Thursday, September 28, 2006

Of Memes, the MSM and Mediocrity

Originally posted at MoCoPolitics.

I hate the term "meme." Hate it, hate it, hate it. Would like to stomp it back down into the depths of hell from whence it sprang some year or two ago. The only term I loathe more than "meme" is "frame." These are buzzwords, silly catch phrases that eventually become substitutes for real thought, real analysis and real political work.

While I respect the substance of what people like George Lakoff write (how we deliver our message can be critically important), ultimately the substance is more important. Poll after poll, even in this election year when Democrats appear to have the wind at their backs, show that voters are frustrated with Democrats because they don't seem to have a message to deliver.

I also hate the term "MSM." Used by both the right and the left to show disdain for unwanted or unliked media coverage, the term is a crutch, a shorthand that means nothing absent some deeper thought or analysis. Usually, it implies some conspiratorial wink or nod, as in "the MSM got together today and decided to screw (fill in your preferred candidate or cause of choice here)."

Nothing is quite that simple, particularly when analyzing an entire industry such as the "media," which runs the gamut from 800 pound gorillas like the Washington Post and New York Times, to media conglomerates like the broadcast networks to major magazines and newsweeklies like Time, Newsweek and U.S. News, to local newspapers such as the Montgomery Gazette. Any gross generalizations that attempt to take into account all of these institutions is doomed to failure.

As I have stated previously, I believe certain aspects of the media are predisposed to certain conclusions. The Gazette is the voice of business in Montgomery County -- I think few would argue with that point. Is it a "conspiracy?" No, it's who they are -- their editorials and much of their news coverage make pretty clear what their predisposition is.

And the major journalism bastions the New York Times and the Washington Post has, over the course of a generation, gone from long-haired rebels seeking to bring down Richard Nixon to establishment figures who sit at the dinner table and have drinks with the government leaders they cover. This has been a fundamental change in the nature of journalism -- from unrecognizable underpaid scribblers who wanted to challenge the establishment to multimedia superstars who now have a vested interest in the establishment they once sought to overturn.

Again, is this a conspiracy? No, I don't think so -- it's who these folks are. When Bob Woodward earned $25,000 for the Post in the 1970s, he had a different perspective than he does now as a wealthy author and occasional journalist. And the young guns coming up today have no interest -- none -- in challenging authority, because to do so will cost you your access and ultimately get you kicked out of the club, and all of the perks, prestige, influence and big-ass money that can be made inside the circle. Don't rock the boat, or you'll find yourself shipped out to Peoria or Dubuque, and then how are you going to get on TV and get book deals and all the rest?

We can't change this problem, but we can recognize it for what it is and if so inclined, look for alternative sources of information and analysis that present things from a perspective that we find more palatable. In this sense, I don't have a problem with the concept of Fox News, I just think they're liars and shills for an immoral and incompetent administration.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting to two articles in today's Post that really, really are annoying me.

As you undoubtedly are aware, there's a U.S. Senate race in Maryland this year, an open seat race created by the retirement of Paul Sarbanes. Ben Cardin is the Democratic nominee and Michael Steele is the Republican nominee. And unless you've been under a rock, you know that Cardin is white and fought off a spirited challenge from Kweisi Mfume, who is not white. And of course, Michael Steele is also not white, and is seeking to court the supporters of Mfume, going so far as to claim that he's a Democrat when he most certainly is not.

For months, the Post has repeatedly reminded us that Steele, being black, would be a serious threat to take black votes away from Cardin. Just in the two weeks or so since the primary, in addition to today’s two stories, there have been seven stories in the Post (including one editorial and two columnists) that have flogged the meme (argh!) of Steele trying to get black votes from Democrats. The Post has also repeatedly reminded us that Ben Cardin, being white, is not very charismatic.

[Unlike the Post, the Gazette has pointed out, rightly in this case, that Prince George's County voters, a majority of whom are black, voted in high numbers for Mfume, and are concerned over the lack of minority representation in statewide races. And the dismal performance of Prince George's powerhouses Al Wynn and Jack Johnson in their recent primaries doesn't bode well for a unified front on behalf of Cardin or Martin O'Malley, particularly if Wynn and Johnson continue to sulk and refuse to attend unity events. You’d think the Post would have more astute political coverage than the Gazette, but not in this case.]

Now remember, the Post also has repeatedly told us that voters believe that Democrats don't really have a message and they don't know what Democrats stand for. What does Steele stand for? Puppies, apparently. What are Cardin's views on the issues of the day? Gosh, you know, the Post doesn't really say much about that. They want to talk about Steele's blackness and Cardin's whiteness. Any relationship between the Post's coverage of this race and the voter's views is purely coincidental, apparently.

So yesterday, rightly concerned over the Steele threat, Ben Cardin, seeking to consolidate and reach out to black voters, had a rally with Mfume and Illinois U.S. Senator Barack Obama, who, like Mfume and Steele, is not white. The rally was at the University of Maryland in College Park. By all accounts, it was well-attended and enthusiastic. Mfume endorsed Cardin, and Obama delivered a solid speech as well.

So -- faced with a story that appears to fly in the face of your previously established memes (argh! again), what do you do if you're the Post? Go with the news story, or the established story line?

As if you had to ask.

First, in the news story, headlined "Mfume Endorses Cardin, But Adds Caveat," Ann Marimow leads with the Mfume endorsement of Cardin, but then proceeds to bury it beneath (1) Mfume's statement that there is not enough minority representation in statewide races, and (2) the Post's longtime obsession with the idea that Michael Steele may cut into Cardin's support among blacks. Marimow even went so far as to write: "A Baltimore Sun poll this week showed 24 percent of black voters favor Steele, a strong showing for a Republican." But Marimow fails to add the rather significant point that Cardin leads Steele overall by 11 freakin' points! Apparently, that would have detracted from the Post's meme (grrr! x3) I have seen several analyses that suggest that Steele needs 33% of the black vote to even think about DRAWING EVEN in this race, and the likelihood that he comes remotely close to the 24% in the Sun poll is about zero.

OK, so the news story was bad, but the Style section story was worse. Written by David Montgomery, it forcefeeds readers its points: (1) Cardin is boring, (2) Cardin is white, (3) Obama is black, (4) Obama is, well, you know, charismatic, like Mfume and like Steele, and (5) all the white college girls want to have sex with Obama, to the point where they lose their shoe chasing after him. Montgomery tried to seem reluctant, but you know, he had to write what he wrote because, get this, Ben Cardin made him do it:

"Comparisons aren't polite, but the Democratic congressman from Maryland was asking for it. He looked older, shorter, pudgier and pinker."


Cardin asked for it. How did he do that, David? Did he come up to you and say please compare me physically to Barack Obama? And what, pray tell, does age, size, fitness or "pinkness" (apparently, an updated substitute for honky-ass whitebread cracker in Post-speak) have to do with, well, ANYTHING?

And let me say something about Cardin being "boring" or lacking in charisma. I've met Ben Cardin on several occasions, and gotten to talk to him individually for a few minutes on two occasions. He is warm, he is friendly, he is charming, he is likeable, he is personable. David Montgomery would have you believe that he's some kind of mumbling slug -- he's not. Is he William Jennings Bryan when he gives a speech? No, he's not, but few are. Can he give a good speech? Yes, he can.

David Montgomery came to College Park yesterday with preconceived story lines, and he left with a story that fit the preconceptions. Cardin is white and boring, Obama and Mfume are black and slick and charismatic, and Cardin is in danger of losing black votes to Michael Steele, who similarly is black and slick and charismatic. Putting aside the prepackaged notions in the two stories, there are further problems: (1) the polls don't reflect what the Post is writing, and (2) the idea that black Democratic voters will reject a Democratic candidate simply because he is white and the Republican is more "jive" than the Democratic is insulting and unbelievably racist.

Ben Cardin will almost undoubtedly win this election, but (1) a good man is being tarnished with the smear that he is, in essence, too white to attract black votes, and (2) black voters in Maryland are being condescended to by the Washington Post in its search for a good story. When Cardin wins, opportunists of different stripes will assuredly seize on the memes (that's it, last one) jackhammered by the Washington Post and claim that this election was just one more example of the white man keeping the black man down. And that's a shame -- we, all of us, black and white, deserve better than that from our media institutions.

Final point -- I submit that when the Washington Post and other media outlets do polls that show that voters don't know what Democrats stand for, rather than attacking Democrats, maybe the Post ought to look at its own bullshit coverage like today's and see the direct cause and effect relationship between crappy media coverage and voter understanding. In short, if the media would actually focus on the issues, maybe voters would be aware of them. As things stand now, all that voters got from Ann Marimow and David Montgomery today is that Ben Cardin is really white and boring, Barack Obama is better looking and more physically fit, and black voters are going to vote for a black guy because he's slicker and cooler than the boring white guy. Memo to the Post: garbage in, garbage out. Is that so hard to understand? If you write about the issues, voters might learn about them – if you write about shit, that’s what the voters will learn. Once upon a time, journalists understood this – today, they’re too busy applying makeup for their next appearance on CNN. Therein lies the problem. It's not a conspiracy, but it is a problem, and we need to start thinking about solutions.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mdman said...

I have also been mystified by the media's discussion of how competitive Steele is. In my mind, he is almost a nonentity, a cynical attempt by Ehrlich to seem more mainstream than he is.

I worked for Cardin in the primary because of his thoughtful, principaled stands on many issues and his long career in Maryland politics. I liked Mfume, too, but I just didn't think he had the experience and depth that Cardin has. I also bought the Post line that Cardin was boring. I heard him on the WAMU show that featured both him and Mfume, and I thought that he was terrific. I also saw him at the Montgomery Democratic women's post primary party and he gave a great speech. I would have bought the Post line had I not heard Cardin myself.

9/28/2006 10:21:00 PM  
Blogger OnBackground said...

"And what, pray tell, does age, size, fitness or "pinkness" (apparently, an updated substitute for honky-ass whitebread cracker in Post-speak) have to do with, well, ANYTHING?"

Youch! True. Good point. Maybe this should be sent to the Post as a letter (albeit without words like honky-ass and a bit shorter).

Interesting.

9/29/2006 03:02:00 PM  
Blogger Terry in Silver Spring said...

The Post's coverage of Maryland politics, by and large, has frustrated me for years. It's as if their editorial board (and quite a few of their writers) are all Virginians who are afraid to cross the river.

9/29/2006 09:49:00 PM  

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