What is it that makes so much of our national politics reporting so grindingly, predictably awful? We’re in an election cycle that—for all its many shortcomings—features a genuine clash of ideas and core philosophies of government. How is it that a wide and fast-multiplying agora of press outlets can so consistently treat it as a glorified Game of Thrones recap? Who’s up and who’s down? Who’s going negative and who’s doubling down? Who won the week? Who called who a pussy, and a liar? Who the fuck cares?
Thanks to the FOIA hounds at Gawker, we now have a partial, if profoundly demoralizing, answer to this puzzle. In the fierce jockeying for the meaningless distinction of a “scoop,” political reporters routinely barter away editorial judgment for the holy grail of access.
The key offender in this case is former Atlantic politics hand Marc Ambinder, but really, it could have been any among the hundreds of reporters tasked with mass-producing the appearance of novelty and insight for a politics readership. Ambinder’s sin, documented in nauseating detail from the trove of emails that Gawker FOIA’ed from the account of Hillary Clinton fixer Philippe Reines, was to allow Reines to dictate coverage of a speech that then Secretary of State Clinton was delivering before the Council on Foreign Relations, to showcase her expert foreign-policy chops. What Ambinder got in return for this pledge, quite pathetically, was an early release of the speech to trumpet across the digital media sphere. Reines, in his winning power-schmoozing style, set down three conditions for the deal:
– You in your own voice describe [the speech] as ‘muscular’
– You note that a look at the CFR seating plan shows that all the envoys—from Holbrook to Mitchell to Ross—will be arrayed in front of her, which in your own clever way you can say certainly not a coincidence and meant to convey something.
– You don’t say you were blackmailed!
Hardy har har. As the ensuing Ambinder-penned dispatch made painfully clear, all the items on Reines’s wish list were granted, quite fulsomely, in the piece’s lead paragraph:
When you think of President Obama’s foreign policy, think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That’s the message behind a muscular speech that Clinton is set to deliver today to the Council on Foreign Relations. The staging gives a clue to its purpose: seated in front of Clinton, subordinate to Clinton, will be three potentially rival power centers: envoys Richard Holbrook and George Mitchell, and National Security Council senior director Dennis Ross.
What’s more, while no email thread documents similar deal cuts between Reines and other reporters, accounts of the speech turned up with the same telltale muscularity and petty seating-chart Kremlinology. One such dispatch was in Politico, under the byline of enthusiastic Reines-enabler Mike Allen; another was an aggregated New York magazine web piece, under the kicker “Secretary of Awesome,” and sporting a tagline guaranteed to send Reines into ecstatic transports: “Muscular indeed.” I’ll leave it to advanced statistical savants to work out the odds of such themes surfacing in the daily churn of State Department news without the browbeating, smartphone-enabled hand of Philippe Reines.
Ambinder’s curious aversion to swearing outright is no doubt the sign of another sort of terminal journalistic decline.
What’s noteworthy here, in any event, isn’t the meddlesome influence of Reines, as distasteful as it is to see news coverage dictated from the vantage of a career Hillary apparatchik. It is, rather, that in automatically deferring to the authority of said apparatchik, the leading lights of our national politics media display the utter, near-contemptuous indifference that they share, as a class, to ideas and debate.
Just consider the Clinton speech at the center of all this gnat-straining intrigue. Touted as the secretary of state’s first major policy address, it mainly consisted of a laundry list of so-called smart power initiatives mounted to secure America’s policy objectives in the world at large. To adumbrate the idea of smart power for the assembled diplomatic worthies at the CFR—including three bona fide policy maestros seated right up front!—here’s what Clinton came up with:
It means the intelligent use of all means at our disposal, including our ability to convene and connect. It means our economic and military strength, our capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation, and the ability and credibility of our new president and his team. It also means the application of old-fashioned common sense in policy-making. It’s a blend of principle and pragmatism.
Call that billowing assemblage of buzzwords what you will, but “muscular” is hardly the first word that leaps to mind. Nor have any of the policy particulars in Clinton’s speech aged very well. She touts an effort to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (an initiative that the Obama administration threw in the towel on long ago) together with vows to enhance diplomacy in Iraq, to invigorate efforts to quash al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to “seek global economic recovery and growth,” and—well, you get the picture.
Reines’s receptive audience of word professionals are making desperate bids to continue currying the favor of this particular officious guardian of power.
All of this bespeaks a suffocatingly brain-dead status quo in our centers of power, and among the media professionals allegedly holding our leaders accountable to the public. And while it’s tempting, Lord knows, to write this all off as later-imperial corruptionism, the Reines saga arguably highlights something worse: the extent to which our governing class and our media class have fused into a single unsightly social agglomeration. You see this not so much in the verbiage that Reines extorts from his receptive audience of word professionals, but, much more tellingly, in their unprompted, and not a little desperate, bids to continue currying the favor of this particular officious guardian of power. One summer 2009 email Ambinder sent to Reines about Clinton’s media prowess had “she kicked A” as its subject line, and in the message field “on MTP”—i.e., on the Sunday infomercial for D. C. power known as “Meet the Press.” And when WikiLeaks released a mother lode of State and diplomatic cables, Ambinder paused not to consider what the substance of this momentous disclosure meant for the projection of American power; no, he again wrote to Reines to marvel that Reines’s boss is “PITCH f#$*& PERFECT on this stuff.” (Ambinder’s curious aversion to swearing outright is no doubt the sign of another sort of terminal journalistic decline, but that will have to be a sermon for another occasion.)
And when it comes to the quest for cross-professional validation, both parties made maximal use of their “ability to convene and connect,” as Secretary Clinton liked to put it. Bloomberg’s lead horse-race campaign oaf, Mark Halperin, actually betook it upon himself to send Reines a computer, ostensibly to enable Reines to review some documents in a Microsoft Outlook program. Why Halperin was unable to solicit comment from Reines on these documents via the traditional reporter’s recourse of reading them aloud and asking for a reaction is left unexplained in this bizarre episode. But no matter: the most telling moment in this transactional exchange comes when Reines was stirred to ask if Halperin had written enough about him in Game Change—the dreadful insta-book about the 2008 presidential race that Halperin co-authored with his babbling campaign-trail crony John Heilemann—to rate an onscreen composite character based on Reines in the no-less dreadful HBO adaptation of the book.
This is dispiriting enough on its own—a bit like an on-the-make young actor badgering his agent to land him a bit part in The Human Centipede. However, it bears panning back a moment to take in the bigger picture. Here’s a State Department press functionary imploring an idea-allergic hack of the first order to get him immortalized in a forgettable cable rendering of a presidential contest that went disastrously for Reines’s boss. And that is, by all appearances, the new social contract that binds together the press and the political elite in our giddy new information millennium: Nobody thinks much about the long-term implications of any official utterance, policy agenda, let alone something as laughably shopworn as the public good—but everyone is continually angling to be famous in whatever idiom looks provisionally accommodating. So what the fuck—just call it muscular, and hit “send.”