Sep
22
2010

Howard Fineman: 'The Best of the Old' Media?

HuffPo hire is consummate insider, urging Dems to the right

One potential benefit of so-called "new media" is the chance that news outlets on the Web might offer a break from the tired old conventional wisdom of the corporate "old media." But when Arianna Huffington (Media Decoder, 9/19/10) announced the Huffington Post's hiring of Newsweek's Howard Fineman, she described the move as a sign that her website was now "able to bring in the best of the old." While Fineman may not exactly represent the best of old media, a case can be made that he's one of the most old media of all political journalists.

In his 30 years as a reporter and pundit at Newsweek, Fineman could be counted on to represent the conventional take on politics. For example, Fineman is forever either urging Democratic politicians to move to the right or praising them for doing so. Back in 1988 (Washington Week in Review, 7/15/88), he was speaking of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' desire not to "kowtow to every special interest group, whether it be labor or the teachers or black voters."

In the next election cycle (Newsweek, 10/14/91), he talked up candidate Bill Clinton because he "has already shown some willingness to take on vested interests, such as the all-powerful teachers unions." When Clinton's election led to political disaster for the Democrats in 1994, Fineman (Newsweek, 11/21/94) blamed it on his neglect of "the New Democrat centrist themes he ran on in 1992 (and mostly forgot about after he was elected)"--and not on NAFTA, a New Democrat centrist policy that is a much more plausible explanation of that year's voting shift (Extra!, 11-12/94, 3/09).

Fineman had a similar problem with 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry: "Kerry can't occupy the center if he's defined as a mere liberal," he wrote (Newsweek, 4/12/04), urging him to craft "a coherent, centrist vision.... There's room in the middle."

Somehow Republicans running as unabashed conservatives aren't generally advised by Fineman to opportunistically revise their politics. Instead, Fineman helped Republican George W. Bush burnish his image, even finding a reason (Newsweek, 12/25/00) to praise his tendency to sit in the back of the room in his business school classes:

Bush is a quick-enough study, and in fact there is a method to his preppy casualness. At Harvard he was what is still known as a skydecker--a student who chooses to sit in the top row of the horseshoe-shaped classroom amphitheater. Skydeckers sat back and listened, taking in the scene, contributing consensus-building observation from on high.

(Later, after Bush's popularity had sunk to record lows, Fineman--Newsweek, 3/19/07--more accurately defined a "skydecker" as "a guy who sat in the top back row of the lecture hall to minimize the risk of being called on.")

After the September 11 attacks, Fineman, writing with White House correspondent Martha Brant (Newsweek, 12/3/01), upped his obsequiousness, calling Bush "a model of unblinking, eyes-on-the-prize decisiveness," as well as "eloquent," "commanding" and "astute." The piece could have been written by a White House speechwriter: "From where does George W. Bush--or [his wife] Laura, for that matter--draw the strength for this grand mission, the ambitious aim of which is nothing less than to 'rid the world of evildoers'?"

When Bush pushed the country into an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, Fineman was on hand to insist that that was the last thing he wanted to do, declaring on MSNBC's Hardball (3/6/03):

If he's a cowboy, he's the reluctant warrior, the Shane in the movie, strapping on the guns as the last resort because he has to, to protect his family, drawing on the emotions of 9/11, tying them to Saddam Hussein, using the possible or likely rejection vote from the U.N. as a badge of honor.

Like most establishment pundits, Fineman's response (MSNBC, 5/7/03) to the Iraq War was celebratory: "We had controversial wars that divided the country. This war united the country and brought the military back." When it turned out that the Iraq War did not actually unite the country, Fineman insisted that there was no way for Democrats to stop it: "As long as [Bush] can keep most of the Republicans in the Senate, in the House with him, there’s no way to overturn the policy because of the way the Constitution reads," he told the Chris Matthews Show (NBC, 9/2/07). "I hate to keep coming back to the Constitution. Sixty votes to stop a filibuster, 67 to overturn a presidential veto in the Senate." The filibuster, of course, does not appear in the Constitution--and it takes 51 votes to reject a war funding bill, or 41 votes to block it with a filibuster.

Like Bush, Republican John McCain evoked an enthusiastic response from Fineman. The pundit (Newsweek, 3/3/08) breathlessly recalled the senator's 2000 campaign during his 2008 run:

Those of us on the Straight Talk Express eight years ago got a breathtaking journalistic opportunity: to be inside the lively mind and heart of a leading contender for president. McCain was as joyously combative as Popeye and as earnestly confessional as Oprah.

He noted that the 2008 version of McCain was not as much fun, but said that was understandable, given 9/11:

He is trained in the idea of the noble military mission and in the secular faith of service to the nation. He believes that history--destiny, if you will--is calling him to the presidency at a time when we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against terrorism around the globe.

When McCain picked newly elected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Fineman (Chris Matthews Show, 8/31/08) thought this made sense: "Sure, it's risky, but he had to shake things up, and, as his top adviser told me, this is a maverick picking a maverick."

Fineman was initially enthusiastic about Barack Obama as well; he wrote (Newsweek, 5/14/08) that Obama's announcement that he was running for president "radiat[ed] uplift and glorious possibility," making a statement

that his candidacy would be the exclamation point at the end of our four-century-long argument over the role of African-Americans in our society. By electing a mixed-race man of evident brilliance, moderate mien and welcoming smile, we would finally cease seeing each other through color-coded eyes.

Alas, Fineman continued: "Well, that argument did not end. He and we were naive to think it would.... Far from eliminating racial thinking from politics," Obama's campaign actually drew attention to the subject--in part because Obama had a "message" that was "race-aware, if not race-based."

Fineman also urged Obama, like other Democratic politicians, to move to the right. He explained on MSNBC (1/17/07) that there was some "tension that people like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are caught in as they try to move to the left on the war without taking themselves out of the mainstream of the country." Polls showed at the time that Iraq War was markedly unpopular, leaving the presumably pro-war "mainstream" position a distinct minority.

In a "pre-mortem" (Newsweek, 9/20/10) on the Democrats' presumed poor showing in the 2010 midterms, Fineman scolded, "Obama--an overachiever, the guy who fills up a second blue book on the extra-credit question--tried to do it all." He cited healthcare reform and climate change legislation--but not the escalation of the Afghan War--as examples of Obama's overreaching.

Fineman also complained that Obama hasn't "seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick." Certainly lack of interest in the way insiders think has never been Fineman's problem.