Strange Bedfellows

This is the weirdest political campaign I can remember — weirder even than the awkward George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fandango in 1992 — and yesterday it got even weirder with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Trump is supposed to be the anti-establishment outsider . . . but now he’s trotting out endorsements from establishment figures like sitting governors, like having credibility with the establishment means something?  It’s a very mixed message for the guy who supposedly doesn’t give a rat’s patootie for conventional politics.  And the timing of the Christie announcement seems pretty political, too.  Trump got trounced and humiliated in the Republican debate, there’s a lot of buzz and discussion of that fact . . . and then Trump trots out Christie to try to change that narrative.  It may be smart politics, but it’s also conventional politics.  Trump is playing the game, just like everybody else.  Will his supporters ever see that?

635852763638255334-josephIt’s also pretty laughable that pundits are saying that the Christie endorsement, and other, similar announcements that may be forthcoming, will “legitimize” Trump.  Really?  As far as I’m concerned, you could trot out hundreds of governors, senators, and mayors to praise Trump to the skies, and he would be no more “legitimate” than he is now.  Trump will be “legitimate” only when he takes the responsibilities of a presidential candidate seriously and starts actually learning something about the issues.  I don’t want a President who’s going to wing it, and endorsements aren’t a substitute for actual hard work.  Until Trump starts to do some studying and show some knowledge — which will happen on the 12th of Never — he’s just showing contempt for what is supposed to be an important exercise in democracy.

The Christie endorsement makes me lose a lot of respect for the news media, and for Chris Christie, too.  The media is Trump-obsessed, and the Christie endorsement just made all of the news channels give free air time to Trump so he can engage in his antics and belittle his adversaries.  They’re playing Trump’s game because he’s a polarizing figure who will make people tune in and drive up their ratings, and his outrageous statements provide daily news stories that make their jobs easier.  The press hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory this year.  And Christie has lost whatever claim he had to being a credible national figure.  Christie is no dummy; there’s no way he can legitimately believe Trump is best suited to sit in the Oval Office.  Christie obviously is betting on what he thinks will be the winning horse.  Maybe Christie just wants to be one of those unidentified “top men” the Trumpster is always talking about using to get things done if he becomes President.

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

Bloggers And The First Amendment

Senator Lindsey Graham — who seems to be quoted about every topic under the sun — misspoke earlier this week.  In discussing a “shield law ” that Congress is considering in the wake of the Department of Justice’s aggressive pursuit of journalist email and other news-gathering information, Graham asked whether “any blogger out there saying anything” deserves First Amendment protection.  He later corrected himself and said that every blogger enjoys freedom of speech.

Of course, that’s right.  Every American enjoys freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, and there isn’t any exclusion for bloggers.  Graham’s misstep, though, is one of those instances where a politician’s statement reveals a deeper truth about their actual beliefs.  Graham is an old-line politician who is struggling with the modern world, where the traditional daily newspapers and nightly network broadcasts that he grew up with are fighting a losing battle to hold on to an audience, and any person with a computer and a camera can contribute to the national dialogue about issues and events.  At the root of his comments are these core questions:  how do we deal with these new guys, and who are they, really?

Bloggers must be a pain for politicians.  The traditional methods of controlling the media — having a press secretary who interacts with those pesky reporters and answers their questions, wining and dining the big-time reporters and throwing them a scoop now and then to stay on their good side — just don’t work with bloggers.  There are too many of them, and they don’t go to press conferences or call press secretaries for comments.  They tend to be out in the real world, reacting to what politicians are actually saying, observing the politician actually interacting with the citizenry, and (often) reading the bills and committee reports to try to understand what the politicians are actually doing.  The teeming mass of bloggers makes political manipulation of the press a lot harder.

That doesn’t mean that bloggers are any better or purer than traditional reporters — just different.  Most bloggers come at the issues from a clear ideological bent, and their stuff should be read and weighed with that reality in mind.  Their postings aren’t edited by professionals or subjected to the fact-checking and publication standards that exist at good daily newspapers.  But there is no denying that bloggers — awkward stepchildren of the modern world that they are — have made, and increasingly are making, significant contributions to the national dialogue about the issues of the day.

I’m glad Senator Graham corrected his misstatement and recognized what should be undeniable:  bloggers, like all citizens, are protected by the First Amendment.  It’s just a bit troubling when one of our elected leaders makes such a fundamental blunder in the first place.

Manti Te’o, And Hoaxing Weirdness

The Manti Te’o Star Football Player Fake Dead Girlfriend Story is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard, on more levels than I can possibly identify.

One significant part of the weirdness, for me, is this:  how can you have a “girlfriend” who you’ve never really met?  I recognize that the internet, cell phones, text messages, tweeting, and social networking sites permit long-distance, virtual relationships.  Before you took that significant emotional step and started calling someone a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” though, wouldn’t you want to satisfy yourself that the person actually existed?  Wouldn’t you want to walk with them, smell their hair, and see how they looked when they laughed or ate their food?  Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I think a lot of the “girlfriend” concept is satisfying yourself that the person in question is someone you like to be around, and not just some disembodied voice you hear on the phone at night or get an “LOL” from in response to a text message.

Another part of the weirdness is trying to figure out the motives of whoever was involved in perpetrating a colossal hoax.  Why would anyone put the time and effort into maintaining such a complicated bit of deception?  What satisfaction would any stranger get by concocting a phony person, convincing Te’o to fall for the facade, and ultimately making him look like a naive and pathetic Mr. Lonelyheart?  Aside from being astonishingly cruel, you’d have to think that anyone involved in implementing such an elaborate, time-consuming scheme needs to get a life of their own.  And if Te’o was involved, why did he do it?  He had a great career at Notre Dame; why would he feel the need to add a gloss to it by inventing a non-existent girlfriend and then knocking her off?

A final part of the weirdness:  why did the sports news media just swallow this story without doing very basic fact-checking — like trying to confirm some of the core elements of the story?  It makes you wonder how many of these heartwarming, overcome-all-odds sports stories that we hear are outright fiction.

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.

Storm Politics

These days, we seem to see everything through the lens of the presidential election — even a potentially catastrophic storm like Hurricane Sandy.

Rather than focusing on the storm and its potential human cost, much of the media buzz today seemed to be  about how the storm would affect the campaign.  Would Sandy interrupt Mitt Romney’s apparent momentum?  Would it allow the President to be “presidential” and therefore give him an advantage?  Would Mitt Romney continue to campaign and risk a backlash from disgusted voters?   Would the storm delay the release of economic figures on Friday, or be used as an excuse to delay the release?  Could the disruption caused the storm and potential power outages affect early voting, or cause the President order some kind of delay of Election Day?

In this instance, the politicians showed better sense than the nattering talking heads.  President Obama — who is our current President, after all — canceled his campaign appearances and focused on doing his job in connection with the hurricane and disaster preparedness.  Mitt Romney canceled his campaign appearances, suspended fundraising activities in the affected areas, asked supporters to help victims of the storm, and turned his campaign offices in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia into centers for collection of relief supplies.  The candidates and their campaigns, at least, recognize that there are more important things than squeezing in a few more campaign appearances when a dangerous storm is hurting some of our fellow Americans.

It makes you that maybe there’s some hope that our political leaders, ultimately, have their priorities straight, even if the news media doesn’t.

Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.