THE RISE OF THE NOVEL: Well have to admit it—we chuckled a bit at this front-page piece in yesterdays Outlook. (Headline: A Novel Take on an Ending.) In the piece, Richard Russo imagines the novel hed write about the Spitzer affair. (Sub-headline: Imagining Eliot.)
In real life, Russos most recent novel is Bridge of Sighs.
Readers, who can say? Perhaps it took John Pomfret to do it! No offense to Russo, but his slightly odd piece almost seems to take us to the soul of modern journalism.
Back-story: Here at THE HOWLER, we began using the term novelization of news in 1999. Principally, we were describing the way the mainstream press corps was covering Campaign 2000. In March 2000, Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp offered a similar analysis in a superlative piece which was, of course, completely ignored at the paper In her humongously right-on report, Shipp said it often seemed like the Posts reporters were crafting a drama (about four typecast candidates) as they pretended to cover that race. As a result of this approach, Shipp wrote, some candidates are whipping-boys; others seem to get a free pass. According to Shipp, phony facts were being invented (about Gore); actual facts were being disappeared (about McCain). All so the coverage would fit the role[s] the Post seems to have assigned [them] in Campaign 2000. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/00.
In fact, in vast amounts of our modern political reporting, our journalists seem to be mimicking novelists. They get to pick-and-choose their factsand they get to mind-read (invent) motive. In our view, you dont understand modern journalism if you dont understand that basic fact. Beyond that, of course, theres one other key fact; the novels they write are almost always group novels. These, then, are the two key facts about the way our politics is covered:
1) Much of what we read is a novel.
2) Most often, what we get are group novels.
So who knows? Maybe yesterdays Outlook piece is an overdue turn toward transparency! Pomfret has simply pulled back the veil from this unfortunate process. What kind of novel would Russo write if he wrote one about the Spitzer affair? To find out, just read yesterdays piece. He tells you how he imagines all the characters, including (alas) the three daughters.
Who knows? Perhaps the Post is giving up the ghost—is beginning to admit that theyre handing us novels. Shipp described the problem long ago, and Pomfret has finally copped to it!
Well—thats what we imagine, at least. Thats the novel we would write—if real life were just a novel.
NOVELIZING MCCAIN: Be sure to read Jamison Fosers superlative piece about the ongoing coverage of McCain. The rustic cabin is the latest chapter in the novelization of this long-time press darling. A question occurred to us as we read: Have we ever seen McCains net worth before? We assume that we must have. But we cant recall. (Well plan to fact-check this week.)
Meanwhile, note the following exchange from yesterdays Meet the Press. As noted, the press corps rarely admits its role in constructing its novels. Sure enough, on yesterdays show, Russert and Gregory managed to keep their faces straight as they puzzled about the way a certain saint out-polls his unpopular party:
RUSSERT (3/16/08): David Gregory, you brought up John McCain. He's in Iraq this morning as we talk here this--on our program. In a generic test, the Democrat is ahead of the Republican by 13 points in a general race, but when you match Obama-McCain, Clinton-McCain, the race shrinks[to a difference of] two or three points. And yet when you ask, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" in terms of the, the economy, 43 percent of Americans say they are worse off. What should be a Democratic race in terms of the issues is much closer when you match mano-mano, McCain-Obama, McCain-Clinton.
GREGORY: It really is striking, and I think it, it says something about the strength of the brand of John McCain as a public figure and his popularity and his, his reputation as a maverick
Of course, it also says something about the way the press corps has glorified McCain for the past dozen years. In large part, McCains reputation as a maverick (and as an authentic straight-talking straight-shooter) derives from the press corps endless conductincluding the conduct Shipp described in March 2000.
But Russert and Gregory know the rules of the clan. They will never say such a thing. Instead, they marvel at the strength of the brand. They have no idea where it came from.
DEFINING WRIGHT AND WRONG: For better or worse, at least for a while, we may have our first major Teflon Democrat. On yesterdays Chris Matthews Show, this was the entire discussion of Jeremiah Wright. Matthews questioned Times Rick Stengel:
MATTHEWS (3/16/08): And now, to that very aggressive, angry speech by the, by the pastor, pastor Jeremiah Wright, who married Michelle and Barack Obama, who christened their kids, a very close relationship with him. That very strong-minded speech there. Basically almost--he made the point. But what do you make of the past tapes that have been coming out about him?
STENGEL: Well, it's interesting. In a general way, Barack has been so successful as positioning himself as this post-racial candidate, this post-identity politics candidate that we're shocked and surprised when he turns out to be a black man, and that he actually has relationships with people that go back into his past. That has been what has been so pernicious in a way about the Gerry Ferraro comment. It's like saying Secretariat wouldn't have won the Kentucky Derby if he wasn't a horse. Well, of course Barack is, Barack is who he is, and he's been successful being--for who he is, because he is a black man who has triumphed over these racial politics. And the Clinton folks are trying to bring him back down to earth by reminding people and saying, He's just a black man after all.
That was the programs sole exchange on this topic. Ladies and gentlemen, Stengels a pro! By his third sentence, he had turned the Wright matter into a slam against Ferraro and the Clinton folks. In his next question, Matthews moved to another topic. Wright was never mentioned againthough Matthews played tape, at some length, at several junctures, of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
When it comes to political coverage, thats the definition of Teflon.
Well offer more on this topic in the next few days. (We suffer under technical constraints today.) But we offer a few reactions:
Changing times: For ourselves, were not offended by Wrights now-famous comments, nor are we shocked to learn that African-Americans sometimes have views of the world which differ from those which define the mainstream. But even our analysts were shocked by some of the press corps conduct this weekend, including that observed on this program. People, Pepperidge Farm remembers! In November 1999, this same press corps staged a month-long jihad against the Democratic front-runner because an adviser, Naomi Wolf, had used the word slut in an exemplary book. They subjected Wolf to a month-long sexual trashing, while career liberal elites stood by saying nothing. (Two big pundits defended Wolfthe Williams, Kristol and Safire.) They trashed and ridiculed Gore for a month, inventing bogus story-lines to facilitate their smutty group pleasure. The rules were very different this week. Only one thing stayed the samethe cosmic dishonesty of people like Matthews and the clowns who run in his posse.
How long: Teflon status can be enjoyabledepending on how long it lasts. Matthews and Stengel played the twin fool about this matter yesterday. But Pepperidge Farm remembers again! In 1988, the Massachusetts furlough program was ignored in the Dem primariesthen ate Dukakis alive in the fall. Will Obama end up being Dukakised by this, and other matters, if he becomes the Dem nominee? We have no way to know. But on yesterdays program, Matthews did what he has done for the past fifteen monthshe tried to select your nominee for you. We have no idea how hell act in the fall.
Let us repeat: Monica Lewinsky got more coverage on yesterdays program than Reverend Wright did. For ourselves, we werent offended by Wrights remarks. But even we were shocked by the fraud conducted by Matthews and his guests.
(Other players from yesterdays drama: Cottle, Robinson, Mitchell.)
Tomorrow, because we all deserve sound advice, well plan to offer three short excerpts from Wolfs superlative book. In late 1999, the Dem front-runner was trashed for a month because of the wise things Wolf had said. But waither book involved attitudes toward women! Big pundits (and liberal lads) dont care about that. Theres no sign they ever will.