippy's letter was polite and its questions legitimate.

In "mainstream media bites roo," skippy posted the really snotty reply he received from Andrew Malcolm:

your apology is accepted. we are a political blog that writes around-the-clock about all aspects of the campaigns with attitude and hopefully some insights. apparently millions of readers are getting something from the ticket as our global ranking has surged to #133 in one year out of 100+ million. what’s yours, skippy? since there was almost universal derision over the premature presidential seal of sen. obama and his staff has been quoted as saying it was a mistake, it’s curious you defensively only ask us about it. we’re delighted to receive such attention. but if the seal was such a good idea, why isn’t he still using it?

people laughing and snickering at the seal detracts from the messages he wants to deliver, which is the professional measure of such tools.

haven’t come across sen. mccain’s pretend presidential seal yet. in fact, from our inquiries, we understand he doesn’t really like podiums, which might explain his poor deliveries at them. but if we do, you’ll see it roundly humorized on the ticket with a huge photo, especially if he attaches some faux latin motto. for now, we’re stuck with criticizing his crummy fundraising and policy inconsistencies. thanks for reading, though hope you do also get around to scanning our items not on your candidate.

(Actual reporter Andrew Malcolm, on the case)

Follow the link to read all of skippy's response, but in addition to addressing Malcolm's dismissive tone, he pointed out that Malcolm hadn't addressed the question:

what i asked was, why did you so quickly fit obama's use of the presidential seal as a prototype for a campaign logo into a narrative about obama's arrogance when mccain's own caucus uses the same seal as a prototype for a campaign logo, and yet you don't mention that.

if it is because you don't know about mccain's caucus logos, i respectfully suggest that you read the link i sent you, do some research and then publish a follow up pointing out that the republicans are doing the exact same thing the democrats are doing (though, as i said in my original letter, for senatorial campaigns and not presidential campaigns).

again, when you say "people, [are laughing]" what you really mean is "the press corps." it is my contention that the press corps should not be the final arbiter of what a candidate offers to the public, especially when the opposing candidate is offering the same sort of thing, but the press corps ignores it.

please follow the link i provided, though, again, it's for senatorial campaigns, and not presidential campaigns. but the link does provide republican faux seals based on the presidential seal.

obama is not my candidate, thank you very much. as i have said on my blog post concerning your coverage of the seal, i'm not after a fair shake for obama, i'm after a fair press corps.

(Mike Finnigan's response to Malcolm's reply deserves a gander, too.)

The pattern here should be familiar to readers of the liberal blogosphere. As when CNN's John King responded to Glenn Greenwald, to cite just one other example, when a blogger raises a concern with a mainstream media journalist, the response often is:

1) An accusation of bias, ascribing a request for accuracy, context or quality to partisanship. Responding on the merits is thus (somehow) unnecessary.

2) An authoritarian power move attacking the questioner personally, asserting a privileged position and challenging the very act of questioning the journalist. (Who are you to question me?)

It's a bullying move, and while even good journalists do field their share of undue criticism and even abusive comments, Malcolm's reply was rude, unwarranted, and unresponsive to skippy's substantive points. Not all mainstream media journalists behave this way, of course, but sadly, there's still a significant number who do.

(Howard Kurtz)

We're not quite done. On Friday, June 27th, Howard Kurtz' Washington Post column "Pretzel Logic" consisted mostly of Obama-bashing pieces, as has been the case for the past four weeks or so. Kurtz, who professes independence but typically frames issues from a right-wing perspective, included three paragraphs from Rove's piece attacking Obama for arrogance and self-centeredness.

Unsurprisingly, Kurtz did not challenge Rove's premise, nor did he note that the Obama campaign had dropped the seal after one use back on Monday, nor did he note the hypocrisy angle of Republicans using modified seals themselves for similar meetings. Kurtz did quote a James Moore piece questioning whether Rove should be a pundit at all.

Still, I've lost count of how many times Kurtz has run with a right-wing smear days after it's been already debunked or at least substantially challenged by major (normally liberal) blogs. In this case, I guess Kurtz missed the Crooks and Liars piece, Jake Tapper's second piece with the GOP seals, or posts criticizing Rove's op-ed by two prominent bloggers Kurtz often features, Andrew Sullivan and Kos. On rare occasions Kurtz calls bullshit, but more often, like Mark Halperin, he spreads it.

(For more on Kurtz' hackery, see these posts on Iraq and his response to the Malkin-lead campaign against Graeme Frost. Also see Eric Boehlert on Kurtz and Malkin. I hope to have more on Kurtz in a while, but in the past two weeks alone, he's accused Wesley Clark of attacking McCain's military service and affirmed a National Review piece accusing Obama of starting the flag lapel pin nonsense himself. Both of these are questionable charges if not outright falsehoods, in addition to being colossally unimportant even if they were true. But it sure is funny how Kurtz almost always starts by quoting right-wing furor over something, and then so often agrees with it.)

(Contemplating the state of the media today,
he found himself less than enthused.)

Never underestimate the dangers of a slow news day – or week. Personally, I see nothing inherently wrong with silly side stories, or mocking candidates for foolishness. The problem is that with our mostly vapid news corps, almost all we get is gossipy bullshit. As Bob Somerby's observed, sports writers love discussing sports, but many prominent political reporters hate discussing politics. TV talking heads are the worst, taking about gamesmanship all the time, but avoiding discussion of the actual policies and their consequences. As I've written before, I think this is due to three factors. One, laziness. It's far less work, requiring no research, only a reaction and an opinion. Two, it allows journalists to stay on a "he said-she said" level that gives them cover that they're "balanced," while avoiding the fact-checking and qualitative analysis that's more work but also more likely to draw ire from at least one camp. Three, they think it's fun. Most of the Beltway crowd amount to a shallow, gossipy high school clique. I don't begrudge the idea of having fun, and some side tidbits can be enlightening or entertaining, but it's all a matter of time, place, subject and proportion. When most or all substantive discussion is shoved aside in favor of an unrelenting onslaught of crap that's both trivial and misleading, our democracy kinda suffers.

In this specific case, I don't see any problem with poking fun at Obama over the seal (a fair number of liberals did too, after all). It was an appropriate subject for a side piece or a short item, but it's fluff. Harping on it endlessly or imputing some great significance to it was ridiculous. Using it to accuse Obama of "arrogance" while ignoring that the GOP's done the same thing is negligent journalism. The bigger question is whether the press should be obsessing about a candidate's supposed "arrogance" in the first place, and in this case – as has often been the case – the press is repeating right-wing smears. If they're going to do that, at the very least, it might be nice if they identified who originated this line of attack. It's not exactly a secret that Karl Rove, Bill Kristol and other prominent Republicans have been trying to tag Obama as an arrogant elitist for several months now. But the press has repeated all of that, mostly uncritically. As we covered before over Obama's "bitter" comments, it was absurd to see millionaire pundits and millionaire candidates decrying another millionaire candidate for lacking "the common touch" (and while Obama is rich now, he lived in extreme poverty for parts of his life). But as Somerby also points out constantly, it's extremely rare for any journalist to call out the media's own culpability in this whole sideshow. Nor, as skippy's experience shows yet again, are they all particularly eager to respond to the very 'commoners' they supposedly represent when they attack politicians Democrats for being snobby elitists.

What about those pesky economic issues, anyway? There's the "dollar's 41 percent drop against the euro during Bush's term," for one example. The general rule when it comes to the corporate media is that the consequences of competing economic policies are rarely discussed, and when they are, it's rarely accurate, with bullshit going unchallenged or spread by reporters themselves. The coverage by CNN and NPR on Obama and McCain's competing tax plans was actually surprisingly good, but sadly, that's more the exception than the rule. Earlier this year in Democratic debates, both Charlie Gibson and Wolf Blitzer posed misleading or inaccurate questions about Democratic tax policies. Millionaire journalists working for corporate media never do seem terribly eager to mention the growing inequity of wealth in America and the real class warfare going on. It's a subject most Americans rarely hear anything about between the bread and circuses.

I'll hawk Paul Krugman's book The Conscience of a Liberal yet again, but an honest and accurate discussion of policies, perhaps most of all on economics and budgetary matters, will almost always favor liberals. This presidential race is no exception. Yet for every good piece in the MSM on the candidates' competing economic plans, there's several bad ones. Blogs frequently use MSM pieces as launching points, but the best liberal blogs often bring a higher level of scrutiny and a much greater willingness to call bullshit . This week alone, we have Bob Somerby examining lies by McCain and his surrogates on Social Security and taxes, and dissecting a weak Washington Post article on Social Security. Jonathan Schwarz and DDay have looked at a recent bizarre, revealing claim by McCain on Social Security. From Obsidian Wings alone this week, there's been detailed analysis of McCain's policies and statements on economics and budgetary matters: " Lie To Me, Baby," "Lie to Me Some More," "Candidates Diverge," "McCain: Deceptive Or Stone Cold Ignorant," "The "Disgrace" of Social Security," "Even More McCain" and "McCain's Economists." We'll see how much of McCain's imprudent and confused policies - and deceptive or confused rhetoric - gets covered by the mainstream press. But surely, the press should be able to muster some energy to cover McCain's plan to balance the budget:

The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.

That's so preposterous I'd say it's either delusional, or insulting to the intelligence of voters, which is mighty – what's the word? – arrogant. Surely some ridicule can be spared for that. At minimum, it certainly warrants some coverage and tough questions for McCain, since it cuts to the core of two key campaign issues for him (Iraq and the economy), and its consequences are a helluva lot more dire than a friggin' podium decoration.

Within the past few days, Top of the Ticket has covered McCain's joke about killing Iranians with cigarettes, and did at least link pieces on economic proposals in a post about Obama and McCain trying to appear as "regular folks" (I'd say the economic pieces they link are very cursory, but it's not surprising they're linking stories in their own paper). Jake Tapper showed some initiative and asked the McCain campaign about what currently made Social Security a "disgrace." (See the blogs linked above for more on this.) Most MSM outlets do have their moments.

Still, I'm reminded of John Dickerson's observation once again:

One of the healthiest things about the left-wing blogosphere is its confrontational dislike of the mainstream media. There's a distinction here with the media's critics on the right. At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart. The left, on the other hand, just wishes the establishment press would do a better job. The Kos-type critique of the media is intertwined with its passion about politics. When the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers. There's respect in that anger, though you wouldn't always know it if you're the target of one of their flaming arrows. (Sometimes they apologize.)

Howard Kurtz (among others) refuses to acknowledge this difference publicly. And he, and many of his cohorts mentioned above, would be far better informed if they read (among others) the Daily Howler, Crooks and Liars, Hullabaloo, Obsidian Wings, A Tiny Revolution and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo regularly.

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