The Trouble with Washington Political Reporting

The New York Times had a brief write-up last night about James K. Glassman being appointed as the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, an “action-oriented think tank” which will be part of the GWB Center at Southern Methodist University. Glassman is a former journalist and pundit who also served in the State Department in Bush’s second term, so there is nothing particularly surprising about his appointment.

What is a bit surprising is that the Times, in three paragraphs of biographical information about Glassman, somehow failed to mention the thing he may be most famous for: writing a book in 1999, on the eve of the collapse of the dot com bubble, called “Dow 36,000,” which argued that stocks were undervalued and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would more than triple within a decade. Needless to say, he was wildly wrong, and many people who followed his advice presumably lost a lot of money by doing so.

It’s not shocking to me that being completely wrong didn’t seem to hurt his career. (In Washington political and policy circles, particularly in the GOP, being conspicuously wrong often seems to be considered a virtue.) Neither is it shocking that his infamous book is not mentioned in the press release announcing his appointment (it is amusing, however, to see that the press release touts his experience as an “investment columnist” for the Washington Post in the early 90’s).

The New York Times, however, is supposed to be doing more than just passing on information from press releases. Even if the reporter somehow didn’t know that Glassman wrote a much-discussed bestseller called “Dow 36,000,” a cursory glance at the first paragraph of Glassman’s Wikipedia entry would have clued him in. While the Times report omitted Glassman’s dramatic public failure as a soothsayer, it did point out that Glassman “has also been writing a blog largely critical of the Obama administration. He argued that its economic proposals ‘are dangerously off-course and the result will be a huge debt burden that will slow American growth for many years.’ ” One would think that Glassman’s glaringly abysmal history when it comes to predicting economic developments might be worth mentioning if you are going to air his predictions about the effects of Obama’s economic policies.

Glassman’s appointment to run Bush’s think tank is not an especially important piece of news, but the Times’s handling of the announcement is very telling. To most Washington reporters, the political back and forth between Republicans and Democrats is the relevant and important part of any story. Whether or not someone is telling the truth, and whether or not someone has been proven completely wrong in the past, to the point where they have no credibility on a particular issue, is considered a non-issue that needn’t be mentioned at all.

For another example of blinkered political reporting, see today’s Times article on Betsy McCaughey, who is providing pseudo-intellectual cover for the false assertions about what health care reform would involve. The Times article starts with an irrelevant anecdote about how Erica Jong (Erica Jong!) was bamboozled into thinking that McCaughey was a serious public intellectual, then says that “Ms. McCaughey’s role as a central, if disputed, player in the national health care debate has surprised friend and foe alike.” Has it really? From what I have been reading, people who remember McCaughey’s role in spreading falsehoods about Clinton’s health care plan in the early 90’s were not at all surprised that she is reprising the role 15 years later. The only surprise is that anyone in the media still treats people like her and Glassman as if they are serious thinkers.

And in fact, despite the sentence I just cited, the Times article doesn’t actually quote anyone except Jong who seems “surprised” by McCaughey’s role—it quotes some other people, such as McCaughey’s college roommate, who seem disappointed that she has a habit of indulging in publicity-gaining smear campaigns, but none of them actually sound surprised. Perhaps only newspaper reporters, who get so caught up in the daily rough and tumble of media and politics that they can’t remember McCaughey’s role in defeating “Hillarycare” or Glassman’s role in promoting the late 90’s stock bubble, are surprised when people behave the way they have been behaving for years. (The Times article even carried the headline “McCaughey, Unlikely Critic of Obama’s Health Care Plan” until it was later changed to the less idiotic “Resurfacing, a Critic Stirs Up Debate Over Health Care.)

Incidentally, Peter Baker, who wrote the Times item on Glassman, also had an article in the paper yesterday about an incorrect rumor that Chelsea Clinton was going to get married on Martha’s Vineyard last month. In the article, he writes that “The persistence of the rumor despite the lack of tangible evidence says something about the Internet-driven media culture, where facts sometimes do not get in the way of a good story.” His then proceeded to mention that the rumor was first published in the Boston Globe, then spread to New York Magazine, the Daily News, Fox News, the Washington Post (where Baker used to work), and finally, to the Times itself in a Travel section feature on Martha’s Vineyard. It must be nice for people like Baker to have the internet as a convenient scapegoat when they spread false rumors, but it would have been useful if he had explained how the “Internet-driven media culture” caused editors and reporters at respected papers like the Globe, the Times and the Post to report unconfirmed gossip in their pages.

6 Responses to “The Trouble with Washington Political Reporting”

  1. wordenerd says:

    This will make a good re-read the day the Times folds.

  2. eric says:

    This is amazing, especially to someone like me, who of course only knows Glassman’s name because of Dow 36,000. Good post. There are ALWAYS second acts in American life.

  3. ruth gutmann says:

    Thank you. I needed that! And it goes on! but before I do: I cannot resist pointing out that “think-tank” and George W.Bush are oxymorons. I actually recall that “Dow: 36,000” title! I share your hunch about Peter Baker whom we used to see quite frequently on Wash.Week in Review when he worked for the WaPo, but so far I have been unable to put his obvious negativity in its proper frame.

    It was my impression that your staying, by and large, away from the political was because you wanted to provide a respite for your readers. Such a respite is like being in a too expensive spa. I fear we cannot afford it.
    There rarely was a time when it was more necessary to stay alert to all the nuances of what is going on in Washington and the country. My own alert system is mostly on “fight or flight.” I thought your criticism of TPM the other day was not truly deserved. Mostly Josh Marshall is very good and last night Bill Moyers actually praised him. The Huffington Post on the other hand is just over the top. The worst I have ever read was Jane Smiley’s attack on Pres. Obama: ” if he drops the public option, he is a traitor” — I felt ashamed for her. Jacob Heilbrunn was one of the few who assured us the other day that by the end of the year there will be a health care reform bill and who almost pleaded for the president.

    You occasionally hear the media hypocritically asking itself if perhaps they overreported the outrageous events at the town hall meetings. But last night when they discussed Pres. Obama’s many dilemmas, and “how confused and anxious and uncomprehending the population now is” they never once mentioned that this anxious population may have occasionally listened to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk!

    I leave you with this morning’s sub- headline: “A Recovery that Doesn’t Jump-Start Hiring may Pose a Political Test for Obama.” Really? Despite our knowledge, drilled into us by said President and his administration and every economist in the country that jobs ARE A LAGGING INDICATOR? (Right now, for example, productivity numbers are at an all-time high. Why? it is said that workers are scared to lose their jobs and so work every moment and ever harder. There also is that little fact that employers are MAKING DUE with fewer workers than they could use and despite the fact THAT CASH IS REALLY NO LONGER A PROBLEM. Employers in other words, are holding back.) The other news just discovered by the NYT is that states and municipalities are working against rather than in tandem with the Federals: they are laying people off because of the inconvenient fact that they must balance their budgets.

    You know. You live in California.

  4. ruth gutmann says:

    PS. The headline about Obama’s (new) political test is not on the Internet.

  5. dc says:

    Ruth: I stay away from the political not to give readers a respite, but just because I want to stick to subjects that I have some first-hand knowledge of, or at least subjects that I might be able to say something new about. Given the large number of national political blogs from people who follow politics more obsessively than I do, anyone who wants that sort of thing can find it in plenty of other places. (The mindset of political reporters is one thing I do have some first-hand knowledge about, which is why I’m more likely to comment on media coverage of politics than on politics itself, although that distinction is a very fuzzy one.)

    I agree that Josh Marshall is mostly very good, and I generally agree with his point of view about things. I just feel that the percentage of posts which are designed to enlighten has decreased, and the percentage of posts which are designed mainly to amuse or reassure like-minded readers has increased. Gleeful ridicule of people like Alberto Gonzales and Mark Sanford has always been part of Marshall’s repertoire, but I feel like he (and especially his co-blogger David Kurtz) are increasingly catering to readers who already agree with them, instead of trying to actually add something thoughtful or new. The result, in my opinion, has been more trashiness and more preaching to the choir, but less substance. (I still read it every day, of course…)

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