Where D.C. Pundits Get Their Placebo Politics
In the spring of 2005, a story came along that was so important, so history-altering that it threatened to revive a killer press instinct that had been dormant for the previous four years. Of course, it helped that it was a Clinton-flavored scandal: That May, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's former campaign finance director, David Rosen, went on trial for his handling of a 2000 fundraiser staged in Hollywood to benefit Clinton's campaign for the U.S. Senate. Rosen was accused of hiding, or underreporting, $800,000 worth of costs. At the time, CNN political editor John Mercurio suggested that Rosen's funny money trial "reminds people of Whitewater" and the "sleazy side of the Clinton administration that [Hillary] and the president are both trying to forget."
Taking the lead in trumpeting the importance of the Rosen trial was ABC's The Note. An inside-baseball daily tip sheet for a readership it has dubbed the "Gang of 500" (politicians, lobbyists, consultants, and journalists who help shape the Beltway's public agenda), The Note is posted online every weekday morning and is widely viewed as the agenda-setter for the political class. On 14 different days between May 2 and 27, The Note posted cumulatively nearly forty links to Rosen-related articles, calling them "must-read." A typical Note entry came on May 10, highlighting "The opening and closing paragraphs in Dick Morris' New York Post column -- perfectly explaining why the David Rosen story is going to be with us for a while."
On the day before the Rosen verdict, The Note listed "Waiting for the Rosen verdict" as the number-one priority among the Gang of 500. The next day, a federal jury acquitted Rosen of any wrongdoing. How did The Note handle this news about the trial it had hyped? By ignoring it. The next edition of The Note included a long round-up of must-reads from the Memorial Day weekend. Rosen's not-guilty verdict was not among them. The abrupt disappearance of the story shouldn't have surprised close readers of The Note, which ABC's website has posted publicly since January 2002. In theory, what drives The Note is anything that's generating Beltway buzz. "We try to channel what the chattering class is chattering about, and to capture the sensibility, ethos, and rituals of the Gang of 500," Mark Halperin, ABC's political director and founder of The Note, once explained. Too often, though, The Note's definition of buzz has been whatever Beltway Republicans are chattering about. The Note has been nourished on an era of total Republican rule. It shows.
Too cool for school
The first thing you notice about The Note is that it sounds like it's written by high school students. Smart high school students -- really smart students, even -- but nevertheless teenagers who crack themselves up with their wit, rely on hard-to-decipher references to up their hip insider quotient, and have a penchant for words like "ginormous" and multiple exclamation points. Cutesy, creepy, and relentlessly effusive towards the media elite, The Note confirms the old adage that life really is like high school, with The Note filling the role of cheerleader-meets-yearbook editor, keeping tabs on where the cool kids are eating lunch, what they're wearing, and who's having the big party this weekend. In The Note's eyes, Beltway reporters are wonderfully talented, and everyone deserves a raise (e.g., "Will New York Times management recognize how great [reporter] Anne Kornblut is and act accordingly?")
No doubt this incestuous and over-the-top backslapping is meant to be taken somewhat tongue-in-cheek. (The Note does boast a sense of humor.) But after a while, the compliments -- the egregious stroking of the press -- become so pervasive that readers suspect The Note actually believes the press valentines, that New York Times columnist John Tierney is "successful and dashing," that his colleague Adam Nagourney is a "poet/historian," that former U.S. News & World Report's Roger Simon flashes "brilliance, ÃƒÂ©lan, and grace," that the work of Time's Mike Allen is "indescribably delicious," that Newsday's Glenn Thrush is "super savvy and smart," and that "Time's [former managing editor] Jim Kelly is more powerful than all but 23 United States Senators." (If you were truly in the know, The Note implies, you'd know exactly which 23 they mean.)
Interestingly, although the tone of The Note is often too-cool-for-school, it never crosses over into actually being edgy. In fact, The Note doesn't mock conventional wisdom so much as idolize it. It's been dismissive of Democrats, reluctant to dwell on Bush's second-term collapse, eager to dwell on Terri Schiavo (at first), scornful of the Downing Street memo, uninterested in Iraq, nostalgic for Clinton-era scandals, fearful of Republican attacks, and generally awestruck by the Bush White House and its galaxy of all-stars. (According to The Note, Mike Gerson may just be the "greatest presidential speechwriter of all time.") "To read ABC News's 'The Note,'" wrote The Nation's Eric Alterman, "is to enter a world in which the President and his advisers are treated in a manner not unlike the way US Weekly treats 'Brad and Jen.' "
To suggest The Note is enamored of GOP talking points is no exaggeration. From July 15, 2005: "Who wrote (and edited) the latest very awesome Republican talking points defending Rove that address the Novak situation and much more?" "Hats off to the White House communication team for handling the run-up and staging of this so well," The Note wrote glowingly of the White House decision to stage a meeting between members of the 9/11 Commission and Bush. As for a White House-led public relations blitz designed to improve the tattered image of Saudi Arabia, The Note cheered, "The scheme you came up with is so clever, we think it should be used as a case study in political campaign management schools."
In The Note's view, right-wing writers are reasoned, savvy, and powerful players. Indeed, the best way to get a read on Democrats is to pay attention to what conservative columnists are saying about them. Favorites include John Podhoretz at the New York Post (who labeled Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean a "lunatic leftist") and the "must-readable" New York Times' David Brooks, crowned by The Note as "the best columnist today writing about the Democratic Party" (Like Podhoretz, Brooks regularly ridicules Democrats.) Syndicated columnist Bob Novak and the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes are hailed by The Note as wise men whose work should not be missed.
Meanwhile, liberal counterparts to such partisans are either ignored or mocked. The Times' Frank Rich, arguably the most influential liberal columnist in the country, essentially does not exist in the pages of The Note. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, another potent and powerful voice on the left, should be read, according to The Note, simply to get "a window into what anti-Bush liberals are now all thinking inside their brains."
All of this backslapping and cheerleading might just be a particularly cloying incarnation of the Beltway media bubble. But The Note doesn't just comment on the goings-on of politics; it also helps set the coverage. For at least the past year, The Note's judgment of what constitutes a major story and what doesn't has been alarmingly off.
Let's begin in March of 2005. The Note was all onboard for the Terri Schiavo saga, at one point linking to twenty separate Schiavo stories in one day. It also thought Republicans had themselves a winning issue with the right-to-life story: "The Republican leadership seems to have succeeded in framing the discourse around a moral question." At the same time, on March 21, The Note's parent, ABC News, released the findings from a Schiavo poll that found 67 percent of Americans thought elected officials were acting for political advantage rather than for the principles involved. The Note did its best to spin the results in favor of the White House, writing that the Republican intervention in the Schiavo matter had been met with "some public opposition." Only in the 2005 Beltway media environment could a controversial GOP initiative that was rejected by a broad cross-section of Americans -- including 58 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans -- be described as having been met with "some public opposition." Two days later, detecting widespread mainstream criticism of the Republicans' heavy-handed intervention, The Note reported it was "perhaps the beginning of a media backlash." When Bush's own poll numbers began an immediate decline in the wake of the Schiavo intervention -- dropping seven points in seven days, according to one national survey -- editors at The Note scratched their heads, declaring it was impossible to figure out "what exactly accounts for the President's droopy poll numbers."
The Note's tin-ear problem continued in September, amid the crisis of Hurricane Katrina. As Bush's job approval ratings plunged to new lows, The Note reported that the White House was winning the spin war: "Mr. Bush still hasn't found his footing or his voice on this story, but his side clearly won the last news cycle in raw political terms." That same day, though, pollster John Zogby reported that Bush's job approval rating had just hit the lowest mark of his entire presidency. The following week, The Note belatedly acknowledged that "living with [approval] ratings in the 40s is White House reality for now." The truth was, based on ABC's own polling, that the White House had been living with approval ratings in the 40s for five months. The post-Katrina news was that Bush had tumbled into the 30s. The Note was oblivious.
One month later, it also appeared to miss the Oct. 6 CBS poll that reported Bush's approval rating hitting a new low. On the two days after the poll was released, The Note linked to nearly one hundred must-reads, but not to the CBS report. When an astonishing October poll from NBC revealed that just 2 percent of African-Americans approved of Bush's job performance, The Note ignored that, too. (Months earlier, though, The Note had passed along the conventional wisdom that the Republican outreach effort to minority voters "will probably bear fruit.")
In November, The Washington Post reported its latest polling data, showing that the political advantages the Republican Party had built up since 9/11 regarding a whole host of issues -- Iraq, Social Security, taxes, spending, and ethics -- had completely evaporated. The poll also found that Democrats had opened a gaping 17-point lead in a poll that asked Americans which party they intended to vote for during the 2006 congressional elections. The Note, whose only real editorial mission is to chronicle the ups and downs of the two major parties, completely ignored the Post's report. Wrapping up a year in which The Note seemed to be on a different news planet from the rest of the country, in March of 2006, the publication weighed in on the biggest political topic of the moment: the Dubai ports deal that was once again driving down the president's poll numbers. 72 percent of Americans said they were following the story on the news. The Note's comment on the controversy was this: "Port security: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (If you expected The Note to report on the meaning of the flap, the delay, the brouhaha, the whole thing -- you expected wrong. Wake us when it's over.)" The Note had better things to talk about: "the sleep habits of [Time magazine's] Mike Allen."
For all this deference to RNC talking points, The Note undoubtedly wishes to avoid being a tool of any party. It isn't FOX News, after all, and few of its staffers are right-wing partisans. Why, then, has The Note been so pliable?
Part of the explanation is specific to The Note: it's young, and, more than most media outlets, it's a product of the Bush era. Starting off as a purely internal rundown of the day's must-read stories for staffers at ABC's political news team, The Note first became public in January 2002. This was, of course, shortly after a national calamity, and criticism of the president was understandably muted. But such restraint may well have helped shape journalistic habits that would carry over into less exceptional times. Without any pre-Bushian institutional memory, The Note had no obvious alternative to itself.
But most of the reasons for The Note's effective, if inadvertent, RNC shilling have to do with broader factors affecting the mainstream media in general. These include a consolidated media landscape in which owners are multinational corporations, many of which share interests with the GOP. Equally important has been a tight Republican grip on Congress and the White House, which, combined with hardball tactics, has allowed Republicans to intimidate the press corps. Adding to the chorus has been a deep-pocketed right-wing noise machine ready to pounce on any traces of "bias," which has caused the press to veer defensively to the right. (The Note frets whenever Rush Limbaugh takes issue with its work but scoffs whenever liberal critics do the same.) And journalists, despite their reputation for leftish politics, understand that advancing their careers will be difficult if they're perceived as being overtly left or contemptuous of Republicans. By contrast, being tough on Democrats ups their credibility and is rewarded.
By now, over a year into a second Bush term with almost three more to go, the consequences of media blindness and timidity -- and the role of outlets like The Note in perpetuating it -- have become clear enough. Counteracting it, however, is a different matter. Clearly, he-said, she-said conventions of reporting are inadequate when "he-said" is fact and "she-said" is fiction. And allowing the loudest partisans to set the parameters of debate can result in a very skewed view of left and right. Coming up with a remedy won't be easy. Meanwhile, though, journalists looking for guidance might want to cut down on The Note and think about whether it really plugs them in or simply perpetuates the problem. Sure, The Note is an indispensable guide to the chatter of the GOP. This has been interesting and helpful for the Gang of 500. It just hasn't done much good for the rest of us.