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Posted at 4:46 PM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Reporters aren't the only ones who like to gossip

By Ezra Klein


This is a very good post by Brad DeLong on the substance of the debates between Peter Orszag and others in the Obama administration. I'm a bit more sympathetic to Orszag's position than Brad is, primarily because I think the administration essentially allowed the Republicans to define "deficit reduction " as "spending cuts," and that's going to have some bad consequences over the next few years. But you should read it rather than having me summarize it.

But I'd add one caveat to DeLong's complaint that much of the reporting on the administration's internal disputes "reads like Hollywood celebrity journalism: 95 percent gossip, and perhaps 5 percent policy." There's a tendency to blame reporters for the stories they tell, and I'm not arguing with it. Ultimate responsibility lies with us. And for my part, I stay away from doing tick-tocks of meetings and arguments unless I think there are serious implications for policy. But these sorts of gossipy, "so-and-so did such-and-such at this-or-that meeting" stories are often an honest reflection of what you get when you talk to the people who were in the meetings. Sometimes, it's actually difficult to get to the meat of the dispute because people are so much more interested in how the dispute was handled.

I guess that's natural. The people working in politics are human and they're ticked off by how they were treated, or by the way their boss spoke about them, or by something they heard someone else said about them, or by a meeting they weren't called into. Think about your job, which probably involves issues that are more important than office politics. Now think about how often you complain to your friends or spouse about office politics. It happens in the White House and Congress, too. That's not to say reporters don't spend too much time on it, or that they shouldn't toss a lot of that stuff out and tell the story lurking behind the anecdotes. But before coming to DC, I operated from the mental model that political actors were always begging reporters to cover the substance and reporters were always ignoring them and covering quarrels. To a degree I find disappointing, that's not really true.

I guess the more positive spin on all this is that it's important for administrations to be well managed and thus these stories actually do get at something important, which is that management has broken down and the White House is functioning poorly. That probably does have consequences for policy, though I think the consequences are often overstated by the people involved. If the administration's economic policy process had been 30 percent more collegial and professional, would our economic policy be any different today? I'm skeptical.

Photo credit: White House.

By Ezra Klein  | February 9, 2011; 4:46 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Next: What happens to the unemployed, in one graph


Oh, come on. Isn't a good reporter supposed to be able to get the people he covers to talk about substance?

Posted by: randrewm | February 9, 2011 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I don't get how Peter Orszag gossiping about the White House economic team ends up meaning "that management has broken down and the White House is functioning poorly." The reporter ends up getting one side of the story, and this is the conclusion you've drawn Ezra? Maybe Orszag's the one who doesn't have his act together and in typical Washington fashion is planting a CYA story (the only thing bureaucrats relly excel at).

Posted by: nickthap | February 9, 2011 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Gosh, in the macro term how much of the stimulus was "really" about jobs anyway. Look at the HHS portion which was considerable...lots was a downpayment of health care reform infrastructure, not so much jobs, much was about helping states with social service programs funding, not much about jobs could go on.

As for Mr. Orstag, well his personal life is one of gossip and the personal does wash over ones public life...lets ask ourselves, why should someone who has a personal life that brings a Hollywood gossip columnist joy and for who the "Post" Style section seemed to think DC needed so it was not such a grey suited world and then just ups and leaves such a mess deserve some sort of intellecutal free-pass.

These were not bureaucrats but big egos surrounding Mensa brains who wanted to elbow each other out...and control the playground.

Sham on them, the rest of us suffer.

Posted by: nibbler | February 10, 2011 8:55 AM | Report abuse

But other news doesn't get covered this way, whether local politics or architecture reviews. Sure, if there's something actually juicy - an affair, or a big blowup between longtime allies - then that will get covered, but a story about privatizing the public parking authority will actually talk about the implications to the public and to the city finances, and a story about a new skyscraper will talk about what the building will look like and whether anyone wants to stop it being built.

There may be far too much he said/she said, because that's how reporting works these days, but the stories aren't about how the mayor's one aide favored one plan, while the other aide favored another, and this opens up an opportunity for the head of council to make a campaign issue of it, blah blah. Nor will the stories be about how one designer wanted a pointy top, while another wanted a dome, but because the head of the firm went to college with the former designer, a pointy top it is. People would find such reporting insane, because when it comes to local issues, there's no disguising the public's interest in the topic. But when it comes to national politics, it's apparently fine to utterly obscure the actual impact that these debates have on peoples' live because... well, I have a number of theories, none of which justify any of these reporters keeping their jobs.

Posted by: JRoth_ | February 10, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

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