The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Have You Heard the Dish?

The ambivalent state of political journalism

By Michael King, March 12, 2010, News

By some quirk of journalistic fate – like browsers at the political buffet, reporters tend to write what's in front of us – I found myself reading The Death and Life of American Journalism in the same week Mark Halperin and John Heilemann visited Austin to flog Game Change, their flamboyantly sensational bestseller about the 2008 presidential campaign. Death and Life, by Illinois journalism professor Robert W. McChesney and The Nation reporter John Nichols, is an energetic and exhaustively researched crisis diagnosis and historical defense of political journalism, broadly conceived. The authors also make a series of powerful (if perhaps utopian) recommendations for preserving and sustaining real, useful public journalism, in spite of all the financial and cultural forces currently conspiring to destroy it.

Game Change, very much on the other hand, makes one wonder if it's remotely possible – or even worthwhile – to attempt to save "journalism" at all.

Needless to say, the Halperin and Heilemann blockbuster has been atop the nonfiction bestseller list for weeks, they eagerly noted during their appearance last week as the book's central self-justification – people were lining up to buy it, so it must be worth reading. (There's an HBO film in the works as well.) By contrast, Death and Life is no blockbuster, though it's gotten very good notices and has generated much useful commentary among those who care most about the future of journalism. Obvi­ously, the books are quite different in subject and purpose, so I'll stop the direct comparisons there – but as is often said about money, the bad tends to drive out the good. And in this case, gossip trumps all.

Tell Me Something Good

Halperin and Heilemann, political reporters respectively for Time and New York magazines, were given the celebrity treatment at the LBJ Library by Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune in an evening also sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and the LBJ School of Public Affairs' Center for Politics and Governance. In short, the evening was all dressed up like Coco Chanel, but on the whole the conversation was strictly Lady Gaga. Much of this you've already heard from the headlines – for example, the John Edwards marital and campaign implosion was only lightly touched upon, on the apparently accurate presumption that nearly everybody in the room had already read that chapter. And as Halperin noted, an LBJ/Austin audience mostly wants to hear Republican dish anyway. "As for John and me," he added, "our main reason for coming to Austin is to have breakfast at Cisco's." The guy knows how to stroke an audience – Harry Reid never had a chance.

What you might not have known:

• Politicians cuss. A lot. All of these guys (and gals) do, except perhaps Sarah Palin (whose vocabulary overall has serious limits). Retired aviator John McCain is the unchallenged champion at cussing, and he doesn't like to be interrupted while doing so.

• All the candidates experienced moments of optimism and arrogance, and other moments of doubt and uncertainty. McCain apparently doubted the most (hence his panicked choice of Palin, preceded transitorily and inconceivably by Joseph Lieberman). Barack Oba­ma doubted as well ("We could lose this thing") but apparently the least. He won.

• None of the other GOP candidates thought much of Mitt Romney (still don't), and they cracked jokes about him in the bathroom while standing at urinals (multiple unnamed sources). Romney was and remains oblivious and is now the apparent frontrunner for the 2012 GOP nomination.

• Hillary and Bill Clinton love each other very much, but Hillary doesn't know how to talk to Bill "when he's screwed up" – a failing that caused major problems in South Carolina.

And so on. As Halperin has put it elsewhere, "John and I are both interested in public policy, but this isn't a book about policy. ... It is a book about famous, interesting people engaged in an intense competition, under remarkable pressure." That's probably as frank a description of celebrity journalism as you are likely to hear from one of its primary national perpetrators, and if you like that sort of thing (and plenty of us do), this is definitely that sort of thing.

One very polite audience member suggested that had some of this material been known before the election (when H&H were learning it from their 200 anonymous, "deep background" sources), it might have had some effect on the public discussion, and perhaps even the election's outcome. Halperin offered the inevitable defense of the royal court reporter (or more precisely, the royal court gossip): If these people thought we would report it then or would ever identify who said what when – they wouldn't have told us anything.

No book, no million-dollar advance, no HBO film.

Real Changes

Next to these endlessly breathy revelations, McChesney and Nichols' prescriptions at first seem pallid indeed, although long after H&H are forgotten, the proposals sketched out by M&N may well lead to a new and much more permanent era of substantive political reporting. It's undoubtedly a long shot. The book's subtitle – "The Media Revo­lu­tion That Will Begin the World Again" – reflects their earnestness and ambition, which is expressly to save local and national public journalism by various forms of private and public subsidies. They track the recent accelerated decline of commercial journalism – though often blamed on the Internet, the decline, they demonstrate, has much more to do with an industry increasingly organized solely for globalized corporate profit. (The Web didn't kill us, and it will not save us.)

Importantly, they also recount the extensive history of explicit U.S. government underwriting of independent journalism – here and abroad – beginning with the earliest days of the nation, and they advocate a series of flexible solutions (some as simple as re-establishing long-traditional postal subsidies for independent journals of all political stripes) that in sum are analogous to what the country has long considered required to sustain public higher education. This is how UT was built – if we don't expect universities to "make a profit," we shouldn't anticipate serious journalism will necessarily do so either. It's a steeply uphill argument against self-interested and formidable opponents, but it has become a necessary one.

You'll soon be able to buy Game Change at a thrift store. Enjoy. And if you're at all interested in the fate of public journalism – which is to say, the future of democracy – seek out a copy of The Death and Life of American Journalism.

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