Hacks and Flacks

Having blogged for some time now, I understand that there are partisan divisions in the political blogosphere, and I understand as well that they are here to stay. That having been written, it is worth noting–as James Oliphant notes–that port-side bloggers are acting as publicity agents, apologists and all-around hacks on behalf of the Obama administration to a degree not seen before. Certainly, the administration of George W. Bush never benefited from the presence of a similar cyber-praetorian guard acting to advance its interests.

Read the following excerpt well, and note that there are a host of “journalists” who act more like one would expect paid White House staffers to behave. And boy, do they get the benefits that come with toeing the line:

When Jay Carney was grilled at length by Jonathan Karl of ABC News over an email outlining administration talking points in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attack, it was not, by the reckoning of many observers, the White House press secretary’s finest hour. Carney was alternately defensive and dismissive, arguably fueling a bonfire he was trying to tamp down.

But Carney needn’t have worried. He had plenty of backup.

He had The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler dismissing Benghazi as “nonsense.” He had Slate‘s David Weigel, along with The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, debunking any claim that the new email was a “smoking gun.” Media Matters for America labeled Benghazi a “hoax.” Salon wrote that the GOP had a “demented Benghazi disease.” Daily Kos featured the headline: “Here’s Why the GOP Is Fired Up About Benghazi—and Here’s Why They’re Wrong.” The Huffington Post offered “Three Reasons Why Reviving Benghazi Is Stupid—for the GOP.”

It’s been a familiar pattern since President Obama took office in 2009: When critics attack, the White House can count on a posse of progressive writers to ride to its rescue. Pick an issue, from the Affordable Care Act to Ukraine to the economy to controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and Benghazi, and you’ll find the same voices again and again, on the Web and on Twitter, giving the president cover while savaging the opposition. And typically doing it with sharper tongues and tighter arguments than the White House itself.

While the bond between presidential administrations and friendly opinion-shapers goes back as far as the nation itself, no White House has ever enjoyed the luxury that this one has, in which its arguments and talking points can be advanced on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis. No longer must it await the evening news or the morning op-ed page to witness the fruits of its messaging efforts.

Credit the explosion of social media, the fragmentation of news, the erosion of the institutional press. Fortuitously for the president, the modern media landscape not only provides ample space for the expression of pure partisanship, it actively encourages it. Backing your friends and belittling your enemies is a healthy business model, one rewarded by a torrent of clicks, retweets, “likes,” and links. “The incentives are to play ball,” says one former liberal blogger, “not to speak truth to power. More clicks. More action. Partisanship drives clicks.”

[. . .]

The new landscape has allowed the White House communications shop do what it does best: Figure out new ways to bypass the mainstream media. It holds off-the-record briefings, sometimes with Obama in the room, for select progressive bloggers from outlets such as TPM and ThinkProgress. (More than once, a National Journal reporter who previously worked at a liberal outlet has been invited as well.)

[. . .]

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Yes, the story does note that the Obama administration has certain favorite conservatives to which it likes to afford special treatment and access, but that ought to come as a surprise to no one–you always want to find out what the other side is thinking–and those conservatives are the exception, not the rule. The rule is to “play ball,” as opposed to “speak[ing] truth to power,” and if one does not do so, one gets frozen out. And of course, the “posse of progressive writers” that serve the administration loyally, faithfully and hackishly, only work to bring about massive amounts of epistemic closure on the port side, by reassuring readers that everything is as the Obama administration says that it is, and that thinking outside the port-side intellectual cocoon is a useless and futile exercise. (Of course, you remember what “epistemic closure” is, dear readers; it is that thing that liberals believe only conservatives and right-of-center libertarians suffer from.)

What is truly amazing–and scary–is that traditional news outlets help encourage this kind of nonsense. Ezra Klein got rewarded–not punished, rewarded–by the Washington Post for parroting the White House line; as long as he brought in the clicks, the Post had no problem whatsoever with the fact that Klein was using its space and getting paid Washington Post money to essentially act as a de facto White House press secretary. Yes, I understand the economics behind the situation; the Post benefited from the traffic both in terms of eyeballs and dollars attracted, but at no time did anyone in the Post ever think to say to him/herself “you know, is Ezra Klein being all that accurate when he regularly describes the Obama administration as being the best thing to happen to the planet since sliced bread? Maybe we ought to challenge him every once in a while.” And if someone at the Post did think to ask/say such a thing to him/herself, it wasn’t often, and it hardly changed Klein’s editorial line. To be sure, the old media model was dying, and it isn’t coming back. But no one ever asked for once-(relatively and ostensibly) neutral news organizations to go fully and completely in the tank for a particular White House. We didn’t sign up for the current sorry state of affairs.

Is it possible that a future Republican administration may find itself being defended and may find its causes being advanced by conservative and right-of-center libertarian bloggers who act in concert to the degree that liberal bloggers currently do for the Obama administration? Possibly, but until the Washington Post funds a right-of-center version of Wonkblog, and the New York Times gives blog and editorial space to someone who is allowed to be as argumentative and hyperpartisan as Paul Krugman is, we should not think that what is currently good for the liberal goose will be allowed to also be good for the conservative/libertarian gander.

Incidentally, you haven’t forgotten this blog post, have you?