Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Wailing echoes down the corridors

By Jonathan Bernstein

I was going to leave Conor Friedersdorf's column about coverage of Rand Paul alone, until I got to this bit:

[T]he media seem to reflexively treat some ideas and candidates less seriously than others for no legitimate, objective reason. Third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot was called a disparaging name so often that he tried to defuse the situation with humor by dancing in public to Patsy Cline's rendition of the song "Crazy."

Friedersdorf's main point is that libertarians and others with, er, unusual political views -- perhaps including Rand Paul -- are treated unfairly by the national press.

I like Friedersdorf a lot, but his example is such a bad one that it undermines his argument. Let's see ... Ross Perot, during the 1992 campaign, suddenly dropped out and later claimed that he did so "after hearing that President Bush's campaign was scheming to smear his daughter with a computer-altered photograph and to disrupt her wedding." He "accused [a] C.I.A. employee of being hired to tap into his computerized stock trading program to prevent him from having the money to revive his campaign." In both cases, he offered no evidence at all. I don't have any other easily available evidence, other than that same NYT story's claim that he believed left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories, and for what it's worth my own memory that he often said things that were bizarrely untrue. And so he was called crazy -- not for his policy positions (in fact, Washington reporters loved his policy positions, to the extent he had any), but for his behavior and for factual claims at odds with reality.

Which it seems to me was a good thing. In my opinion, Ross Perot was taken if anything far too seriously by the national media in 1992 and 1996. As far as I can see, it's not at all a bad idea if the media uses a conspiracy theory test to label candidates as a little bit on the loony side. I'm not sure whether Van Jones got a raw deal or not, but I'm not unhappy that a clear signal was sent that if you dabble in trutherism, you aren't going to work in any presidential administration. It doesn't bother me at all that Republicans who either out of conviction or, more likely, pandering flirt with the birthers are going to be called out for it. If words like "crazy" get applied, well, I think that's fine. I'm suppose that Rand Paul's superhighway (which Friedersdorfer mentions in his piece isn't quite at the birther/truther level), but it's good enough for me.

I'd also like to disentangle the slurs that bother Friedersdorf. Extreme is different than crazy. I would agree with him that candidates should not be called crazy because they support unusual public policy proposals; that should be reserved for bizarre behavior, conspiracy theories and the like. For candidates who embrace highly unusual preferences in public policy, however, reporters and other observers do need a vocabulary. The problem is all in the connotations and consistency. If those on one side of the political spectrum are "extreme" while those on the other are "innovative," well, that's a problem. But it's part of the press's job to point out that a candidate holds positions shared by few others -- and I think "mainstream" is a fine word for those policies that are widely held. Friedersdorf is quite correct that many mainstream policies may well be poor ones, even (in some sense) irrational ones. I do not think it is irrational, however, for a candidate to support even incredibly foolish policies that are widely supported at the elite and mass levels. That's just politics. And those candidates who support unusual positions fairly bear the burden of having it pointed out just how unusual those positions are. By the way, there is some compensation; such candidates also often get tagged "principled," a word that most people believe has positive connotations and that is rarely if ever applied to mainstream pols. I suspect that Sen. Tom Coburn has been called both extreme and principled, while I doubt that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's honest and consistent support for his party has been called principled by very many people.

So: I don't see anything wrong with calling Rand Paul's positions on the issues -- at least, some of the positions he's held on some issues -- extreme, and pending more evidence (just how many mythical superhighways does he believe in?) I'm not sure I have a problem if he's called crazy. I don't have a problem with calling Cynthia McKinney both crazy and extreme, with Ross Perot being called crazy, or with any birther being called crazy. Sure, it's a bit of hyperbole, but candidates for public office should keep to a high standard when it comes to the truth -- and should be able to handle a little hyperbole.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter here.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 27, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
 
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Carbon pricing and jobs
Next: Here comes impeachment

Comments

Part of the problem is that words like "extreme" are used so often in such a cavalier manner that they lose their signficance. In such a partisan atmosphere, everyone seems to call everyone "extreme."

Posted by: jduptonma | May 27, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

"In my opinion, Ross Perot was taken if anything far too seriously by the national media in 1992 and 1996."

Yes. Yes, he was. But there was a partisan--as well as ratings--reason to take him seriously. He forced George H. W. Bush to fight a war on two fronts, helping the favored candidate--Bill Clinton--win the Whitehouse. There was no hand-wringing about how his candidacy might threaten Democracy, the way the MSM worried about Ralph Nader spoiling the campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry.

But Ross Perot was quite a personality, and that made him an attractive interview. And it's easy to say he was taken too seriously by the national media (who had, let's be fair, an incentive to cover anyone who was going to hurt Bush's chances for re-election), but one should keep in mind that one of his biggest moments came when he bought an hour of prime-time television and broke out the charts. He bought himself a great deal of media exposure.

Frankly, it's hard to argue to coverage of Rand Paul is unfair. Either Rand is woefully ignorant of how the press is going to react to ideologically pure libertarianism, or he just doesn't care. But he has very bad answers to very simple questions. He's not getting treated poorly, he's getting exactly what he asked for. Then bailing on Meet the Press? Please. His subscription to the Amero and NAFTA superhighway theories aren't quite trutherism, but seem to me a bit further on than birtherism, in terms of general whackiness.

If "extreme" is the wrong word for Rand's policy ideas, then "begging for a complete explanation" or "counterintuitive" or "no, seriously?" might be alternatives.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

A smart, savvy citizenry can help. Back when Bush announced that the government was tapping only calls placed using "Arabic numbers", the joke in follow-up was "...so, all of you dialing by Roman numbers are exempt." Not everyone gets the joke.

It's true that "candidates for public office should keep to a high standard when it comes to the truth" and to some extent the same applies to candidates once elected, but once elected there is little recourse against those who are less-than-honest. The PPACA is a perfect example, where we now know beyond all doubt that proponents of the legislation knowingly and deliberately lied regarding its cost: now knowing that the cost of the PPACA is high and its benefits are low doesn't undo its long-term damage.

Also from Wonkbook, the Kelly Evans report citing the "generosity of jobless benefits" as a cause of joblessness and the Dan Danner and Alec MacGillis reports regarding growing concerns over the rapidly expanding cost of the PPACA together give every citizen a better shot at challenging dishonesty in government.

Posted by: rmgregory | May 27, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

@jduptonma: I find your extreme comments on this issue extremely extreme. To the max!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

@mrgregory: "The PPACA is a perfect example, where we now know beyond all doubt that proponents of the legislation knowingly and deliberately lied regarding its cost: now knowing that the cost of the PPACA is high and its benefits are low doesn't undo its long-term damage."

Do we really know that? Isn't it a little early to even say that it's cost are going to be out of control (I mean, other than the historic fact that everything like it has also been way more expensive than predicted). But "lied"?

I think the great majority of them either really believe they are so smart and so good that their legislation will bend reality, sort of like Keanu Reeves re-writing the rules of the Matrix, or don't think of it as lying. That is, the end results are going to be so great for everybody, what's wrong with a little spin? It's not lying, really. It's just marketing.

BTW, while I expect HCR to turn out to be crazy expensive compared to what I consider "extremely" optimistic predictions of savings (hah!), there's only conflicting predictions right now, right? Real numbers, and full implementation, isn't going to happen for several years yet.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 27, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

The national press does tend to be more deferential towards established political players. A guy like Gingrich, for example, throws around some really crazy ideas today even post-disgraceful exit, and he is rarely called out on it by his interviewers.

However, my sense is that Friedersdorf might be judging "fairness" based on the outcome and not the process.

e.g.

A1. if people knew and understood Paul's beliefs his views wouldn't seem extreme and crazy.

A2. if people think his views are extreme and crazy, he must have been treated unfairly.

Omitted from the list of choices is the possibility that Paul does hold genuinely extreme and crazy views.

Posted by: JPRS | May 27, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

"[T]he media seem to reflexively treat some ideas and candidates less seriously than others for no legitimate, objective reason."

Now, let me say one name: Al Gore

OK, there you have it, the media also seem to reflexively treat some ideas and candidates less seriously than others for very calculated and partisan reasons.

Rand Paul is a cracker and a wingnut who wasn't ready to be put in front of a camera. Sarah Palin is in the same boat and was treated very seriously until it just got too painful for the actual media to think so.

Posted by: Jaycal | May 27, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Criticizing a third-party type for not accepting one of two dominant viewpoints seems redundant, and rather silly.

I don't share his views, but what is happening to Rand Paul is sad. For better or worse, the people of Kentucky deliberately selected someone outside of the mainstream. The media are beating him into submission, forcing him to conform to the mainstream views that Kentucky voters rejected. Third-party types have enough obstacles as it is.

(And since when does "reporter" include those who exclusively write editorials?)

Posted by: inkfinger1 | May 27, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis,

"Frankly, it's hard to argue to coverage of Rand Paul is unfair. Either Rand is woefully ignorant of how the press is going to react to ideologically pure libertarianism, or he just doesn't care. But he has very bad answers to very simple questions. He's not getting treated poorly, he's getting exactly what he asked for."

Yet your hero, second-coming-of-Margaret-Thatcher Sarah Palin (the undisputed champion of "very bad answers to very simple questions") enthusiastically endorsed Rand Paul, as well as the laughing stock Vaughn Ward.

Imagine the sort of cabinet that President Palin would put together....

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

The media has a bias in aggregate, no doubt, but it doesn't flow all the same direction. I can remember well how many character pieces they ran disparaging Gore. As if him being a competent yet boring person has any negative bearing on his capacity to be President.

I think if it weren't for the media consistently pushing for Bush, Bush never would have made it close enough that the court could hand him the election.

Posted by: zosima | May 27, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I just learned for the first time tonight the full measure of extreme craziness of the conspiracy theory to which that Rand Paul subscribes.

For anyone else who has not yet dipped their toe into the NAFTA Superhighway hallucination, happy reading:

http://live.thenation.com/doc/20070827/hayes

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 28, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

Jonathan Bernstein doesn't even live up to the standards of the Post comments section in terms of refraining from personal attacks. Wanting a smaller government isn't radical. Maybe if people take extreme views, it forces a compromise. That's the only explanation I can think of for socialists like Bernstein wishing economic ruin upon themselves. Bernstein is so out there, he doesn't even accept that an incredibly successful businessman like Perot is vastly more suited to having people listen to him than Bernstein is. What a nut.

Posted by: staticvars | June 2, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company