Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

On Swashbuckling, Tall Tale-Telling News Anchors

My column in The Week today is (probably) the last thing I'll have to say about Brian Williams, in which I ask whether the whole problem stemmed from his apparent need to get out in the field where the action was, which really isn't something we need from a network news anchor:

But even when he says things like, "I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe," the point of the story he's telling — whether it's being told to David Letterman's audience or at a hockey game — seems to be to portray himself as, if not quite heroic, then certainly one who has been a witness to the most harrowing and consequential events. He always heaps praise on members of the military or first responders, yet his stories are full of military terminology and slang, lending them a particular kind of authenticity, one that says that Brian Williams is no naïf.

With all we know now, even those regular self-effacing asides begin to look calculated. As Jay Rosen pointed out, Williams seems to have looked for opportunities to tell and retell the Iraq story. After a while it begins to feel like the point of the story is always the same: I was there. He isn't just a guy who sits behind a desk reading off a teleprompter. He's been in it, and deep, when the shit went down.

Which may or may not be important for Brian Williams' conception of himself (I can't know anything about what's in his head), but why should it matter to any of us? Why does a network news anchor need to be the one wading through the floodwaters or flying into a combat zone?

Read the rest here.


Charts of the Day, Decline of Network News Edition

Now that Brian Williams has been suspended by NBC for six months—and I'd be really surprised if he gets his job back at the end of that—my younger readers might be wondering why this is a big deal. After all, isn't he just some guy who reads the news to your grandparents in between ads for Viagra and Lipitor? Well yes, but it wasn't always that way. Network news anchors used to be the absolute kings of the American media universe, with audiences that today are almost unimaginable. It still may be the most prestigious job in American journalism, in part because there are only three of them, but it's not what it once was. Brian Williams, for instance, was paid a measly $10 million a year, while Today show co-host Matt Lauer makes twice as much. And how many Americans could name all three network anchors? The days when everybody knew Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are gone; I'd bet that CBS's Scott Pelley and ABC's David Muir could walk down many streets without being recognized.

So how far have they fallen? In 2013, the audience for the top-rated NBC Nightly News averaged 8.4 million viewers per night; the three network news programs combined for 22.6 million viewers. That's a lot of people, but it's less than half of what they garnered in 1980. I've made these charts using data from multiple versions of Pew's State of the News Media report:

Not only is that a precipitous decline, it's even worse when you consider that the population has been growing over time. So in 1980, almost one in four Americans (counting both children and adults) tuned in to a network news broadcast on any given night. Today it's around one in fourteen.

The biggest reason for the decline was the advent and spread of cable television. When there were only three channels, everybody watched the news because there was nothing else on. That included people who cared about the world, and people who were just bored. Once they got cable, the latter group drifted off to other channels, and then cable news gave other options to the first group too, and then finally the Internet came along. Network news is still profitable, and its audiences are larger than any of the cable news channels, but it's a shadow of its former self.

Photo of the Day, Snowbound Edition

A woman digs out her car in Cambridge, MA. It should be obvious by now that Höðr, the Norse god of winter, is angry with the Northeast and will not release its puny denizens from his grip until they give unto him a glorious offering, preferably some kind of companion hewn from ice. Hey, even Höðr gets lonely sometimes.

On Obama's 'Evolution' on Same-Sex Marriage

In Obama adviser David Axelrod's new book, he reveals that in 2008 the future president did indeed believe in marriage equality, but he was persuaded by Axelrod and others that it would be too risky to say publicly. So he took the standard Democratic position at the time, in favor of civil unions but against marriage rights.

I imagine that exactly no one is surprised by this. And while it isn't an excuse for deception, the decision should be understood in the context of that historical moment, which is something I get into in my Plum Line post today:

The context of Obama's falsehood is important to understand—both his own thinking and the reception his statements on the matter received. In 2008, the Democratic Party was undergoing a rapid change in its approach to same-sex marriage, and the stated positions of almost every candidate were in flux. Four years before, when the issue exploded into national debate after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage equality (their ruling actually came down in late 2003), Democrats scrambled to come up with a position on an issue many hadn't much thought about before. Most of the presidential contenders came down in support of civil unions but against marriage rights, a position that just happened to be where the median voter was. By 2008, that was still the safest position, and the party platform didn't mention marriage equality except to say that the party opposed the Defense of Marriage Act.

By 2008, everyone seemed to understand that the position all the major Democratic candidates were taking was a temporary way-station on the path to an eventual embrace of full marriage equality. Nobody really believed that was where the party and its representatives were going to stay. Half of Democrats supported marriage equality in 2008—up from 40 percent in 2004—but the public as a whole was not there yet. Support for civil unions was a position that was acceptable both to the party base, who knew it was only a matter of time before their leaders "evolved," and to the general public, which was undergoing its own evolution.

Was all that a spectacle of political cowardice? Absolutely. But it's hard to say that anyone in either party had many illusions about where it would end up. To no one's surprise, by 2012—when a majority of the public now supported marriage equality— the Democratic party platform embraced it, as did nearly every elected Democrat from President Obama on down.

As I note, the Republicans are undergoing their own possibly-sincere evolution on the topic. And I'm really interested to hear from Hillary Clinton to see how she'll describe 2008. Like Obama, she was for civil unions at the time and came out for marriage equality a few years later. 

Is Polarization Barack Obama's Fault?

Yesterday, Vox published its interview with President Obama, in which Ezra Klein asked him about partisan polarization and whether any president can bridge the divide between the parties. While few deny the existence of polarization, Republicans often assert that it is Obama's fault: the politician who came into office pledging to be a uniter has instead forced Americans further apart with his radical presidency and high-handed tactics. If he had governed differently, we might not be so divided.

Before we get to Obama's view on this, at the end of last week, Gallup noted that last year was one of the most polarized in history in presidential approval (defined as the difference between the president's approval among his own party's voters and the other party's voters). Here's the top ten:

One of two things is going on here. Either George W. Bush and Barack Obama produced this effect with their actions — more so than any presidents before them, or at least those from the last 60 years for which we have data — or the political context has evolved to the point that this kind of thing is inevitable.

For his part, Obama believes it's the second. Is that self-serving? Sure. But that doesn't mean it's not true. Here's what he had to say about it:

...a lot of it has to do with the fact that a) the balkanization of the media means that we just don't have a common place where we get common facts and a common worldview the way we did 20, 30 years ago. And that just keeps on accelerating, you know. And I'm not the first to observe this, but you've got the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh folks and then you've got the MSNBC folks and the — I don't know where Vox falls into that, but you guys are, I guess, for the brainiac-nerd types. But the point is that technology which brings the world to us also allows us to narrow our point of view. That's contributed to it.

Gerrymandering contributes to it. There's no incentive for most members of Congress, on the House side at least, in congressional districts, to even bother trying to appeal. And a lot of it has to do with just unlimited money. So people are absorbing an entirely different reality when it comes to politics, even though the way they're living their lives and interacting with each other isn't that polarizing.

Obama has part of the story right. The balkanization of media has an impact—particularly the conservative media, which is much more comprehensive and influential than the liberal media—but it may be more to intensify the feelings of people who were already partisan than it is to hollow out the independent middle. The polarization of Congress that has occurred in recent years is extremely important, but it is only partly a result of gerrymandering. The part that Obama leaves out is the way the civil rights battles of the 1960s began a process of partisan sorting, where the conservative white southerners who had been Democrats moved to the GOP, making the two parties more ideologically distinct. Every step down that road makes the next step easier to take—the fewer liberal Republicans there are left, the harder it is for someone who 30 years ago might have been a liberal Republican to feel comfortable in the GOP, and something similar happens on the Democratic side.

I also think that we can put the media and elected officials together into something we could call the visible elite. The character of that elite—who they are, what positions they take, how they argue, and how they characterize the other side—are apparent to people whether they actually use partisan media or not. Whether you listen to Rush Limbaugh or just read your local paper, you're going to see Republicans saying day after day that whatever Barack Obama is doing is the worst thing any president has ever done, and that he's dismantling our liberties in his effort to turn America into a socialist dystopia. If you're a Republican, the idea of expressing a general approval of Obama becomes almost impossible to contemplate.

It's a cyclical process: More cohesive districts lead to the election of more extreme lawmakers, who not only make substantive compromise less likely but also make the national debate more vituperative, leading partisans to be more emphatic in their dislike of the other party, which makes the election of more extreme lawmakers in cohesive districts more likely, and around we go.

And there's very little this or any president can do about it. Barack Obama has given up trying to compromise with Republicans, but opinions of him were extremely polarized even when he was bending over backwards to try to work with them. Even in his second year in office, when he was still in that let's-all-get-together-and-talk-this-out mode, his approval among Republicans was only 12 percent. What he does is almost irrelevant, and the same is going to be true of his successor.

So is that such a bad thing? Is a president who polarizes necessarily worse than one who doesn't? That's a complex question we may have to answer on another day. But you know who was really polarizing? Abraham Lincoln. Huge polarizer.