For years, political reporters have twisted and stretched the definition of the word hypocrisy to make it fit whatever story they wanted to write, until the word became all but meaningless. "Hypocrisy" was such a tempting peg for a story, reporters stopped caring whether it actually fit the situation in question. (See in particular the bizarre tendency of the media to portray a rich man who cares about the poor as a hypocrite.) There's a danger of the same thing happening to the word civility.
For example, under the headline "So much for civility …," Politico's Jonathan Allen writes of last night's State of the Union: "The civility show didn't last long in Congress. Actually, it never really started." Allen then proceeds to list several statements by members of Congress, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with "civility."
This, for example, is not an example of incivility, though Politico portrays it as such:
Within minutes of Obama's conclusion that the state of the union is "strong," Republican lawmakers blasted out press releases taking him to task for wanting to spend more on what he termed "investments."
Nor is this:
"House Republicans' answer to our nation's fiscal challenges is Draconian budget cuts on the backs of middle class families," New York Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. "It is increasingly clear that the Republican way to reduce spending is to eliminate support for middle class families and seniors while protecting spending on special interests."
But those are the kinds of things Politico points to as evidence of a lack of civility: Broad expressions of disagreement over policy.
It is not uncivil for Republicans to say they think the President wants to spend too much. it is not uncivil for Democrats to say they think Republicans want to cut too much. And when you pretend that these things constitute a breech of civility, you devalue that criticism. You let people who really are uncivil -- say, those who talk of beating elected officials to a "bloody pulp" -- off the hook. Like the boy who cried wolf, you undermine legitimate concerns. And, at the same time, you stigmatize simple expressions of policy disagreement.
Yesterday, Politico published a navel-gazing piece by editor John Harris, explaining the decision to allow reporter Jonathan Allen to return after a brief stint working for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz -- roughly a month. Harris wrote that one of his concerns in taking Allen back was that "it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans."
As I pointed out yesterday, it's a little odd that Harris would write such a line about someone with twenty years of work as a reporter and one month working for a member of Congress without noting that another Politico reporter, Jonathan Martin, worked on a Republican gubernatorial campaign, two congressional campaigns, and spent more than three years working for a Republican member of Congress. Martin left his job as press secretary to Rep. Rob Simmons in October 2005 and joined Politico upon its January 2007 launch.
Well, today, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz praises Harris' piece. After quoting both Allen's own explanation for his decision to return to journalism and Harris's concerns about bringing him back, Kurtz writes:
While television has practically obliterated the line between party insiders and pundits, I do think Republicans--and Politico readers--might be wary of someone who was so recently in the employ of a Democrat. But I give Allen and Politico major points for transparency.
Kurtz, like Harris, is concerned about a reporter who was "so recently in the employ of a Democrat." And Kurtz, like Harris, doesn't say a word about Martin. Keep in mind: Allen has twenty years of experience as a journalist, and a month of working for a member of Congress. Martin, on the other hand, came to Politico barely a year after spending more than three years with a Republican member of congress and working on at least three GOP political campaigns. And not only does Kurtz fail to mention Martin while expressing wariness about Allen's one-twelfth of a year working for a Democrat, he actually praises Harris for "transparency" after Harris omitted any mention of Martin. Incredible.
(Speaking of transparency: Harris and Kurtz were colleagues at the Washington Post before Harris left to start Politico.)
Politico's John Harris has a weird navel-gazing article about Jonathan Allen's return to journalism -- and Politico -- after a brief stint working for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Actually, it's about Politico struggling to decide whether it should take Allen back -- not because of doubts about his skills as a journalist, but because they feared a month working for a politician would irrevocably taint him:
It was a couple of weeks ago that we heard from Allen again. After a month on the job, he decided he had made a mistake. He concluded that his talents and temperament were those of a journalist, not an operative. He wanted to come back to POLITICO, if we would have him.
Ugh, again. Two thoughts were immediately at war: "Damn right, we want him," and "I'm not sure we can take him." Some critics would say he was too compromised by his brief sojourn in politics - in which he publicly aligned himself with Democrats and made a modest contribution to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln - to return to straight reporting. I wasn't sure the critics were wrong.
I have no doubt about Jonathan Allen's ability, or my own ability, to separate personal or ideological views from reporting.
But I am enough of a traditionalist to be wary of the revolving door between politics and journalism. And it seemed likely that Allen's brief tenure with a Democrat might open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans. I viewed this as a matter of perception, not of reality.
So, Harris didn't have any doubt about Allen's ability to separate his personal views from his journalism, but worried that hiring a reporter who had a month of experience working for a Democratic politician might "open us to shots at our fairness by Republicans."
Huh. Seems like a good time for Harris to mention that Politico reporter Jonathan Martin previously worked for a Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate, two Republican congressional campaigns, and a Republican congressman, for whom he worked for more than three years.
But Harris never mentioned Martin. Weird.
Two days ago, my esteemed colleague, Jamison Foser, wrote on these pages on the startling possibility that Politico could have become too dumb for even Drudge. Turns out they hadn't, a point which was proven again today. This morning, Drudge is trumpeting Politico's latest piece of explosive journalism--that the House health care bill released yesterday clocks in at $2.2 million a word. Take a look:
It runs more pages than War and Peace, has nearly five times as many words as the Torah, and its tables of contents alone run far longer than this story.
The House health care bill unveiled Thursday clocks in at 1,990 pages and about 400,000 words. With an estimated 10-year cost of $894 billion, that comes out to about $2.24 million per word.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that this treat comes to us from Jonathan Allen, who, as Foser noted earlier this week, was one of the two winners who informed us that an anonymous contestant in the Organizing for America health care video contest was upset that one of the videos featured "defacing the flag." The right has been having a field day with that ever since.
But, if you thought that Allen taking the time to calculate that the House's health care bill cost $2.2 million a word was the worst of that article (never mind the fact that, using Allen's calculation, the bill actually saves $260,000 per word), you'd be wrong. Take this:
And for those who cry "read the bill," beware. There are plenty of paragraphs like this one:
"(a) Outpatient Hospitals - (1) In General - Section 1833(t)(3)(C)(iv) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395(t)(3)(C)(iv)) is amended - (A) in the first sentence - (i) by inserting "(which is subject to the productivity adjustment described in subclause (II) of such section)" after "1886(b)(3)(B)(iii); and (ii) by inserting "(but not below 0)" after "reduced"; and (B) in the second sentence, by inserting "and which is subject, beginning with 2010 to the productivity adjustment described in section 1886(b)(3)(B)(iii)(II)".
The section deals with "incorporating productivity improvements into market basket updates that do not already incorporate such improvements," if that helps.
After reading this, I have to ask, is this the first time Allen has attempted to read a piece of legislation? He seems surprised that they are more or less unreadable. He goes on:
Asked why the House will vote on the roughly 400,000-word bill in a week when it takes a congregation a year to read the 80,000-word Torah at a synagogue, Rothman, who is Jewish, exhibited the wisdom of a Talmudic scholar.
"It only takes a year because you read one section a week," he said.
Is this really what journalism at the Politico has come to?
Right-wing media have run with the Politico's Jonathan Allen misleading calculation that the House's recently announced health care reform legislation costs "about $2.24 million per word." In fact, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 "would result in a net reduction in federal budget deficits of $104 billion"; therefore, using Allen's formula, the bill would actually save $260,000 per word.
Politico is trying to make a scandal out of a "defaced flag" video submitted to an Organizing for America health care video contest. Why? Because someone who entered the contest is bitter about not being named a finalist. No, really: that's the whole story.
One of the 20 finalists in health care video contest run by Barack Obama's campaign arm features a mural of an America flag splattered with health care graffiti until it's covered completely by black paint.
In the video - which is accompanied by the sound of a heart monitor pumping and then flat-lining - words such as "pre-existing conditions," "homeless" and "death panel" ultimately obliterate the flag, which reappears on screen seconds later with the words "Health Will Bring Our Country Back to Life" on the blue field where the 50 stars usually are.
According to the Organizing for American Web site, the 20 finalists in the "Health Reform Video Challenge" were chosen by a panel of "qualified" Democratic National Committee "employee judges."
A contestant whose video didn't make the final-20 cut complains that a video "defacing the flag" won't do much to help President Barack Obama or the Democrats sell health care reform.
"They should never pick that," said the contestant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It makes the Democrats look really, really bad."
That's literally all it takes to get a Politico hit piece these days: an anonymous complaint from a contest loser. And a fairly tepid complaint, at that.
I'm not sure what's more pathetic -- that Politico published this obvious (and so far unsuccessful) bit of Drudge-bait, or that it took two people (Jonathan Allen and Daniel Libit) to write it.
But you have to wonder why Politico thought this nonsense was newsworthy after having ignored the blatantly racist photo hosted on the RNC's Facebook page.
UPDATE: Looks like -- in this case, at least -- Politico isn't too dumb for Drudge, after all; he finally gave this "story" a link.
CNN's Candy Crowley and CQ Politics' Jonathan Allen reported Newt Gingrich's claim that "I am not a citizen of the world. I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous," saying the line was a jab at President Obama. Neither reported however that President Reagan made similar remarks.
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Discussing reports that President-elect Barack Obama is considering naming Sen. Hillary Clinton secretary of state, several media figures have responded with smears, including speculation that Clinton would pursue her own agenda as secretary of state and not Obama's, references to Clinton as Obama's "enem[y]," and speculation that Obama is considering the nomination because if Clinton remains in the Senate, she poses a threat of challenging him for the Democratic nomination in 2012 and can "mak[e] trouble" for him in the Senate.