By Chez Pazienza: Several years ago, Rolling Stone politics-and-finances writer and national treasure Matt Taibbi, who at the time was a columnist for the New York Press, put together a list of the men and women he dubbed the biggest hacks in the world of political journalism. He then bracketed them, tallied up their various sins, and pitted them against each other until only one winner -- one talentless creature above all others -- remained. He called the competition "Wimbelhack," and it's a tradition that's been carried on, in a slightly more direct "countdown" fashion, by Salon's Alex Pareene. While it's true that a quality hack's worthlessness is self-evident and his or her work will be all the proof anybody needs that there's no reason to give an ounce of credibility to the person's thoughts or supposed insights, it's always nice to see an outsider taking on the yeoman's task of exposing in detail the intellectual bankruptcy of the worst offenders in the national press corps. This morning, Politico.com, without even meaning to, has kind of done just that.
There's, ironically, a fun little piece currently running over at Politico which features some of the nation's top voices in political journalism and punditry lamenting the depressing nature of this year's campaign cycle, with at least one coming right out and saying that it just isn't as much "fun" as these things used to be. It's been a common refrain among the political press over the past several months: that the 2012 presidential campaign, in particular, is especially vicious and humorless and this supposedly means that the media haven't been able to concentrate on the issues -- as we all know they're relentlessly desperate to do -- and have instead been forced to beat whatever the latest "gotcha" moment is to death day after day, night after night. Yes, pity the poor political journalist, that crusader for the truth and only the truth, stuck in a perpetual Dante's hell-circle of loud, nonsensical raving when all he or she wants to do is report on the serious issues facing this country while simultaneously having a little fun basking in the insane political carnival that leads us all to ponder such grand themes every four years. Must be a tough life.
While there's certainly no arguing that paying close attention to politics these days is a game only for the most masochistic -- which, as I've said before, is one of the reasons I have to force myself to tune out for days and sometimes weeks at a time -- to pretend that somehow political journalists are victims of the fucked-up system rather than the ones actually driving it is comically ridiculous, histrionic and insincere. I get that the correspondents on the campaign trail often have no choice but to serve at the pleasure of the editors, producers and managers making the decisions about which direction the day's coverage will take. But when someone like NBC Political Director Chuck Todd -- a guy who would easily find his way into the Final Four of Wimbelhack, were Taibbi to ever resurrect the competition -- melodramatically grieves, “Until the candidates restore joy, it’s impossible for us to be joyful," it audaciously plumbs heretofore undiscovered depths of bullshit. Todd has the ability and the authority, every day, to make the call that would move NBC's coverage away from inane phony objectivity, false-equivalencies and, yes, the sheer, giddy "joy" that the network and its people seem to derive from jumping on every idiotic sports metaphor and instance of ultimately inconsequential partisan mortar fire and elevating them to earth-shattering proportions. He could do it -- but he doesn't. And then he sits there and complains, as many of his contemporaries do, that somehow it's the political culture itself -- and of course the scourge that is the rapid-fire internet media -- to blame for making him all sad and butt-hurt. Cry me a fucking river.
I agree that thanks to social media we've reached a point where every little political misstep can be amplified by a thousand until the echo chamber practically cracks under the power of all that white noise, but that's where it becomes the job of the political press to put things into perspective -- to use its supposedly big brain and all that hands-on experience and insight to steer the conversation back to things that matter. But they don't do that, not usually -- and the result is proving catastrophic for our discourse and our nation in general. A journalist's job is to separate fact from fiction, and with that in mind the press corps should be having the time of its fucking life right now. Never before has there been so much shameless, brazen mendacity vomited into the political ether -- and the reason for that is precisely because a certain segment of political leaders and would-be political leaders believes that the press won't do its job and call a lie a lie when it sees one. Guys like Paul Ryan say the things they say because they know that political journalists have rendered themselves impotent; nobody did it for them. They're too busy following the excitement of the horse race, or lamenting the supposed lack thereof this time around, to pay attention to the fact that they're being made fools of.
The battle of ideas that will eventually result in this country being taken in one direction or the other, affecting the lives of millions of people, isn't supposed to be fun. It's deadly serious business -- and the political press has a huge stake in how it all turns out, a very positive stake should it do its job properly.
That's a big responsibility for journalists covering the races -- and they should be reveling in it rather than bitching about it.