I've long held that much of American politics is a never-ending argument between the hippies and the jocks, as Baby Boomer politicians and commentators replay over and over the cultural conflict of their youth. And no issue brings that conflict more clearly to the fore than the question of marijuana legalization. Today, David Brooks wrote a predictably mind-boggling column on the topic, in which he reveals that he smoked pot as a teen but thinks legalization would mean "nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be." I'm not going to spend time dealing with Brooks' argument, since plenty of people have done that already (if you want to read one takedown, I'd recommend Philip Bump's), but there is one aspect of this debate I want to take note of: the change in the nature of marijuana confessions.
Yes, I have something to add to the Duck Dynasty controversy, wherein reality TV star Phil Robertson got in trouble for expressing anti-gay views, was suspended by A&E, and has now become the cause celebre of nitwit conservative politicians from across the land. This won't take long.
I'm not even going to bother addressing the idiocy of the "constitutional conservatives" who think the First Amendment guarantees you the legal right to a cable reality show. Nor am I going to talk about Robertson's anti-gay statement, except to say that nobody buys you couching your bigotry in "biblical" terms just because you call yourself a Christian and throw out some scriptural references. Once you start campaigning to have people who eat shellfish and the sinners who work on the Sabbath executed (the Bible says so!) then we'll accept that you're just honoring your religion.
It's Robertson's comments about how happy black people were living under Jim Crow that deserve our attention, because they have something to teach us about empathy and individual change.
I wasn't going to write about this, but then something shocking happened: Chris Cillizza wrote something I agreed with. So now I have little choice.
Here's what I'm talking about: a reporter named Sam Youngman wrote a piece for Politico about how despicable Washington journalistic culture is and how he's so glad he went back to Kentucky to be a real reporter after his heady days of flying around on Air Force One. Now you might think that as someone who is often critical of the Washington press corps and sometimes of Washington in general (although it's complicated I would be saying "Right on, brother!" But I'm not.
In the last couple of years, every time something John McCain says makes "news," my immediate reaction—sometimes on Twitter, sometimes just in my head—is, "Remind me again why anybody should give a crap what John McCain thinks about anything?" I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to this question. And here comes star reporter Mark Leibovich, author of the well-received This Town, with a 6,634-word cover profile of McCain for next week's New York Times Magazine. Do we need another one of these? I would have answered "no" before reading, but after, I'm even more sure.
There is no longer even the illusion of a free press in Russia—not after yesterday, when the Kremlin posted a decree on its website announcing the liquidation of RIA Novosti, the leading state news agency. “The move,” the news service wrote in its own account of the story, “is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia’s news landscape, which appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”
As we all know, this is the age of information, when the entire media world changes every week or so. We're about to enter 2014, which will surely be a year of transformation and reconfiguration, of cascading synergies and exponential upendings, in which the hidebound old ways are cast off and the day belongs to those who plug in to the rushing river of revolution. If you're going to be prepared to grasp it all and not be left behind like some pathetic dinosaur, you'd better strap in, bite down on your mouth guard, and get ready to have your paradigms exploded.
What will happen in the political news media in 2014? There's one thing you can be sure of: Games will be changed.
They had the formula down, and that was 40 years ago.
As long as people have been publishing, they've been trying to figure out what will make large numbers of people burn with a desire to read the things they're publishing. Like much of the study of human psychology, what we don't yet understand far outweighs what we do understand. But now, with the rise of social media, the search for the perfect formula to make people say both "I have to read that" and then "I have to encourage as many people as I can to also read that" has become an outright frenzy.
Don't worry, this isn't some pretentious "Thus did America descend into the quicksand of triviality, never to return" pronouncement. I'll confess that I watch the number of tweets and Facebook likes all of my posts and articles get, and if a post takes off, I'm pleased. After all, writers want their work to be read by as many people as possible. We do a lot of serious journalism and analysis here at the Prospect, and we understand that much of it will never go viral, but we're no more immune to the desire for eyeballs than anyone else.
CNN has been having problems for some time, with anemic ratings and something of an identity crisis. In a world where people can get news of the moment from a million places, just what is the network that pioneered cable news for? Not that the network doesn't still make plenty of money (it does), but unlike Fox and MSNBC, CNN hasn't seemed to have been able to figure out what its model is.
In an interview with Capital New York, CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who has been on the job less than a year, said what the network needs is "more shows and less newscasts," in order to grab "viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E." It all adds up to "an attitude and a take."
As easy as this is to mock, I think they should go for it. Because really, would our democracy suffer if, say, we only got one hour a day of Wolf Blitzer's vaguely befuddled "take" on the news instead of the current two hours?
If there’s one simple lesson from past presidential elections I wish reporters and pundits could adopt, it’s this: Stop declaring candidacies dead before the primary even starts! Mistakes during the invisible primary can doom a campaign. But they usually don’t.
Yesterday, Tim Noah made a point in an MSNBC appearance that I think deserves a lot more attention. Media outlets have been doing lots of reporting on the problems of the Affordable Care Act rollout, but what they haven't done is provided their audiences with practical information that could help them navigate the new system. Of course, most Americans don't have to do anything, since they have employer-provided insurance. But for all the attention we've been paying to the individual market, media outlets haven't done much to be of service. "The New York Times has published the URL for the New York exchange exactly twice," Noah said, "both before October first."
My experience in talking to journalists about the publication of this kind of thing—unsexy yet useful information, whether it's how to navigate a new health law or understanding where candidates stand on issues—is that they often think that addressing it once is enough. When you ask them about it, they'll say, "We did a piece on that three months ago." The problem is that for it to be effective, they have to do it repeatedly or people won't get it. What we have seen is that this information can be found somewhere on news outlets' web sites (here's an example), but it isn't on the evening news broadcast or in the print edition of the paper.
A few weeks ago, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released the follow-up to their 2009 best-seller Game Change, given the best title their publisher's Department of Inane Clichés could devise (though I'll grant that Double Down: Game Change 2012 was a bit better than Game Change 2: Game Changier would have been). The revelations weren't particularly revelatory, sales have been less than overwhelming, and an HBO film version seems unlikely. The behind-the-scenes campaign account as a journalistic genre is now half a century old, having been initiated by Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960, and it's showing its age. Is it interesting to know what Mitt Romney thought of the ads that were produced for his campaign, or whether one Obama strategist was feuding with another? Sure, if that's your thing. But it's hard to argue that learning the inside dope means you understand what happened in a truly meaningful way.
It has been said many times over the last few years that now that Democrats successfully passed a comprehensive overhaul of American health insurance, they own the health-care system, for good or ill. Every problem anyone has with health care will be blamed on Barack Obama, whether his reform had anything to do with it or not. Your kid got strep throat? It's Obama's fault! Doctor left a sponge in your chest cavity? Stupid Obama! Grandma died after a long illness at the age of 97? Damn you, Obama!
OK, so maybe it won't be quite as bad as that, but pretty close. Here's an instructive case in exactly how this plays out
In case you haven't heard, CBS News is in a bit (but only a bit) of hot water over a story 60 Minutes recently aired about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It centered on a breathless account from a security contractor, who just happened to have written a book about it being published by a conservative imprint of a publishing house owned by CBS (that's synergy, baby). He told of the harrowing events of that night, including his own heroism and the spinelessness of the big shots who sit in their cushy offices while men of action like him do what must be done and get hung out to dry. The only problem was, he appears to be a liar who fabricated much of what 60 Minutes relayed in the story, which was reported by Lara Logan.
After insisting for weeks that everything in their story checked out, CBS finally conceded that the contractor, one Dylan Davies, was lying to them and through them to their audience. On Sunday night, Logan delivered an extraordinarily half-assed on-air apology, full of passive verbs and obfuscations plainly intended to minimize the whole thing; most critically, it gave no indication that CBS is going to make any effort to figure out why it happened. So who's going to be punished for this enormous screw-up? I'll tell you who: Nobody.
If you aren't following that guy, your life is obviously devoid of meaning.
A pop quiz: Twitter is A) a world-transforming communication medium that connects us to one another in ways that redefine what it means to be human; B) an idiotic time-waster that is the enemy of genuine thought and meaning; C) both; D) neither.
What do you think? Sometimes I feel like people who write about it have to take either position A or position B, without entertaining the possibility that the answer is C, or maybe something else: used in a way that suits you, it can be quite handy and entertaining, but it could also disappear tomorrow and life as we know it would continue.