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Alex Pareene's Super Hack List: Politico, The Washington Post, Newsweek

A list of the worst of political media highlights.
 
 
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This year, my annual list of the worst of political media highlights not just individuals, but the institutions that enable those individuals. The 2012 Hack List will be counting down the 10 media outlets that are hurting America over the next two days — stay tuned! (Previous Hack List entries here, here and here.)

1. Politico

Surprise! It’s Politico.

I have written tens of thousands of words on what, precisely, is wrong with Politico. But I can put the case much more simply here: It’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.

VandeHei is the co-founder of Politico, and Allen is the organization’s biggest star. Each morning Allen collects a bunch of links to day-old news stories and emails them to thousands of people, and for this he is paid a fortune. VandeHei is the guy who gives Politico its obnoxious, pseudo-macho ethos, with the shouty memos and nonsense about “metabolism.” Allen exemplifies the sort of political journalist who thinks his job is faithfully reporting what mendacious professional liars tell him, while also usually protecting their identities. VandeHei thinks neutrality requires occupying a space precisely between Breitbart and the Huffington Post. Neither would probably understand if you tried to explain to them that supporting whatever any CEO says or effectively endorsing Erskine Bowles for president is actually a violation of political “neutrality.”

When you see a joint Allen-VandeHei byline, you can safely expect the worst. When fellow Politico big shots John Harris and Jonathan Martin write a piece, they report on politics. When Allen and VandeHei write, they craft narrative. If the narrative bears no little relation to reality, or is simply self-serving spin from a professional political operative, no matter: Now the narrative is “out there,” because Politico is proud of its ability to create its own buzz and then report on that buzz.

Allen and VandeHei’s 2012 campaign was a wild roller-coaster ride of shifting narratives, starring campaign heroes and goats who occasionally switched from one role to the other in the space of a few weeks.

On Sept. 11, 2012, Romney was in deep trouble. GOP strategists were alarmed at Mitt Romney’s failure to mention the troops at the Republican Convention. The omission was “‘felony stupid,’ raising ‘a leadership issue, a spine issue’ for Romney.” And Romney was to blame, because unnamed advisers had warned him not to concede national security to Obama.

On Sept. 16, the Romney campaign was in disarray and everything was the fault of strategist Stuart Stevens. The next day, Allen and VandeHei revealed that Stuart Stevens was going to rescue the Romney campaign by talking about the Middle East and getting specific on policy.

On Sept. 19, in a story that literally said the Sept. 16 story “doesn’t matter,” Allen and VandeHei revealed that the Romney campaign’s rescue plan would actually be “more Mitt,” and that more “personal appearances” from Romney would right the ship. On Sept. 28, Allen and VandeHei revealed that the real problem with the Romney campaign was Romney himself, because Romney was a “lousy candidate.” (You’re off the hook, Stuart Stevens.)

Thankfully, by Oct. 4, Mitt Romney was a good candidate again, because he had “transformed himself” into one during the debate. On Oct. 9, it turned out that the Romney family, led by Tagg, had seized control of the campaign from Stuart Stevens, who was the villain again. Once they “let Mitt be Mitt,” things began to turn around.

Finally, on Nov. 4, Allen and VandeHei reported that if Romney were to lose, it would be because there aren’t enough white people anymore, and not because of Stuart Stevens’ decision to focus on the economy, Romney’s personal lack of charisma, or the campaign’s failure to allow the uncharismatic lousy candidate to be himself.

No one reading any of these pieces as they ran gained any genuine insight into the state of the presidential race.

Now that the election is done, Allen and VandeHei have decided to write one of their little joint ventures into the minds of unnamed “strategists” weekly, with a new feature called “Behind the Curtain,” because Politico’s founding myth is that the conventional political journalism it practices is in fact an exclusive and rare glimpse into the halls of power.

“Behind the Curtain,” they say, “is a reported column, Web show and online conversation about the behind-the-scenes intrigue that shapes politics and policy. It will unfold every Tuesday (and beyond, when news dictates).” In other words it’s a column and a brief Web video. So far, the “behind-the-scenes intrigue” these two have uncovered is that some Republicans plan to run for president in 2016, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan possibly among them, that the Republican Party has an immigration policy problem, and that the Republican Party is primarily older and white and that is also a problem.

The most notable “Behind the Curtain” column thus far, and the one that does the best job of exposing the actual worldview that informs Allen and VandeHei’s work, is the one where they reported that doing what a bunch of CEOs want would “put a rocket booster on the U.S. economy.” It turns out, they write, that most politicians agree that doing the things that CEOs want would make the economy better, “but they are too timid to say it in public.” And basically the secret economy-boosting plan that everyone is too scared to talk about is tax reform, slashing entitlements, more immigration and more oil and gas drilling, all of which are things that are constantly and loudly supported by CEOs and politicians and newspaper editorial boards every day. Allen and VandeHei are wholly and uncritically endorsing the Beltway and CEO elite consensus while acting as if they are passing on to you secret wisdom.

These two are why every right-thinking person despises Politico and all they stand for.

2. The Washington Post

The Washington Post is the hometown paper of the city that everyone in America hates, usually for good reason. And the things Americans hate about that city and the people who work there are reflected in its pages.

The newspaper itself is an ever smaller and more starved-looking thing. The people running it used to actually compete with the New York Times, for readers and writers and national influence. Now they can’t really decide if they even want to try.

The Post can’t decide if it’s local or national, with editors and publishers offering a series of conflicting and contradictory statements of intent over the last decade. The paper closed its major national bureaus a few years ago, but it also fails to extensively cover local news. What it seems to think it should be is a newspaper dedicated to covering politics and the federal government. D.C. already has three or four of those, which would seem to suffice, but politics is the paper’s brand, and what brings national traffic to the website.

The Washington Post has the worst opinion section of any major newspaper in the country. It’s actually baffling to me how bad it is. It doesn’t seem that difficult to simply not publish a bunch of liars, hacks and incredibly boring old men, but the Post can’t seem to figure it out.

And they have a million opinion writers. Wheezy old Richard Cohen. Torture enthusiast Marc Thiessen. Mustachioed supply-sider relic Robert Samuelson, George Will. I give them credit for publishing Harold Meyerson, but even that seems like an example of their devotion to being perceived as balanced — we’ll employ an avowed socialist, and also a couple of Republican hack speechwriters who love waterboarding.

There can’t be more than a handful of people out there who care what most of these people think about anything. Take someone as completely ignorable as Charles Lane. Lane styles himself a “nonpartisan pundit.” He’s a conservative, of course, but the sort who thinks himself an independent moderate. He fusses about the deficit and thinks the welfare state unsustainable, regardless of actual data, like so many other Beltway hacks. He hoped the 2012 election results would give Nate Silver “a comeuppance.” He bemoans polarizations and says America needs “a different kind of politics” “in the tradition of the sectional Great Compromises of pre-Civil War America.”

I’m sure if anyone ever read Charles Lane they would have taken some issue with that particular column, because “the Great Compromises of pre-Civil War America” were all designed solely to sustain slavery as an institution as long as possible, but no one noticed because no one reads Charles Lane. Why would anyone? He’s indistinguishable from a zillion other sober, moderate pundits. The only time anyone has paid any attention to Charles Lane in recent memory is when he wrote something particularly vile about Gabrielle Giffords and labor unions.

The Post also publishes George Will and Charles Krauthammer, two of the most respected conservative columnists in the nation. The two helpfully show precisely how intellectually bankrupt the conservative movement has become.

When George Will isn’t being dishonest, he’s usually being wrong. He lies about climate change. He claims that anti-voter suppression efforts are actually about mandatory voting, something few liberals and no elected Democratic leaders support. George Will decided that college football is “liberal” because he doesn’t like football and he doesn’t like liberal things, so things he doesn’t like must be liberal. George Will said that if Obama won it would be because he was lucky enough to be black, and Americans didn’t want to look racist by voting against him. That was another entry in his long history of worrying that America was being too nice to black people. Will also predicted Romney would win 321 electoral votes and that Minnesota’s marriage amendment would swing the state Republican.

Krauthammer might be even more influential than Will. I have always found Krauthammer’s popularity and influence slightly baffling, because he seems precisely as hackish as every other partisan Republican pundit. I guess it’s a matter of degrees: While Will predicted a Romney landslide, Krauthammer predicted that Romney would win a squeaker. But Krauthammer still spent the election (and the preceding four years) nattering about Obama’s imaginary “apology tour” and pretending the return of the borrowed Churchill bust was a “snub” to Great Britain and claiming that Romney handily and clearly won all three debates and pretending Obama is a far-left radical who is putting America on the road to “European-style social democracy” — this is exactly the same bullshit as Rush and Dinesh D’Souza.

Krauthammer’s columns on the “fiscal cliff” negotiations have been hysterical, in all senses of the word. He complains bitterly that Obama has never been serious about reducing the debt and then calls on Republicans to demand the extension of all the Bush tax cuts, which is idiotic both politically and mathematically. That conservatives take him seriously explains so much about our current politics.

But Krauthammer is at least a mostly consistent conservative who seems to believe what he writes. You can’t say that of the Post’s star conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin. During the campaign, Rubin’s blog was filed from an alternate universe where Romney’s every move was canny and brilliant and Obama was terrified and panicking every day. She turned Bill Clinton calling Romney a liar into an imaginary secret endorsement of Mitt Romney. Then, after the election, she revealed that she knew all along that the Romney campaign was poorly organized and full of incompetents. She effectively admitted to shilling for Romney, and writing things she knew to be inaccurate, in her role as ostensibly an independent conservative commentator. It should’ve been hugely embarrassing for the Post, and Fred Hiatt, the man who hired her. No one seems to care.

The Post opinion section exemplifies the most aggravating feature of the American punditocracy: that there are simply never any professional consequences for being constantly wrong or dishonest.

3. Newsweek

One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, I know. But if Newsweek has taught me anything this year, it’s that death is not truly the end, because Heaven Is Real, According to Science.

Yes, that was an actual, for-real Newsweek cover this year: “Heaven Is Real.” It was the dumbest, probably, but not actually the worst. This year’s Newsweek covers also included naked bondage lady, and sexy lady about to fellate asparagus (a stock image that had also quite recently been used in at least two other magazines). There was “what if Princess Di was alive and my friend,” too, but that was from 2011.

Now, Newsweek is ending its existence as a print publication. It’s not the official end of Newsweek as a brand — they seem to want people to believe that they expect rational adults to pay money to read something claiming to be a digital version of Newsweek online — but the mass layoffs signal that it’s basically done as a major publication of any sort.

Here’s Brown defending those dumb covers, which were clearly the one part of the magazine she actually devoted her time to (to the annoyance of her staff):

“The magazine was incredibly moribund when we came in,” she said on Thursday. “It had taken so many knocks. We have been able to bring Newsweek back to relevance. I have always felt that the covers are about a conversation. The covers become a conversation starter.”

There are the limits of Tina Brownism laid bare. She didn’t save the magazine — it’s dead — but she did make it relevant again, by repeatedly printing awful covers that simply everyone talked about. Countless people are losing or have already lost their jobs at the magazine, sure, but America gained so many conversations!

Under the tenure of Brown’s predecessor, the insufferable Jon Meacham, Newsweek sought to distinguish itself as “the American Economist.” It turned out that there was not actually any demand for a second, inferior Economist, when we already had the regular version. But in retrospect we had no idea how good we had it back when Meacham was just repeatedly putting another “an historian ties the present moment to a past moment” essay on the cover of his pretentious but not actually smart version of Newsweek. Tina Brown’s Newsweek didn’t bore us, it just insulted us, loudly, each and every issue.

Brown, the legendary editor most famous for making the New Yorker print photographs sometimes, launched a website called the Daily Beast in 2008, with a bunch of money from famous rich person Barry Diller. Why anyone thought Brown, who does not understand the Internet, would be a good person to give a lot of money to to create a website, is well beyond me, but it is the sort of thing that makes sense if you are a rich person, I think. In 2010, other rich person Sidney Harmon bought Newsweek and then he and Diller decided to merge it with the Daily Beast and give it all to Tina Brown. At the time, Brown’s Daily Beast was losing Diller $10 million a year. Brown’s first move as the person in charge of Newsweek — an early example of the sort of brilliant decision-making that would define her tenure as person in charge of Newsweek — was to kill Newsweek.com and put all its content on TheDailyBeast.com, despite the fact that Newsweek.com had more than twice the traffic, not to mention 80 years’ worth of brand recognition.

You hire Tina Brown because she knows “everyone,” and knowing “everyone” translates into “buzz,” which never quite translates into “profit” or “increased circulation.” In Tina Brown’s Newsweek, friends fawningly profiled their famous friends, who were also friends of Tina’s. Other friends were allowed to write stories so incredibly misleading that other outlets took it upon themselves to perform basic fact-checks. Then that friend’s wife trolled every Muslim in the world.

The covers listed up top, asparagus lady and company, were just sad attempts to add some sex appeal to forgettable stories. The real worst Newsweek covers trolled even harder inside the magazine than on the front. The real crime of the Niall Ferguson cover — I mean, besides all the dishonesty and the fact that Ferguson believes and says awful and stupid things, professionally, for a living — is that it could have actually been a smart, honest piece about why Obama didn’t deserve to be reelected. The crime of the awful “MUSLIM RAGE” piece was that it didn’t actually explain anything about the Muslim world and truly had nothing whatsoever to do with its supposed news hook.

Newsweek had a huge staff of smart and talented reporters and writers — a huge staff of talented people is one reason they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars every week! — who could have written thoughtful pieces adding context and original reporting to the subjects Brown planned to splash on the cover. She still could have put all the sexy ladies and “provocative” cover lines she wanted on the front, to move copies at the newsstand. But Brown’s instinct instead was to get her attention-starved hack friends to write bullshit designed to infuriate thinking people and deceive readers. She got the conversation started, and the fact that the conversation, each time, was mostly variations on “this story is horrible” didn’t at all matter. As is usually the case in media and politics, Brown and Ferguson and Buzz Bissinger will land on their feet, while all the staffers not actually responsible for killing the magazine look for new work.

In a long interview with Michael Kinsley, Brown absolves herself of responsibility for Newsweek’s death, saying the magazine had “an unfixable infrastructure and a set of challenges that really would have required five years in an up economy to solve.” The interview is in a recent issue of New York, a successful general interest magazine that prints weekly.

 

 

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon. Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene