Leaving Beltway Journalism, Revealing Its Shortcomings

Robert Kaiser (cc photo: Aspen Institute)

Robert Kaiser (cc photo: Aspen Institute)

Veteran journalist Robert Kaiser is leaving the Washington Post–and, for that matter, the city–and he wrote a farewell of sorts in the Post  (2/28/14). In it, he revealed one of his frustrations as a Beltway journalist: that the “rules” of elite journalism do not allow one to call out lying politicians.  But he also demonstrated another key Beltway tendency: pretending that both sides are equally guilty of similar offenses. 

Kaiser explains that he “used to get excited about the big issues we covered–civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War.” (Whew–glad the big stuff has been settled!) And he adds that he “loved the politicians who brought those issues to life.” 

The problem, though, is that  there’s not much to love about politicians these days. (It’s also possible that politicians in the good old days weren’t actually so lovable, but let’s leave that aside.) He discusses how current Republican congressional behavior reveals “a cynical and often uninformed hostility” towards government itself. “Lies and intellectual inventions are now typical of our public life,” he says. The idea that politicians should tell the truth, he writes,

seems so old-fashioned now, when global-warming deniers hold forth on the floors of the House and the Senate, and numerous Republicans merrily denounce our moderate president as a “Socialistic dictator,” in the recent words of Rep. Randy Weber (R.-Tex.). I haven’t met Weber, but I have met some of the other House Republicans whose intellectual output can be equally baffling. One of my frustrations in recent years has been the journalistic conventions that can make it difficult to speak or write in a straightforward way about people such as Weber who make preposterous statements–and act as though they believe them. What is the appropriate journalistic response to Rep. Paul Broun (R.-Ga.) when he announces that evolution and the Big Bang theory are all “lies straight from the pit of hell”?

So Republican politicians make baffling and bewilderingly false claims–and it’s hard for journalism to say much about it. That’s revealing.

But, as if on cue, Kaiser feels the need to spread the blame around:

Not that Democrats are all clever and insightful; far from it. The intellectual firepower in Congress declined sharply during my years in Washington.

And what’s the evidence for this? Retired Sen. Max Baucus says he doesn’t know much about China, and something Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee once said:

Have you heard Jackson Lee hold forth, for example, on Vietnam? (“Today we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South . . . living in peace.”) Not inspiring.

Is that really equivalent to calling Obama a socialist dictator? Or railing against science? It wouldn’t seem so. And Kaiser more or less admits as much–“the most consequential political development in my time has been the transformation of the Grand Old Party.” If that’s so, why waste time trying to come up with a Democratic example to sit alongside a litany of wild GOP claims? 

Because, perhaps, it’s what Beltway media elite are trained to do. Kaiser laments the far-right turn of the GOP: “Vigilantes from the Club for Growth and Heritage Action campaign to eliminate every Republican in Congress who toys with moderation or considers collaborating with Democrats.” But, you know, on the other hand, the Democrats aren’t so great either; the party

lost its conservative wing. The modern Democrats are a more liberal alliance of, mostly, interest groups: women, trade unionists, gay men and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics and most of the country’s intellectuals. 

It’s hard to see why actual people should be labeled “interest groups,” but the point seems pretty clear: The Democrats are as beholden to these forces as the Republicans are to their far-right base.

Kaiser is not entirely off-base; he goes on at some length about how as Democrats chased wealthy donors and corporate interests, they “became less and less effective in their historic role as the allies and defenders of the little guy.” Again, this is the kind of thing that, on the way out the door, Kaiser feels like he should share with Washington Post readers. His goodbye letter is revealing–in ways he no doubt intended, but in other ways too. 


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.