The Pathologies of Politico

by David Karol on June 19, 2013 · 8 comments

in Media

Politico produces much valuable reporting. Yet it is also frequently problematic. As John Sides and Ezra Klein have long noted, and as its editors admit in a recent interview, Politico is resistant to analyses that Nate Silver and many scholars on and off the Monkey Cage offer. For Silver, “’it’s not that they are too ‘insidery’ per se, but that the perceptions of Beltway insiders, which Politico echoes and embraces, are not always very insightful or accurate.” This criticism is valid, but the limitations of Politico’s politics as game approach go beyond a resistance to insights drawn from political science.

Here is a quintessential Politico piece on the “Clueless Caucus” of conservatives who are complicating the “messaging” efforts of GOP leaders. The reporters uncritically reproduce the spin of the GOP establishment elites. Their identification with these sources appears total. Except for a defensive Trent Franks, the “Clueless Caucus” are voiceless objects of disdain dismissed as “doofuses.” There is no discussion of the possibility that any of these politicians are sincere in their views and little indication that they represent a real segment of the Republican Party. Those possibilities might explain why such inconvenient views somehow keep cropping up, despite the best efforts of GOP message mavens, but they are not investigated here. Readers are offered no explanation of the resulting GOP messaging problem beyond the random idiocy of a few reverberating in the controversy-loving media. No attempt is made to explain how the non-clueless quote-worthy GOP differs from their clueless co-partisans on policy either. Is the divide between the clued-in and the clueless opposition to allowing abortion in cases of rape, or just mentioning this position? Politico scribes do not say.

The Politico writers are not willing to openly state that some restrictions on abortion are wrong, for example, or that immigration reform is a good thing. They only offer a claim that some people are “stupid,” which is a way of taking a value position without owning up to it as a “non-partisan” “objective” journalist. In this form of journalism if people are disdained by the leaders of both parties it’s all right to mock them, even though you can’t acknowledge having any policy preferences yourself.

Relatedly, the article includes the inevitable false equivalence required in a story that is critical of some Republicans. Without a balancing dig at Democrats Politico reporters could be accused of partisanship, a sin much worse than inaccuracy, apparently.

So where is the Democratic Clueless Caucus? Who is the Democratic Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock? Politico offers us Howard Dean and Ashley Judd. Leaving aside whether what Dean and Judd said was really equivalent to what “The Clueless Caucus” has, Dean has not run for office since 2004 and has had no official role in his party for several years. Judd did not even end up running for the Senate, let alone become a Democratic nominee. The Politico reporters say message control is harder for the out party, but even when Bush was President did the Democrats nominate Dennis Kucinich or Barbara Lee for a competitive Senate seat? The asymmetric nature of polarization has been repeatedly documented by political scientists of widely differing approaches, something reporters have noted, but it is very hard for journalists working in the Politico mode to acknowledge.

Unacknowledged normative preferences, total identification with sources and no analysis of the asymmetric polarization that is one of the central features of contemporary American politics—that’s a lot of badness that goes beyond disdain for social science! Not every story needs to be accompanied by a bar chart or a reference to an academic study. There is a place for horse-race coverage and personality profiles. Reproducing the self-serving spin of political elites is much less helpful, however. Politico would serve readers much better by acknowledging the sources of divisions within and between parties that complicate the messaging efforts of the pols they like to quote.

{ 8 comments }

JJ June 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm

This is a nice piece. I’d bet that you could replace Politico with NPR and leave much of it unchanged.

Todd Phillips June 19, 2013 at 10:03 pm

This article starts with the assumption that journalists and the news media should be objective and work in the interest of helping democracy. Where did that assumption come from??? Politico is privately owned and the people writing for it are accountable solely to the owners. The owners are running a business, not a charity, and their objective is to make money, and possibly further the political objectives of the owners and advertisers. It is a mistake to expect businesses to act as a branch of government. Sure, many people do expect that, and it may be that our government is designed with that assumption, but it is irrational.

JJ June 19, 2013 at 10:58 pm

So we ought to treat Politico as “infotainment” in just the way we treat Rush, et al? If not, then the issue is not objectivity (as you put it) but simply getting things right. It is not “objective” to say that Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible for political polarization. It is false to say that and it is not just liberals like Hacker & Pierson (linked in the initial post) who argue against the ‘plague on both houses’ nonsense.

Sabreen60 (@QueenMerytAmon) June 21, 2013 at 12:54 am

Gee, I guess I’m just old and still believe that the MSM is suppose to be the “Fourth Estate”. The media has ALWAYS been privately owned, but there was a time when journalists cared more about reporting truth and facts than giving their opinions. I guess that time has passed me by – I miss reading that so-in-so didn’t tell the truth when he said XYZ. Now what we get is “A” said this and “B” said the other. “YOU decide. There doesn’t seem to be “fact” oriented news. More and more it’s about “clicks” and ratings”. No wonder too many people are totally unaware of the most basic current events.

Garrick June 19, 2013 at 11:25 pm

I quit reading Politico altogether at some point last October and it’s safe to say my understanding of US politics has increased greatly.

AD June 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I’m not sure why they should be faulted for not talking more about asymmetric polarization. It seems obvious from the article that this is more of a Republican problem (at least currently), especially given the weak Democratic examples cited in the story. (A Republican critic might shoot back that we lack Democratic examples because of complicit journalists who are less likely to jump on a Democratic gaffe than a Republican one.)

They might be guilty of buying the GOP leadership’s spin to try to disassociate the party’s brand from many of its members, but I don’t see how this is much worse than the political reporting done at other major outlets.

To me, it has less to do with the Republicans being the out-party and more to do with the difficulties that any party has with handling its brand while the coalitions within it are undergoing changes.

And as far as partisan asymmetries go, it’s also interesting that the Republican leadership is trying to create a more moderate image of the party while when the Democrats had the House, they went the opposite way and killed off the Blue Dogs.

Avedon June 22, 2013 at 9:53 am

Politico is just part of the establishment media (aka “the mainstream media” or “MSN”) and their political coverage isn’t really much different from the NYT or WaPo or most of the broadcast media.

Even at the supposedly-liberal MSNBC, their day starts with three hours of a GOP political operative, followed by a lot of more-or-less “centrist” so-called “news”, and breaking into liberalism only later into the evening with Maddow, but always sticking to one version or the other of partisanship that has little to do with unpacking the real policy agenda. NPR is claimed to be liberal by some but liberals refer to it as “Nice Polite Republicans”. PBS in general, having become less publicly-funded and more the beneficiary of corporate largess, has become more and more a creature of those elite funders. Only Democracy NOW! could be claimed to be anything else.

With rare exception, “centrist” media bias is blatant across the spectrum, although it only acknowledges its conservative essence in media that is targeted to an acknowledged conservative audience. Some of its most loathsome exemplars, such as Thomas Friedman, are identified by the media itself as “liberal”, although they clearly aren’t.

And, it should be remembered, “centrism” is not mainstream. The word itself is a lie made up to confuse the public into thinking it represents a middle-of the road politics smack in the center between the “extreme left” and the “extreme right”, although such a word makes no sense when one considers who is being labelled as “extreme”: 80% of the population, who oppose “centrist” policies even at both extremes.

Most of the public will tell you that the most important issue facing the country right now is jobs. Centrists disagree and are actually pursuing policies that bring on the decline of jobs and wages.

Most of the public will tell you that we should not cut education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits, food inspectors, and so on.

Obama refers to such people as “the far left”, but Democratic propaganda also involves laughing at Tea Partiers for holding essentially the same views. And why not? Most people, whether they call themselves “liberal” or “conservative” or even “centrist” or “mainstream” feel much the same way.

But the “joke” is supposed to be that this raft of what centrists and aristocrats refer to as “social programs” (or even the odious “entitlements”) are programs that are associated with the Democratic Party and liberalism, and yet these right-wingers all support them, hahaha. (Go to YouTube and look for “Real Time with Bill Maher Cutting to the Chase with Alexandra Pelosi ” for a classic example.)

But the real joke is on Democrats who have failed to notice that the Democratic leaderships does not support those programs and in fact has spent the lasts several years trying to cut them.

The Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership are agreed that government should not serve the public. That ought to be the biggest story in the press, but it isn’t. Because the other big story is that our media has been reduced to nothing but court scribes.

Kevin Hill June 22, 2013 at 1:44 pm

“Tiger Beat on the Potomac”

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