Modern Punditry: Analysis Of Style Not Substance

How is President Obama doing? On this page, we try to look at the substance of what he is doing and whether he is taking steps to achieve policies we deem effective. Hence, we applauded his executive orders on Gitmo and torture, stem cell research, the signing of the Lily Ledbetter Act, the S-CHIP bill and similar actions that forwarded policies we think are good policy. We criticized actions we believe forwarded bad policy, most recently the Obama Administration's embrace of the Bush expansive view of the state secrets privilege. We have spent a good deal of time on the stimulus issue. Today in the WaPo, Ruth Marcus provides a prime example of how the Beltway pundits discuss issues - style over substance:

[T]here were problems with the rollout of his stimulus package. The administration ceded too much control over the contents to House Democrats, although it was nowhere near as hands-off as it has been portrayed. It was entirely foreseeable that Republicans would cherry-pick individual elements for ridicule; the administration excised some of them but failed to do enough to anticipate the outsized problems that remaining items would cause. The president, until he rebooted this week with travel and a prime-time news conference, lost control of the message to Republicans, who were only too happy to seize it.

The rollout? The message? But what of the SUBSTANCE of the policy? This is the lens that treats the absurd and irrational actions of the Beltway "bipartisan" BSers in the Senate (Nelson, Collins, Specter, Snowe, McCaskill, etc.) as a good thing. It is unthinking and frankly, counterproductive, punditry. But it is the way of the DC Gasbag.

And it comes from all angles. At the Daily Howler, Bob Somerby has been harping on this issue as well:

In this passage, Herbert engages in a great deal of invective about Corker’s “pointless” obstruction and lack of a brain. But he fails to describe the detailed complaint Corker made in that CNN appearance; instead, he says how offended he is by the rude man’s choice of words (in this case, by the word “disaster”). But: Was there any merit to Corker long, detailed objection? Did his objection make any sense? We don’t have the slightest idea—in part, because we waste our time reading hacks like Herbert. It’s amazingly easy to write columns like this—columns which make little attempt to address the merits of any issue, which simply name-call opponents instead. But here’s our question to you, dear readers: Do you know what Corker actually said? We do, because we saw him on CNN. But Herbert’s readers don’t know what he said, and never will—and they’ll get no help f[rom] Herbert when it come to understanding the merits. If Corker’s presentation was wrong or patently ludicrous, that would be important news—the kind of news that might affect the judgments of voters. But Herbert was too lazy to research and offer such work. Instead, he complained that Corker had said the word “disaster”—and he told you that this conduct made him a very bad man.

This comes from all spectrums. The right will name call the left. The left will name call the right. The "center" will name call the left and the right. It has always been revealing that Paul Krugman was deemed the Shrill One - in that of all the pundits working from Establishment Media, for 8 years he has been the only one who actually discussed the substance of policy. To be shrill is to actually discuss --- and criticize -- based on the actual substance of policy. It is something the Beltway pundits are simply incapable of doing.

Speaking for me only

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    On Monday (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Steve M on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 07:49:23 AM EST
    after Obama's press conference, I watched Chuck Todd reporting on MSNBC.  He said that it had been a good day for the White House, but you got the feeling they all wished they had done this a week previously and not lost control of the narrative.

    It wasn't clear whether this was an actual sentiment being expressed to him by administration officials, or whether he was simply projecting his own perspective onto the administration.  He was clearly trying to imply the former, but experience teaches me the latter is more likely true.

    Not a word about substance, of course, which is the point.  An hour-long press conference from the new President, but apparently there are no matters of policy to talk about, so we have to analyze who is winning the news cycle.

    The news organizations will become more and more irrelevant the longer they fail to realize that people are interested in hearing about how the government's policies will affect their lives, not about whether the Democrats or the Republicans are winning the news cycle in some pundit's opinion.  We show no signs of emerging from the Age of Mark Halperin any time soon.

    There is some merit (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Fabian on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:03:38 AM EST
    to discussing who is winning this news cycle.

    One of the things I learned from the Bush administration is that seizing and maintaining control of the news cycle is a very effective strategy.  Message control, minimizing opposition, pumping up "success" and "progress" - these are all good things not just for elections but for pushing legislation through.

    I thought that Obama had figured that out during the campaign and would be ready to use the same tactics in his administration.  I also thought that the bipartisan schtick was just to appeal to Republican and swing voters.  I didn't think that Obama actually believed it or would give it priority. Silly me.

    But yes, the discussion of the stimulus package has been far less about the merits and more about its success or failure and what that will mean in terms of Obama's success or failure.  Horse race analysis.  It's not just the Media doing this, a lot of blog commentary is about how good Obama looks and not whether this ginormous bill will keep our economy stable.


    The MSM is in ... (none / 0) (#28)
    by Robot Porter on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 01:31:47 PM EST
    the entertainment industry.

    Is it any wonder they report on politics like it's a soap opera?


    It's all been reduced to the simple metric (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by Anne on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:46:48 AM EST
    of winning or losing, because it takes less time to measure that than it does to examine what it is that's being fought over and what the stakes are.  The people who bring us "the news" or who opine about it in the op-ed pages would have to actually know and understand the details, and would have to be able to explain it, if we were truly to focus on substance and make informed decisions.

    The media are the gatekeepers - they decide what is news, how they are going to package the news, how much opinion will masquerade as fact - and people are programmed to believe that if they hear it "on the news" it must be true.  And then there are all the shows that are nothing but opinion, where bits and pieces are shaped and sound-bited, and again - are relied upon by the people who think it's all true, and the perspective is spot-on.

    Last night, Brian Williams' lead-in to his story about the economy began with him saying something along the lines of, "today was supposed to be the day the President could take a victory lap.  The Senate passed the economic stimulus bill, and his Treasury Secretary rolled out the next phase of the bailout.  Instead, the news landed on Wall Street with a resounding thud, the markets went into free fall and the victory lap turned into a 2 x 4 to the back of the president's head."

    Translation:  tonight's theme is that the president lost the day.  Williams did a lengthy, but rather superficial, interview of Geithner, and that was followed by a newsroom conversation with Steve Leisman of CNBC, who pretty much eviscerated the Geithner roll-out.  There may be truth to the idea that in these unstable times, details could have helped calm the markets, but - if Wall Street hadn't liked the details, they're selling off anyway.  

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't, and damn the media for making those the only choices.

    Part of the balme (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by jbindc on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:08:50 AM EST
    Doesn't part of the blame belong with the Obama team? "Journalists" at MSM outlets are nowhere to be found these days, but through the whole campaign, Obama was sold as a product, and that product was based on who was "cooler" and the bigger celebrity.  It was an effective campaign, but it didn't translate into substance of what he would do to govern.

    I was thinking about this as I walked into work - ads everywhere on bus stops, on signs, and on buses.  Pepsi, Coke, McDonald's  - everyone has adopted Obama's logo and theme "change" and "hope" are actually used in their ads.  And then on a local morning radio show, during their "celebrity gossip" segment, they were talking about rumors heard that Michelle Obama wants to have another baby - in the same segment as talking about John Mayer and Jennifer Aniston!

    Add these to the disgraceful low level of actual journalism, and it's no wonder that everyone is focused on style over substance!

    The media makes its own reality. (5.00 / 3) (#13)
    by LarryInNYC on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:22:34 AM EST
    You've put your finger on an important issue.  But it's not so much that the media reports style over substance, but that style has become substance.  By that I mean that the policy that gets effectuated will be largely decided not through reasoned debate of the policy issues themselves, but by who "wins" the "style debate" -- that is, which side out-politics the other.

    Think about it.  The most important government decisions for decades -- concerning the economic depression -- will never be considered in the light of the actual policies proposed.

    To some extent this happens simply because the media has devolved to the point where that's all they cover.  Since they control the public debate then ipso facto the debate is about what they care to talk about.

    But that's not the only reason the debate is debased in this way.  "Team politics" shares the blame.  For instance, look at the participants (not the editors, for the most part, but some of them too) at a place like Daily Kos (or Talking Points Memo since the onset of the primaries).  It's completely clear that on consideration of some policy issue, people immediately try to place it in a political context and base their opinion of the policy on the politics.  Obama's for it and Clinton against?  Then I'm for it!  Obama's against it?  I'm against it!  Krugman is for it?  Me too!

    Talk Left is the exception rather than the rule in following an "issues first" philosophy.  And, let's face it, we're a smaller band here than at places that take the other approach.

    Certainly true (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:34:45 AM EST
    An example from MYDD:

    "The Obama Administration tonight stands on the precipice of completing one of its Herculean tasks, passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and we can debate whether it is sufficient from here to eternity but the truth is that we have a "systemic" crisis that requires our full attention."

    One of the most pathetic statements I have ever read.


    For the last time. . . (none / 0) (#21)
    by LarryInNYC on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:33:20 AM EST
    PLEASE READ THE COMMENT before responding.  See especially the last paragraph.  Thank you.

    That's Talex dude (5.00 / 2) (#22)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:44:41 AM EST
    No need to respond.

    Thanks. . . (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by LarryInNYC on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 11:07:16 AM EST
    Will do.

    Hold on, though. (5.00 / 0) (#15)
    by dk on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:43:19 AM EST
    You write of the the media's style obsession:

    This is the lens that treats the absurd and irrational actions of the Beltway "bipartisan" BSers in the Senate (Nelson, Collins, Specter, Snowe, McCaskill, etc.) as a good thing.

    But, to get back to the substance for the moment, isn't the problem that Obama's original proposal was closer to the Nelson/Collins plan to any kind of "progressive" plan that would actually be enough to save us from the mess we're in?  Sure, the subsequent Nelson/Collins edits made a bad plan worse, but wasn't it Rahm who put pressure on senate negotiators to accept them?

    I'm all for criticizing the media; we all know it is deserved.  But in this case, even if the media had done its job, I'm not sure how it would have helped.  The substantive problem seems to be that Obama is a "belway bipartisan BSer", no?

    Obama wanted it to pass (none / 0) (#24)
    by ai002h on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:57:04 AM EST
    Apparently they're going to be pushing for some of the cuts to get restored during conference. The thinking is probably that its harder to vote against a bill the 2nd time, once you voted for it the first time.

    I'm not buying the (5.00 / 1) (#26)
    by dk on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 11:02:19 AM EST
    11 dimensional chess argument.  Obama put forward a bad bill; sometimes the simplest explanations are the right ones.

    It it the world of (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by Jjc2008 on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:51:33 AM EST
    Max Headroom.  From the celebrity stuff to the reality shows, it is what it is.   For those of you unfamiliar, Max Headroom was a scifi show from the 80s.   I felt it was an underrated precautionary tale. I heard it was based on a British show.

    Anyway the premise was the government and the media were essentially one and the same.  Channel One controlled all things and spun and spun and set the groups of people against each other.  Max was a "talking head" literally, created from a real journalist who hit his head in a motorcycle accident.  The last thing he remembered before hitting his head were the words on an overpass "max headroom."  If you want to know more just go to Wikipedia or google "max headroom".

    I remember watching it during the Reagan administration and getting frightened because it all seemed so real....so able to come true.  
    And honestly during much of the W administration I felt we had gotten  to the "20 minutes into the future."

    The media controls the message.  For the first time in a while I caught some of Mika and Joe on MSNBC.  WOW. What spin......

    The Obama team has to do better in controlling their message.  The media is into the same old, same old.  And the so called liberal media is just as bad as the right wing.  
    Voters need to get themselves unaddicted to the tube, to celebrity and to spin.  We the people need to hold politicians and corporations accountable.  The media is a part of them ..they want to keep the status quo.  Few of them care about the people because the media is a part of the ruling class.

    Style vs. Substance (none / 0) (#3)
    by Coral on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:40:26 AM EST
    I agree that the mainstream media focus on style is unbalanced, leaving out important points of substance. You can see that the public is hungry for substance in the difference between questions from ordinary people at the Indiana and Florida town halls vs. the media questions at Obama's prime time press conference.

    However, for the president -- and progressive Democrats, style does translate into substance. If he can't win the style battle, he won't be able to push his program through. Or he will lose essential aspects of it, as in the Senate version of the stimulus package.

    There Is NO "Substance" (5.00 / 0) (#6)
    by tokin librul on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:54:03 AM EST
    Everything is appearance.

    If Obama "wins" or "loses," it will be on the basis of hbow well he controls appearances...


    There is NO "reality" separate... (none / 0) (#5)
    by tokin librul on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:51:47 AM EST
    ...from its portrayal, its representation. This is a mediated culture.

    Wholly, entirely, totally, irreversibly "Mediated."

    If it's not in the media, it didn't happen, doesn't matter, is ignored or forgotten.

    Everything, every idea, every word, every breath we take is mediated. Nothing escapes.

    There is no direct experience of the subjects on which the pundits expound, only mediated appearances.

    The media are the tools of corporate interests, entirely. In the Corporate State, corporate media are STATE Media.

    Every word, every image that is presented to us by the Corporat State is always already propaganda. The State cannot communicate 'truth.' "Truth" is incompatible with the governance of the modern State. This was demonstrated quite convincingly in the 1960s by the French social philosopher, Jacques Ellul, in his monumental study, "Propagandas; The Formation of Men's Attitudes.">

    It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment. Mass media provides the essential link between the individual and the demands of the technological society. (1964, p. 22)

    Semiotics in journalism (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 08:56:30 AM EST
    Has Ruth Marcus ever written anything worthwhile? (none / 0) (#8)
    by andgarden on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:05:14 AM EST

    A few times (none / 0) (#9)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:06:01 AM EST
    But not often.

    Elitists (none / 0) (#11)
    by mmc9431 on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:09:51 AM EST
    All throughout DC, there's an elitist attitude. It's prevailant in both the media and our elected officials. (Listen to McCaskill's comments on stimulus).

    In their great wisdom, they feel any in depth discussion on substance will just go over our puny heads. We wouldn't understand the details anyway, so why clutter up the issue with facts.

    The Congress is filled with people (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by andgarden on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 09:17:09 AM EST
    who spend all day and night thinking and talking about substance. But very few of them have time to talk about it with Ruth Marcus and friends.

    And not every politician can be like Bill Clinton and turn a speech into an interesting policy parade.


    Well, what's new? Style over substance has been (none / 0) (#17)
    by masslib on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:08:18 AM EST
    the method of reporting since at least the Gore campaign.  

    :) I think it was started by (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by Inspector Gadget on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:53:28 AM EST
    Barbara Walters. Those big ratings she would get for being able to bring world leaders to tears were simply too much for MSM to ignore.

    Began in earnest with Kennedy/Nixon (none / 0) (#30)
    by tokin librul on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 01:48:10 PM EST
    though you can see it developing all the way from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of "mass" communications.

    And don't (none / 0) (#18)
    by SOS on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 10:15:47 AM EST
    forget "mental pollution" from excessive media exposure.

    Perhaps (none / 0) (#31)
    by squeaky on Wed Feb 11, 2009 at 03:24:29 PM EST
    Many would be unable define the term, but I would argue that if Bush could so easily understand the principals of semiotics and use them, it is more mainstream than you imagine.