Personality Politics And The Decline Of Political Journalism
Upon first venturing to write about politics 20 years ago, I held naïve views about political journalism. Specifically, I imagined that factual accuracy mattered as it did in the kinds of books and magazine pieces I’d written on non-political topics: opinionated, yes, but grounded in careful reporting.
Otherwise, why bother?
After 10 years, I became persuaded that the honor system supposedly governing journalists had broken down. “Claiming the moral authority of a code of professional ethics it idealizes in the abstract but repudiates in practice,” I wrote in Harper’s magazine, “today’s Washington press corps has grown as decadent and self-protective as any politician or interest group whose behavior it purports to monitor.”
And that was before Fox News.
Driven partly by cable TV celebrity, personality-based narratives rule. Politicians are depicted as heroes or villains in group melodramas as simplistic as any TV soap opera. Facts are fitted to the storyline. Cheap psychodrama thrives. The whole world’s a Maureen Dowd column.
Which brings us back to Harper’s and author Doug Henwood. Because he finds her too close to Wall Street and too hawkish on foreign policy, Henwood evidently feels it his moral duty to blacken Hillary Clinton’s character. It’s not enough to say she voted for the Iraq War and favored bombing Syria. Henwood had to dig up “Whitewater” to prove her a liar and a cheat.
Then after I wrote a column pointing out that almost everything he’d written about that phony scandal was nonsense, Henwood began calling me bad names on social media. “Clinton towel boy,” was one.
So I posted the following on his Facebook page:
“I find it interesting that when confronted with several quite basic factual errors in his description of the great Whitewater scandal of legend and song, Doug Henwood’s response is name calling. That tells me pretty much all I need to know about him.
“However, it’s false to say that the late Jim McDougal’s savings and loan financed the Clintons’ Whitewater investment. He didn’t buy it until five years later. Another bank made the loan, for which both Clintons were jointly and severally responsible–meaning they’d have to pay it off regardless of what happened to McDougal or his other investments. Which they did. Whitewater cost the S&L nothing.
“It’s doubly false that ‘the Clintons, of course, were also investors in McDougal’s schemes.’ They had no other financial relationship whatsoever. That was the whole point of quoting the prosecutor’s closing argument in McDougal’s bank fraud trial: Convicting him depended upon convincing the jury that [he’d]…misled the Clintons about their investment and resorted to desperate measures to try to keep the bank afloat. In a word, they got conned.
“Regardless of one’s opinion about Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy ideas, those are the facts, available for about 18 years now. Henwood simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Now if somebody took something of mine apart like that, I’d do my best to make them regret it. But Henwood can’t, because he was blowing smoke to begin with.
“What I don’t get,” he answered, “is why you’re so invested in doing PR for these [bleeps].”
Sorry, dude… not playing. Facts are facts.
Everybody makes mistakes. Professionals own them.
That wouldn’t be our Mr. Henwood. So let me add that almost everything he wrote about the Clintons in Arkansas reflects sheer incomprehension. Mostly, it’s what Joe Conason and I call “naïve cynicism,” in which a reporter innocent of basic political realities presumes corruption.
For example, he accuses Bill Clinton of a cynical ploy “aimed at distancing himself from traditional liberal politics” by not calling for a repeal of Arkansas’s right-to-work law. Shockingly, Clinton also failed to call for abolishing Razorback football and duck-hunting season.
Would it help to know that no Arkansas gubernatorial candidate has ever campaigned for union shops?
Henwood alleges that Clinton “went light on environmental enforcement,” covering the state in “chicken feces.” (Never mind that properly applied chicken litter is the best organic fertilizer on Earth, as my happy cows will attest.) Would it help to know that until Clinton wrestled the timber industry and Farm Bureau to the ground in 1985, Arkansas environmental agencies had virtually no enforcement powers?
Elsewhere, Henwood alleges that the Clintons schemed to earn the enmity of teacher unions. In vain, alas. But he left out town hall meetings Hillary held with educators and parents in all 75 Arkansas counties back in 1983 in support of her husband’s educational reforms.
No matter. Her efforts were pointless anyway, Henwood thinks, because real advances “would require a wholesale overhaul of the political economy…and the Clintons weren’t about to take that on.”
Ah, yes. Wholesale overhaul. If only Hillary had been willing to wave her magic wand, wiping away 200 years of history, abolishing the legislature and converting Arkansas into Connecticut.
But, you know, the witch is too selfish for that.
Photo: Hillary Clinton stumps for U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton at the Leonard Center Field House at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
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