Behold how badly our political journalists have lost the freakin’ plot

I read hundreds of bylined works of journalism a week. Every so often one of them forces me to go back and read it over and over...

7 Feb 2014 9:31 am 19 Comments

This is usually because the writing contains within it a density of pressthink — my subject here — that cannot be gotten through in one or two tries. It happened this week with a post by Chris Cillizza, one of the Washington Post’s franchise players on the national politics beat: Why the CBO report is (still) bad news for Democrats.

Ordinarily I would summarize what Cillizza was writing about, quote from his piece, and try to isolate what’s screwy or revealing about it. But Dave Wiegel did that at Slate already. And I did it for a very similar piece published on Cillizza’s site in 2012. See my post: Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.

Instead, I wote a short reader’s guide to Cillizza’s post. Your instructions are to absorb the guide, then click the link at the end and re-read what @TheFix wrote. Got it? Alright then—

Nobody knows exactly when it happened. But at some point between Teddy White’s The Making of the President, 1960 and the Willie Horton ads in 1988, political journalism in this country lost the plot. When it got overly interested in the inside game, it turned you and me and everyone who has to go into the voting booth and make a decision into an object of technique, which it then tried to assess. We became the people on whom the masters of politics practiced their craft. Then political journalism tried to recover an audience from the people it had turned into poll numbers and respondents to packaged stimuli. Tricky maneuver.

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

If you follow the Twitter feeds of Ron Fournier of National Journal and Chuck Todd of NBC you routinely see people they call “partisans” described as silly, insane, overheated, unreasonable. Click here for Fournier doing it and here for Todd. Somewhere in their dinosaur brains those who “live off” politics understand that the people who live for it could steal their constituency and turn the savvy into the absurd creatures. Thus the constant ridicule of partisans. Thus the self-description on Ron Fournier’s Twitter bio. Political affiliation: Agnostic.

So this is what the savvy in the press do. Cultivate the political junkies. Dismiss and ridicule the activists, the “partisans.” Assess the tactics by which the masters of the game struggle to win. Turn the voters into an object, the behavior of which is subject to a kind of law that savvy journalists feel entitled to write. Here’s Cillizza, writing one:

Remember that most voters — people who don’t follow this stuff as closely as me, you or, likely, most people we know — make their decisions based on 30-second TV ads.”

I’ll remember, Chris. Your assignment: Inhale that sentence, click this link and behold how badly our political journalists have lost the plot.


The good news is that at least some of the most recent commenters on that Cillizza piece are calling him out.

bystander says:


I diverge in one element which I think runs fairly parallel to your analysis.

Re: the “fix”

I read that as like, The fix is in. In addition to the junkies getting their “fix,” I sense a desire to see the “fix,” the sleight of hand that produces the results. A notion that the savvy are trying to identify – or feel they have identified – the magician’s hat trick; the place/event where the outcome is predetermined. When and where and how the “fix” occurred.

I did “click this link” at the end…but, at the word “postulate”, I got bored…..

Lost the plot? More like thrown in the towel.

When Ezra left, Cillizza was supposed to step his game up. I guess he missed the memo.

Cinders says:

There is a sense of market survival underlying your discussion, but this is not the only dimension of power here: to report on savvy is to foreclose any oppositional engagement with the makers of savvy, and move into a tacit alliance.

A reporter is the political operator who must make vacancy their credo for market reasons.

When was it other? Perhaps when the intersection of political and market power was less sophisticated? Or perhaps only in fits and starts, exceptions to the rule that power is not to be judged except as powerful.

What I find perplexing is why do they bother going through with this? Journalism is not a good way of making money for either the owners or the workers. It requires a ton of work with a lot of uncertainty to get to the decent middle class level for a journalist and for an owner they are taking on a business in an industry with a history of very poor returns over more then a century. So it’s not about the money, they need to have some motivation to enter this industry. Saying that they feel high and mighty being a human echo chamber feels almost too absurd to be true.

It seems to me that the savvy are fans of propaganda and its effect on politics. Of course, they are completely uninterested in pursuing any effects on policy.

Agree 100%, although I think that some press members suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.

There’s a shorter, pithier related article written by my friend Coby Beck that readers here ought not to miss. It focuses on another revealing sentence in Cillizza’s remarkably revealing article.

Boiling it down still further:


“My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be. And, I’m far from the only one.”


What the world actually is, does not even make the list of possibilities.

Kai Palchikoff says:

If Cilizza and the punditocracy shed responsibility to inform the public on the issues (separate from the process), should still be entitled to constitutional protection for a craft now unrelated to the purpose for which it was intended?

Thanks, Michael. Lest people think I am being a bit hysterical I would like to clarify that my topic of interest is climate change, thus the connection to humanity’s well being.

Power, to be felt, has to hurt. The genius of democracy is that power is dispersed over the whole population, only to be assembled in time of need.

The scenario you refer to here is what Stephen Colbert, the person not the character, called the “politico-industrial complex.” It’s the industry built not just to raise money for political campaigns, but built around making money off of all the money in politics. The media is complicit in this because they profit from it. Our national fixation on politics has resulted in a windfall for networks and even print newspapers which run campaign ads and issue-oriented ad campaigns (usually paid for by phony “citizens groups” that are really corporate front groups). All of the haranguing about issues like hydraulic fracking ends up as a huge ad campaign from “America’s Natural Gas” running incessantly on MSNBC. All of the misinformation about Obamacare death panels and socialized medicine ends up as a tacky Americans For Prosperity ad on Fox News.

Follow the money. All of that campaign money ends up, eventually, as an ad running on local, regional or cable news network somewhere.

Jay Rosen wrote, “nobody knows when it happened.”

There is a reasonable case to be made that it happened Nov. 22, 1963.

See Anthony Summers, ‘Not In Your Lifetime,’ and Gaeton Fonzi’s, ‘The Last Investigation.’

Time well spent.

Maaaybe. I’m still trying to figure that out. An avocation, I tell myself. I was 13, Will definitely check out your references.

Went to a conference in Dallas once. Opened the sun curtains of hotel room, & there below, maybe 20 floors down, to the right, was Dealey Plaza. Like out of a dream or something.

The way the press handled 50th anniversary was a disgrace, some refused to air even the documentaries they themselves had earlier produced.

So I guess we all just die now & disappear, leaving only a whisper to a son or daughter.

Ha! I was particularly annoyed by that piece by Cizzilla [he hates it when people do that to his name]. This was the comment I left:

No. You made a mistake, just like many other journalists, Republicans & (yes) Democrats. What if everyone just took the time – a half hour, maybe – to actually read and digest something & then report on the facts. That way you wouldn’t have to spend all the news cycles reporting on all the levels of confusion & spin that are caused by the rush to get something out quickly.

“You might just apologize, you know, for having simply made a mistake. Apologize to the public for not having reported on what the report said.”

Your article is painfully, stabbingly accurate. Guess I could read some Weber. Or maybe knit.

Bill Camarda says:

Very well stated.

The Cillizzas and the Halperins of the world tell us, in essence, that nothing whatsoever matters.

Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, health care matters only in terms of who wins the news cycle, never who lives or dies, or how we can build a healthier society. Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, wars only matter in terms of how they impact the next election.

Anyone who cares about the future of their country is a rube or a fool; everything is, and always will be, and only CAN be a game.

These people have been given some of the world’s best educations and privileges, and this is how they choose to spend their lives: leaving their country a worse place than they found it — more cynical, more superficial, less capable of achieving anything important that lasts.

To me, the difference between Marc Halperin and his father summarizes in a nutshell the tragedy of what has happened to American politics. Morton Halperin has spent a lifetime engaged in many of the most important issues of his time. Agree with him or not, he has tried to do work that matters. His son has achieved far greater prominence by deliberately choosing to do work that does not.

One reason there is so much more coverage of the game is because the game has become much crazier and produced much more exciting news such as Ted Cruz’s recent backstabbing of his Republican senate colleagues. Republicans, at least, have admitted that working on issues that are important to citizens is not their priority. Finding a way to turn everything the president does and says into as big a negative as possible is their objective. And this results in many absurdities and hypocrisies which are more interesting to cover and discuss than the same boring underlying issues such as abortion rights, unemployment, immigration, etc. The Republican infighting is much more interesting than another story on fracking destroying people’s drinking water. In a 24/7 news cycle filled with more pundits and analysts than can possibly be read success is producing the most titillating output. Not the most important.