Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Ridiculous Overreaction Edition

That's Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles, hitting a home run in today's game against the Chicago White Sox before an empty Camden Yards. The game was held as scheduled, but fans were barred from watching it because of fears that rioters would storm the stadium and massacre everyone inside, or something like that. 

Sheldon Adelson Will Not Be Ignored

Sheldon Adelson has never struck me as a brilliant guy, but I admit I don't have much to go on in making that judgment. Maybe it's the spectacularly ridiculous dyed-red combover that makes him seem like such a comical figure, but who knows. What we do know is that all—or almost all—Republican presidential candidates desperately want his money.

But it seems that Sheldon is seriously ticked off at Jeb Bush. Eliana Johnson of the National Review reports:

The bad blood between Bush and Adelson is relatively recent, and it deepened with the news that former secretary of state James Baker, a member of Bush's foreign-policy advisory team, was set to address J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel organization founded to serve as the antithesis to the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

J Street has routinely staked out liberal views anathema to those held by Adelson and his allies. Adelson sent word to Bush's camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as "rips***"; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor "a lot of money."

Let's keep in mind that there's no question that any of the the Republican candidates will be anything less than fully supportive of the Likud vision for Israel's future, which is Adelson's top priority. You'd think that Adelson would be able to live with the fact that former secretary of state and longtime Republican macher James Baker spoke to a liberal group and also is one of what I presume are a dozen or more informal foreign policy advisers to Jeb Bush. But apparently not.

Jeb can live without Adelson's money; he's not having any trouble raising funds, and if he becomes the GOP nominee, Adelson will come around. But what's unusual about this story is the fact that Adelson thinks he can tell presidential candidates whom their advisors can and can't give a speech to.

That brings things down to an unusually specific level that we don't ordinarily see. In this relationship, both the billionaire and the politician tell themselves a story in which everyone has the noblest of motives. The donor tells himself that his contributions are motivated solely by his concern for the country, and he only wants to help those who share his philosophy (and defeat those who don't.) He doesn't tell the politician what to think and do; he's just there to offer his wise counsel as a successful businessman and concerned American. The politician might listen to him, or he might not, and when he usually does, that's just evidence of how wise the billionaire is. The politician tells himself that his integrity is unsullied by money, since he makes his own decisions and is not swayed by the billionaire, even if he just happens to support all the things the billionaire wants.

Had Jeb actually told Baker not to go to J Street solely to make Adelson happy, it would have been hard for him to stay convinced that he was still pure. It's because the question is so trivial that it necessitated standing up to Adelson.

Adelson may have built a lot of casinos, but I don't think he understands much about politics, not only what works but which fights are worth having (this is, after all, a man who thought putting $20 million behind Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign was a wise investment). Say what you will about Charles and David Koch, but I couldn't see them making the same mistake. 

Why Do We Worry So Much About Cable News When Its Audience Is So Small?

The Pew Research Center's latest State of the News Media report is out, and as usual it has all kinds of interesting data about things like the slow-motion demise of the newspaper industry (an exaggeration, but only slightly) and the diminished state of network news. But for the moment I want to look at cable news, a medium that occupies a great deal of the attention of people like me who comment on the media. Take a look at this graph:

Pew Research Center (Nielsen Media Research Data)


Those numbers go up and down week to week, and they'll probably increase some in 2016 as we get into a presidential campaign, but still, we're talking about a median combined audience in prime time of Fox, CNN, and MSBNC combined of less than 3 million, or fewer than one in a hundred Americans. So why should we care about the latest outrageous thing Bill O'Reilly said?

It isn't completely illogical. Cable news matters in part because those 3 million include a lot of influential people. And cable can set an agenda for other media; one of the reasons Fox News exists is to push stories helpful to Republicans and harmful to Democrats into the rest of the media by hammering on them relentlessly (sometimes they succeed at this, and sometimes they fail). Also, cable news has two basic topics: breaking news and politics, both of which are things the people who write about news and politics are interested in.

But I think the main reason we media analysts are interested in cable news is that it's full of personalities in a way other media aren't. As horrifying as the thought may be, local TV news remains the top source of information for Americans; around 24 million people watch their late-night local broadcasts, while 23 million watch the early evening broadcast. That dwarfs the audience for cable news, but people only know the local news anchors in their city, and even they are pretty much interchangeable; you could switch from your local NBC affiliate to your local CBS affiliate at 6 o'clock, and you'd probably be getting pretty much the same thing. But that's not the case if you switched between Sean Hannity and Chris Hayes.

And unlike the people who produce content for other media, we see them in full. Most readers don't pay attention to the bylines on the newspaper stories they read, and even if they did, all they would know about that person is a name. NPR has a much bigger audience than cable news as well, but those are just voices that don't have faces attached to them, and what personality they do have tends to be shaped into that smooth, friendly, reassuring, serious-with-just-the-slightest-hint-of-whimsy NPR persona. Do Audie Cornish and Melissa Block seem like totally different people to you? Maybe in real life they're nothing alike, but not on the air.

So like so much else, cable news is interesting because it revolves around distinct and distinctive protagonists and antagonists, in a way most other news media don't. Even if you can't bear to watch more than a few minutes of it at a time.

Photo of the Day, Preparing for the Night Edition

Baltimore police preparing for more protests in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.

Finding Meaning In Campaign Coverage

I have a confession to make: When the presidential campaign begins, I not only feel some excitement, as you might expect from someone interested enough in politics to write about it every day, but I also get a feeling you might call relief. For the following 18 months, I know that one of the most challenging parts of my job—finding things to write about on very short notice—will be substantially easier.

One of the big challenges of blogging or writing on a daily basis is being able to look at what's going on in the world and come up with something valuable, or at least interesting, to say about it. And that usually (not always, but usually) requires some new development that adds information, changes something, or reinforces things you've already been thinking, which will allow you to write something (seemingly) fresh about it.

That means that doing daily writing gets easier in campaign season, because it's always changing (in at least some trivial way) and so much of it is public. Sit down at your desk in the morning and a bunch of stuff will have happened since yesterday. There will be a new poll, a candidate will have given a speech on a topic they haven't addressed before, or maybe somebody said something outrageous you can get worked up about. In contrast, the news of what happens when there isn't a campaign on often comes slower and can be harder to find. There might be a fascinating policy initiative in the works over at the Department of Labor, but unless that's your specific beat and you are keyed in to the developments there, you probably won't hear about it until it's officially presented. But the campaign is easy to find.

There's an accompanying danger, which is that if you're writing about the campaign every day you can get bogged down in the trivia of that daily back-and-forth and lose sight of what the whole thing is supposed to be about. The world doesn't actually need the fiftieth article about yesterday's "gaffe," though it might need the first article on a policy topic the next president will confront that hasn't gotten any notice. Jay Smooth is contemplating the temptation to get mired in the horse race part of the story, and he's come to a decision:

Will I take Smooth's "50-50 horse race/human race challenge"? Well...I like the idea, but in a way I feel like I already do that, at least insofar as I try to bring a broader perspective to even the most ephemeral stories. I'm not sure what side of the ledger it falls on when you look at a seemingly trivial matter, step back and try to answer whether it means anything or not, why we get sucked into talking about it, what it would mean if things like that actually have an impact on the race, and so on.

For instance, back in 2008 there was one of these miniature controversies about air pressure in tires, which you've surely forgotten about by now. Gas prices were high, and at one point Barack Obama suggested that keeping your tires properly inflated is a good way to save gas. The McCain campaign hooted in glee, literally passing out tire pressure gauges to mock Obama and sending their candidate to do a photo-op in front of an oil rig. In and of itself, the argument was meaningless, but I wrote a piece about it that I rather liked (titled "I'm Sigmund Freud, and I Approve This Message") pointing out the obvious symbolism of the tire gauge vs. the oil drill, and connecting it to previous campaigns in which Republicans tried to paint Democratic candidates as being insufficiently manly.

Is that horse race or human race? That particular piece wasn't about the policy consequences of the campaign, but I was trying to contextualize the controversy of the moment and say something broader about American politics, which I hope is more useful for readers than just asking whether tomorrow's tracking poll is going to tick up or down. I write about the details of policy quite a bit, but I also do a lot of meta-coverage, which some might argue is no more substantive than ruminating on the latest poll. But it's important to think about how we receive, process, and understand the news in general and the campaign in particular, because it's the informational ocean in which we're all swimming. There's no better time than a campaign, when people are actually paying attention, to examine what the news looks like, what kinds of assumptions are embedded within it, what we're taking from it, and how it might be altering our perspective on the world.

The impulse to just get sucked into the who's-winning-the-morning vortex is something you have to keep checking constantly. Smooth alludes to something I've noted before: one of the reasons there's so much horse race coverage is that if it's your job to write about politics, you almost certainly find the horse race stuff interesting. Campaigns are about tremendously consequential issues, but they're also a dramatic contest between two (or in the case of the primaries, many) antagonists. Most of them are interesting characters, even the ones who might not seem interesting at first (for example, for some strange reason I find Mitt Romney utterly fascinating).  

Of course, it isn't a journalist or commentator's job just to talk about what they find interesting; they're also supposed to be informing the public. But just as there are multiple varieties of drivel, there are many meaningful ways you can analyze the ongoing campaign. Lengthy analyses of the candidates' policy proposals are absolutely vital, but they're not the only valuable kind of coverage.