Part 2—MacGillis spills: Perestroika!

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. In the wake of Monday’s debate, several journalists told the truth about the way the mainstream press functions!

This is almost never done.

Good lord! In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank described the way the children establish their “narratives”—their Standard Official Journalistic Group Tales, the stories they'll all be telling:
MILBANK (10/23/12): Trending on Twitter: Groupthink

Walk into the “filing center” at a presidential debate and you’ll see hundreds of reporters seated at tables doing two things: Watching the action on TV (reporters covering the debates aren’t actually in the same room as the candidates) and monitoring Twitter on their laptops.

They are hard at work on one of the most elaborate exercises ever undertaken in groupthink.
As he continues, Milbank describes the way the children use social media to establish their Standard Group Stories even as a debate is unfolding.

This column is very strong history.

Why do our reporters and pundits All Say The Same Things? Breaking every rule in the book, Milbank tells you exactly how it’s done. He does so in great detail. He even names the names of a long string of major players!

We strongly advise you to read every word. Milbank draws back the curtain—it’s a bit of an iron curtain—concerning the way these life-forms work.

Still and all, before he is done, Milbank kisses press corps keister, then flies to a fantasy world:
MILBANK: I don’t fault the journalists who engage in instant analysis; the ones I named are among the best in the business. I use Twitter myself to monitor the congealing wisdom. But our political dialogue may lose something because of this pre-publication and pre-broadcast collusion. In this case, social media is discouraging people from challenging the CW.

Not too long ago, the wire services, broadcast networks and newspapers covered major political events differently. Each outlet had its own take and tidbits. But now everybody is operating off the same script and, except for a few ideological outliers, the product is homogenous.
Our translation of these remarks? Kiss-kiss-kiss-kiss, bullshit.

“Not long ago,” our big news orgs didn’t conspire to All Say The Same Things? Please:

In 1973, Timothy Crouse published his iconic book, The Boys on the Bus, a description of the way the 1972 presidential campaign was reported. In that very famous book, Crouse’s very first topic was the “pack journalism” which defined the press corps’ work. (It was “also known as ‘herd journalism’ and ‘fuselage journalism,” Crouse wrote, four pages in.)

In those days, reporters didn’t have Twitter! But Crouse described how hard they worked to make sure they'd All Say The Same Thing about each day’s campaign event.

Is Milbank describing something new? In that campaign, according to Crouse, reporters took their cues from a handful of leading correspondents, including the AP’s Walter Mears. In the following passage, Crouse describes the way reporters asked Mears what the lede to their news reports should be after a California debate between McGovern and Humphrey:
CROUSE (page 21): After a minute on the phone Mears went back to typing and didn’t stop for a solid hour. At the end of the debate he jumped up, picked up the phone, looked hard at [the AP's Carl] Leubsdorf and mumbled, “How can they stop? They didn’t come to a lead yet.”

Two other reporters, one from New York, another from Chicago, headed toward Mears shouting, “Lead? Lead?” [The Boston Globe’s] Marty Nolan came at him from another direction. “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?” he said.
In punishing detail, through dozens of pages, Crouse described the workings of “pack journalism” as practiced in 1972; he said it had been the norm for at least ten years at that point. On Tuesday, Milbank updated this portrait. But in accord with Hard Pundit Law, Milbank knew he had to kiss the keisters of major guild members whose names he had taken in vain. And he seemed to feel he had to pretend that this is a new phenomenon.

(Today, Leubsdorf is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. He is past president of both the Gridiron Club and the White House Correspondents' Association. He is married to USA Today’s Susan Page, a regular face on the NewsHour, which we’re encouraged to regard as our smartest news program. In terms of cultural history, 1972 wasn’t that long ago.)

Aside from his need to kiss and pretend, Milbank’s column drew back the curtain in a remarkable way. It’s an important piece of history—and it will be disappeared, just as Crouse’s descriptions have been.

But if Milbank’s sample was striking, a second journalist took the perestroika one step further. Over at the New Republic, Alec MacGillis sneered at the GroupThink which emerged after Monday’s debate. But uh-oh! Breaking every rule in the book, he suggested there might be a partisan advantage lurking in the Standard Stories his colleagues Agreed They Would Tell.

We’ll offer two cheers for Alec MacGillis! This really just plain isn’t done!

MacGillis sneered at the way his colleagues have treated the debates as a whole. After the first debate, he says “the herd” adopted a (reasonably sensible) “new narrative.” This is MacGillis’ account of why his colleagues do what they do—and of the Standard Story they adopted at that point:
MACGILLIS (10/23/12): The Liberal Media, in Love With Our Narrative

We are the liberal media—hear us roar. We like Aaron Sorkin and gay marriage and invitations to the New Yorker’s bash on the roof of the W Hotel on the eve of the White House Correspondents Dinner. We have Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer’s cell phone on speed dial. If you water-boarded us, we’d admit to voting for pretty much every Democratic presidential candidate for the past two decades, with the possible exception of Al Gore in 2000 (he didn’t give us a clever nickname; the other guy did.)

But we are not driven by politics or ideology, really. Above all, we love a good story...We crave narrative. And let’s face it, the narrative of the 2012 campaign was a real dud. Incumbent president faces tough reelection environment but manages to hold onto slim, steady lead thanks to a just-enough recovery and a singularly uninspiring challenger. I remember being in a Dayton hotel the morning after Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remarks broke and watching the head-shaking reaction of Morning Joe and his crew: it left them with nothing to say. Which is a problem, because, well, they had many more weeks of needing something to say.

But then: our mile-high salvation! Denver, O Denver. As the dynamic of the first debate began to register just a few minutes in—the crisp and hopped-up Romney against the wordy and listless president—we sang our relief across the Twitterverse. The true partisans among us, the Maddows and Sullivans, rent their garments, but most of us were barely able to suppress our glee: we had ourselves a story...If one put one’s ear to the ground, one could all but hear the herd thundering back across the eastern Colorado plains to deliver its new narrative.

And lo, in the days that followed, the power of our story bore out across the land.
After that first debate, the guild had a thrilling new Standard Story: Candidate Romney is on the move! But how odd! According to MacGillis, his heavily-scripted, group-thinking colleagues tended to stick to this Standard Story even after the next two debates should have shot it down!

This is the part of MacGillis’ portrait where every rule in the book gets broken—where the rubber starts to tear up the road. In the part of the portrait which follows, MacGillis starts doing the thing which must never be done:

Uh-oh! He starts suggesting that his colleagues’ Group Conduct may bear a slight partisan cast:
MACGILLIS: There was just one problem: Obama proceeded to outperform Romney in the next two debates. Following the third and final one, where Romney seemed lost for long stretches and even sprouted Nixonian sweat through his makeup, Obama even won one snap poll by a margin nearly as large as Romney’s edge in Denver. What to do with this? Easy. Acknowledge the victory, but protect our new narrative. Thus Politico, for instance, led with nothing like the post-Denver “stumbles” headline, just its standard debate “takeaways”...
As he continued, MacGillis quoted Politico’s Maggie Haberman. Her name wasn’t named, but as he continued, MacGillis did name some fairly large names, in an unpleasant manner:

He criticized Mike Allen, Chris Cillizza and Rick Klein for driving a narrative which sounded like it could have come Straight From The Romney Camp. People, this never is done!

You can assess MacGillis’ essay yourself—but Alec MacGillis broke the guild's hoariest rules in this perestroika-laden post. Let’s review a few of the things he did and didn’t say:

In truth, MacGillis began with a hoary old Standard Account of his own: We journalists love a good story! That’s almost surely true, of course. But journalists often use that tale as a cover for the actual truth:

They tell that story to misdirect you from the fact that they’ve adopted a partisan line. (This is what Cokie skillfully did near the end of Campaign 2000.)

In that sense, MacGillis began with a rather soft indictment. But by the end, he was flirting with a very serious charge. He almost seemed to suggest that famous hacks like Allen and Cillizza were pimping a Romney camp line!

Within the mainstream guild, journalists never do that. (Conservatives do it all the time, of course, especially when it's untrue.) MacGillis didn’t lodge a direct charge. But the insinuation was plainly lurking.

This is simply never done. Within the guild, this is a major offense.

In our view, MacGillis was somewhat cautious at the start of his piece. But by the end, he was advancing a long-overdue accusation. To our ear, he sounded disgusted and sincere. We were surprised—and impressed.

At Salon, Joan Walsh was crying about this same sort of post-debate conduct! But to our ear, her piece sounded different.

In our view, Walsh is one of the phoniest players in the whole guild. Our view?

If we liberals were serious people, if we had self-respect, we’d escort her type down the stairs.

Tomorrow: Joan Walsh, then and now


  1. "Tomorrow: Joan Walsh, then and now."

    Don't hold your breath (eg. How He Got There).