Friday, December 01, 2006

Of bubbling teapots inside the beltway

After reading Dan Froomkin’s bulls-eye commentary, “On Calling Bullshit,” on the Neiman Watchdog Blog (hat tip to Waldo Jaquith), I felt like pointing out what, to me, is a bullshit story which has stayed in the news all week. But first I hope the reader will take in the Froomkin piece; it’s short and sets the stage nicely for the point I’ll try to make below this excerpt:

“What is it about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that makes them so refreshing and attractive to a wide variety of viewers (including those so-important younger ones)? I would argue that, more than anything else, it is that they enthusiastically call bullshit. Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices...”

OK. One of the most important things the mainstream print media and broadcasters do every day is to decide what is news and what isn’t.

Partisans squawk all the time about biased coverage of the news, which happens. And, it can be galling when a bias leaks into what are supposed to be news reports, rather than editorials, OpEds, etc. Yet, the real power to promote or diminish people and ideas comes from being able to decide to put a story on the front page, or page 37, or no page at all.

Now comes the story of the exchange of words between President George Bush and Senator-elect Jim Webb at a recent White House reception. For background -- in case you’ve been on another planet this week -- here are links to two stories that will give you the lowdown on this brouhaha: “In Following His Own Script, Webb May Test Senate's Limits”; “Taking Sides on Webb’s Remarks”.

What I’m saying here is that this story about ruffled black-tie feathers at what was a traditional social function is a page 37 item; it should have appeared in the Style section of a daily newspaper. It should have merited about 300 words, at most, and gone away the next day. Instead, it has been at the top of the political news for days.

Why?

My answer indicts three factions: This story has been seen as useful by Bush supporters, as well as Webb supporters. And it has served a bunch of editors looking for an easy way to come up with enough copy to fill a political news space that has to be filled every day.

My answer is another angle on the bullshit factor in today’s way of reporting news by the mainstream media. What I’m saying here is that this little exchange between Bush and Webb meant little, if anything. If the reports about the incident are accurate, both men chose to pass on the opportunity to ignore a little barb in the words of the other. They are the same age, from very different backgrounds, and my guess is they don’t like one another all that much.

If Bush’s supporters want to think Webb was being boorish ... so what. Who cares? If Webb’s supporters want to think Bush was being imperious ... so what. What’s new in any of that? That is exactly what those groups of partisans thought last week, too.

Of course, fooled into thinking something important had happened, the political blogosphere exploded with outrage. The Bush backers unanimously see Webb as a hothead who will fail miserably in DeeCee. The Webb backers see Webb as a bigger hero than ever, because he bucked up to a president they loathe.

Not much news in any of that, either.

Furthermore, to suggest that this tempest in a teapot is indicative of what will be Webb’s inability to understand the sausage-making Washington culture, or to work with his colleagues, is pure spin.

To me, all it says about Webb is that it looks like he plans to be the same guy, no matter who he’s talking with. Perhaps Webb is going to try to avoid the game of being off-the-record or two-faced, at certain times, with certain people. He wants to be the same guy all the time.

So, the news is that Webb plans to continue to be Webb. And guess what -- Bush is planning to keep being Bush. End of story.

Note: A little bit of cosmetic editing, fixing typos, etc., was done at 8:45 p.m., same day.

1 comment:

JPTERP said...

That's probably the most sane commentary about the Bush v. Webb incident.

It's not entirely a bad thing though that a story like this helps print journalists to sell papers. I have friends still in the business--including at the RTD--and want to make sure that they keep the revenue coming in. Stories such as this one help to ensure that newspapers are still operating when genuine big news hits.

In reference to calling out B.S. I recommend checking out the following Washington Post article on cuts by the General Services Adminstration's chief administrator.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/01/AR2006120101645.html

The choice passage in question . . .

"Soon after Doan was nominated to lead the GSA this spring, she promised outside vendors that she would make contracting with the agency much easier for both government bureaucrats and corporations. After she assumed the post, she began trimming the budget proposal of the inspector general's office. She wrote in her annual report that the office's budget and staff had 'grown annually and substantially' in the past five years."

Here comes the hammer . . .

"Since 2000, the number of employees in the inspector general's office has grown from 297 to 309, according to the office."