Chattering Crass

Last week, A-list pundit Mark Halperin reacted to President Barack Obama's press conference on the budget negotiations with Republicans by saying "I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday" on the MSNBC program Morning Joe. The result was a quick apology, a quick suspension, and lots of silly hand-waving. But no one should really care about what Halperin said. It was certainly juvenile -- to understand that, you only had to look at Halperin smiling gleefully and flushed with the thrill of transgression as he uttered the naughty word. But the republic will survive. Nevertheless, Halperin does represent something important, dirty words or not -- both in terms of his career up until now and what got him in trouble.

Americans who are not political junkies probably haven't heard of Halperin, but inside the Beltway, he's an unfortunately influential figure. He made his name more than a decade ago by creating "The Note" for ABC News, an insider's guide to the doings and feelings of the "Gang of 500" that rules Washington behind the scenes. In the Internet's infancy, the daily tip sheet was required reading for anyone looking to be in the know (The Note still exists, but with so many competitors, it holds nothing like the interest it once did). The chief characteristic of Halperin's oeuvre is not just an indifference to policy -- that characterizes most of the Washington press corps, after all -- but a sneering contempt for anyone who recognizes that what Washington does has real impact on the lives of Americans.

To a Washington anti-wonk like Halperin, policy is for suckers, the stuff the powerful talk about to convince people that something more than theater is going on. If you want the real inside scoop, Halperin and company tell us, you have to presume that everything politicians say is a lie. Politicians may talk about important issues like education and the economy, but the truth is in the artifice, the hidden political strategy, the interest group appeased and the key demographic courted. So Halperin and the rest of the pundit class won't waste your time with anything else. And of course, if everything is a lie, then nothing is; when a politician tells you that cutting taxes raises revenue or that government health insurance can't work, only the naive ask "Is it true?" The only relevant question is, "Will it work politically?" If you win, you're celebrated, and if you lose, you're worthy of nothing but scorn.

Halperin is just one of a type: the journalist as amateur political consultant, the scribe who sees his highest calling as telling a president or a campaign what they're doing wrong. Not wrong in the sense of practically misguided or morally questionable but in the sense of tactically misconceived, in a world where the only reality is political reality and praise is due to whomever can move the polls a tick or two. Halperin's repellent 2006 book, The Way To Win, written with Politico's John Harris, celebrates every pathology of the modern political press corps, instructing candidates how to navigate the "Freak Show" of contemporary media politics.

One chapter, titled "How Matt Drudge Rules Our World," explained that "Drudge molds the mind-set throughout the national and local media." Reporters like the co-authors jump whenever Drudge posts a new update on the news aggregation site he created and edits, "The Drudge Report," chasing whatever story Drudge has deemed important (the more salacious the better). This was presented without the barest hint that taking your cues on what to cover from Drudge -- who not only coordinates his activities with the Republican National Committee but cares nothing about whether what he puts on his site is true or false -- might be problematic if one considers oneself an actual journalist.

Many others in Washington are guilty of Halperin's sins -- he isn't even the only pundit who has said the word "dick" on the air. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank once told the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, "You're such a dick," at the end of an on-air argument on CNN. Why? Pitney told the audience how Milbank, people's tribune that he is, once cornered candidate Obama to ask him probing questions about how he looked in a bathing suit.

Milbank is a contradictory figure -- a once dogged and thorough reporter who, after being granted a column by the Post, became more devoted to snark for snark's sake than the bitterest blogger (a typical Milbank column describes a congressional hearing almost no one attended but the reporter, related solely for the purpose of explaining what a bunch of fools all the participants made themselves out to be). Milbank was also a participant in an embarrassing episode in the history of his august employer, when he and fellow Post reporter Chris Cillizza put on smoking jackets for an allegedly comedic video called "Mouthpiece Theater," in which they suggested beer brands different political figures could enjoy. Their recommendation of "Mad Bitch" beer for Hillary Clinton was not met with amusement, and what was supposed to be a recurring feature on the paper's website never reappeared.

A common thread runs through these missteps, as reporters consumed with insiderdom are undone by the suspicion that insiderdom is not enough. In a constantly evolving media world, reporters like Halperin and Milbank feel an obvious need to show that they're hip as well. They need to get with the latest social media, toss around the casual banter on "Morning Joe," strike an irreverent pose, and make sure they don't end up one more stodgy representative of the dreaded "old media," cast aside as circulation and ratings continue their downward slide. In these new forums, such pundits look out of place, and their awkwardness sometimes becomes an outright pratfall.

In calling President Obama a dick, Mark Halperin was all attitude, condemning the president for having too much attitude. Not that he would have called Republicans dicks for their sincere threat to destroy the American economy if they don't get the brutal spending cuts their unhinged right-wing demand. After all, the Republicans seem to be winning politically, and their actions only affect things like the functioning of our government and the public welfare. And there's no worse sin than showing you care about stuff like that.

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