"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


Halperin vs. Halperin

Halperin vs. Halperin

Two months ago today, The New York Times published an op-ed column by Time magazine editor-at-large and senior political analyst Mark Halperin, in which Halperin argued that he and his fellow journalists have focused too much on "polls and horse-race maneuvering" and should, instead, "examine a candidate's public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance."

Halperin was right, of course; the only real questions were what took him so long to come to this realization, and whether he would follow his words with actions.

At the time, that didn't appear likely -- in his op-ed, Halperin blamed Richard Ben Cramer's What it Takes for leading impressionable journalists like him astray -- something for which Halperin was blaming Matt Drudge only a year earlier. (Apparently journalists are feckless sheep, unable to think for themselves. That's what Halperin would have you believe, anyway. I think that lets them off the hook too easily. Nobody -- not Cramer, not Drudge, not Karl Rove -- forces Mark Halperin to focus on polls and haircuts and endless other trivia. He chooses to, whether or not he chooses to admit it.)

But Halperin's failure to truly take responsibility for his role in the problem he described was only the first sign that his op-ed was unlikely to signify a change in his behavior. As I noted in December, Halperin posted 15 entries on his Time.com website the day after his column ran in the Times. Fourteen of the 15 entries dealt with the horse race and campaign tactics; the only exception was an entry about Vice President Cheney's irregular heartbeat.

But maybe that wasn't fair. Halperin has been under the Svengali-like grip of Matt Drudge and Richard Ben Cramer for years; maybe it was too much to expect him to change overnight.

How about over two months? At noon today, on the two-month anniversary of his Times column, Halperin's blog, The Page, featured the following headlines:

  • "Clinton Makes Shameless Appeal to Floridians" ("Shameless" was later changed to "Blatant")
  • "Huckabee Finds Cash for National TV Ad"
  • "Mama McCain: Son Has No Support From Base"
  • "Campaign: B. Clinton's Attacks Are Working"
  • "Courting the All-Powerful Women Vote"
  • "New NBC/WSJ National Poll"

To be fair, there was also a section labeled "POLICY CORNER" which read, in full: "Edwards says he's open to American Health Care evolving into a federalized, single-payer system."

The aptly-named "POLICY CORNER" was given roughly one-sixth as much space as the entry about John McCain's mother's "eye-popping quotes" about the GOP horserace.

In other words: Since writing that he and his colleagues needed much change, Halperin doesn't seem to have changed much.

Halperin still does seem to realize certain things aren't getting enough media attention, though -- at 9:54 this morning, he posted "HALPERIN'S TAKE: A dozen things to focus on that aren't getting enough attention." Of those "dozen things," 11 dealt with horse race-related topics.

On November 25, Halperin wrote: "In the face of polls and horse-race maneuvering, we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all. We should examine a candidate's public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance."

On January 25, Halperin offered up a dozen things that deserve greater media scrutiny -- 11 of which involve horse-race maneuvering.

The last of Halperin's topics in dire need of greater scrutiny is particularly revealing: "Which candidates are best in control of their public images." Not "what are the candidates' public images," which could conceivably be mildly useful. Not "are the candidates' public images consistent with their words and deeds," which would be considerably more useful. No, Halperin thinks we should be paying more attention to which candidates are doing a good job of controlling their public images.

That's what he thinks on January 25, anyway. Back in November, he explicitly rejected such focus: "Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has 'what it takes' to be the best candidate. ... Who can build the most attractive facade? ... For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world. But now I think I was wrong."

Halperin was wrong -- and apparently he still is.

Plenty of attention is being paid to the horserace. Too much, in fact.

Global warming, on the other hand -- that's something that really isn't "getting enough attention."

The League of Conservation Voters has reviewed "a year of debates and interviews with the presidential candidates" in which "the five top political talk show hosts" have asked 2,830 questions. According to the LCV, the five reporters - NBC's Tim Russert, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Fox News' Chris Wallace, and CBS' Bob Schieffer - had "asked a grand total of four questions about global warming" as of January 15 -- four out of nearly 3,000. (During last night's GOP debate, according to the LCV, Russert asked "two direct questions about global warming."

The Sierra Club website has more information on the subject, an excellent video, and tools to help you take action, including a petition asking reporters to "focus on the human race, not the horse race." There's also a group Facebook members can join.

And then there's the media's refusal to ask candidates about wiretaps, FISA, or immunity for telecom companies that helped the Bush administration conduct warrantless domestic spying.

As Media Matters explained yesterday:

Despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the Bush administration's claims that executive power alone allows it to engage in warrantless domestic surveillance that public officials and legal experts across the political spectrum have said violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the U.S. Constitution, only one question on the issue has been asked of any presidential candidate of either party during the numerous debates over the past year.


In the wake of litigation against several telecommunication companies over their alleged cooperation with the NSA program, a debate emerged on Capitol Hill over whether to provide these companies with retroactive immunity. The Protect America Act did not include a provision granting the telecommunication companies legal immunity for their compliance with the program, and the debate continues over whether Congress should provide for such a provision when it considers the act's renewal.

However, in the numerous presidential debates conducted over the past year, not one question has been asked of any of the Democratic candidates regarding wiretapping, FISA, or immunity for telecommunications companies, and only one has been asked of a Republican candidate. At least 10 of the candidates who have participated in presidential debates in the past year have been in Congress as it has considered legislation concerning FISA, wiretapping, and the immunity issue.

The presidential oath of office reads: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

That's the whole thing. "Protect and defend the Constitution of the United States" -- that's the president's job. The current president's approach to domestic surveillance has, according to numerous public officials and legal experts across the ideological spectrum, violated the Constitution instead of protecting it. There is currently a debate in Congress about President Bush's wiretapping program, including whether to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have broken the law by helping Bush spy on Americans.

And the nation's news media refuses -- just absolutely refuses -- to ask the presidential candidates their views on any of this.

And Mark Halperin, just two months removed from lamenting his own focus on horserace instead of substance ... Halperin says what reporters should really be focusing on is the question of which campaigns "are having internal wars about how to allocate resources."

While Halperin and Russert and Matthews and the rest refuse to deal seriously with serious topics, you can get news and analysis about the FISA debate from Firedoglake bloggers Jane Hamsher, Christy Hardin Smith, and Marcy Wheeler; Digby; and Glenn Greenwald at Salon.

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