A Little Help for His Friends
Robert Novak was certainly a remarkable journalist; how many other pundits would complain about there being too much diversity at a Republican convention? (“What about white people? Not too many”—Crossfire, 7/31/00.) But the many eulogies for Novak upon his August 18 death generally revealed less about the columnist himself than they did about the standards of corporate journalism.
The Washington Post’s David Broder (8/19/09), as usual, expressed the conventional wisdom in its purest form: “The self-mocking parody of himself that Bob created as the Prince [of Darkness], a grumpy right-winger, was sometimes taken more seriously by his audience than he intended. Bob was pugnacious, when challenged, but his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it.”
Lest you think Broder was just talking about Novak’s off hours, he concluded the column by declaring that Novak “cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama [he] loved.” It’s certainly true, as the Valerie Plame scandal illustrated, that Novak seemed to have an instinct for helping his friends in high places—it’s just that doing such favors for your friends is not traditionally considered a journalistic virtue.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent several days in Africa this summer, meeting with various heads of state, visiting rape survivors in Congo, and specifically focusing on women’s rights and economic development. But what was the top story in U.S. media? Clinton’s testy response to a question about what her husband, former President Bill Clinton, thought of Chinese business interests in Congo. That exchange prompted a whole story in the August 13 New York Times—“Clinton’s Flash of Pique in Congo,” by Jeffrey Gettleman.
While that’s already kind of sad, it turns out that the questioner misspoke; he actually meant to ask what President Barack Obama thought of these deals. But as Gettleman explained, “That interpretation did not dispel the controversy either, since it gave new life to the nagging question of whether Mrs. Clinton felt marginalized in the Obama administration.” So you get to psychoanalyze Clinton either way; if the question was really about Obama, you can take the answer she gave to the question about her husband and use it to gauge her true feelings about her role in the Obama administration.
Gettleman’s piece concluded: “No matter the issues she was talking about—encouraging good governing, ending Africa’s wars, lifting women up from their lowly position in a place like Congo. The interest in this trip, it seemed, was not about the problems facing Africa. It was about her. As one journalist covering her trip put it: ‘She is a celebrity. We have a celebrity secretary of state. When you have a celebrity, you get celebrity coverage.’”
Good to hear those few remaining overseas bureaus are being put to good use.
Left Seen and Not Heard
Somehow the Drudge-friendly news site Politico managed to write an entire piece (9/1/09) about pressure on the White House from the anti-war left (“W.H. Fears Liberal War Pressure”) without actually quoting anyone on the left who might apply such pressure. Reporter Mike Allen did gather thoughts from Matt Bennett of the Third Way think tank (a self-consciously centrist group incoherently labeled the “moderate voice of the progressive movement”), White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell and several anonymous White House officials. Bennett commented that Obama’s supporters “are fighting a really serious political battle to keep the criticism under control.” They probably don’t need to work that hard to control the criticism—not with establishment outlets like Politico keeping people from even hearing it.
Quick! AP—or Enquirer?
Eighteen-year-old South African runner Caster Semenya recently blew away the competition in the women’s 800-meter world championship race. But when questions were raised about whether Semenya, whose gender presentation is more masculine than the average female, is “really” a woman, supposedly serious outlets like the AP and CNN sank to tabloid levels on the issue. An August 20 AP video of the controversy, posted on the L.A. Times website, kicked off: “Quick! Man—or woman?” The piece included slow pans over Semenya’s body along with more tabloidy commentary (“She—and yes, SHE claims to be a woman”), and it offered a clip of her voice as some sort of evidence. It’s what you might expect to find on the E! channel—not the AP, or the L.A. Times' website, for that matter.
CNN’s Jack Cafferty’s response to the news was: “Story creeps me out. It’s weird. Do you think she’s a man or a woman?” His colleague Campbell Brown teased the “bizarre story” on August 20 and promised viewers more on “this very strange case,” while CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erica Hill called it “fascinating,” “amazing” and “wild.” During her story on the subject, Brown acknowledged one of the problems with the scrutiny: “I mean, this is a young woman, a young girl. It’s a pretty cruel thing for this girl to have to go through emotionally, psychologically presuming it’s not a scam.” Yes, indeed, ridiculing someone’s body and gender presentation on television and calling them bizarre and creepy is pretty cruel, as well as unprofessional. Unfortunately, that sort of coverage of people with different gender presentations is not
unusual—and awareness of that cruelty didn’t stop Brown from feeding into it.