By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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A horrifying and important piece of journalism


Talking local news today on WGBH Radio


  1. Stephen Stein

    I would nominate the incomparable Bob Somerby as today’s Thompson. But did anything Hunter Thompson wrote have any salutary influence on the state of campaign journalism?

    Ditto Somerby, who’s been beating on our political discourse since the War on Gore, which seems a quintessentially Quixotic quest.

  2. BP Myers

    Our Hunter Thompson writes a blog for Esquire.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: Charlie’s great. @Stephen: I like Somerby’s work, but hasn’t his influence waned quite a bit over the past 10 years? Seems that way to me, anyway. I should give him another look.

  3. Paul Bass

    “Somnolent stint.” Whoa! Don’t know if he’ll be able to show his face again in public now … Great piece. Right on the money.

    And to be fair, this front-page Saturday story is why the NYT is still better than anyone else:

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Paul: Yes, that was a terrific story. The Times is our one essential news source, which is why it’s worth criticizing when it deserves it.

  4. I think Dowd’s reference to Romney’s “shiny white family” was not racial but referring to them as “squeaky clean.” (After all, they stayed squeaky clean by keeping themselves out of the wars they all support.)

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Scott: The Obamas are squeaky clean. Do you think she would have called them a “shiny white family”?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Scott: Or let me put it this way. I can see writing “shiny white family” and not thinking of race. I cannot see re-reading it and turning it in to an editor without it having dawned on me that it could be taken as racial language. I also can’t see an editor letting it go.

  5. Dan, so what if it could have been construed or misconstrued as a racial comment? You can’t see an editor “letting it go”?
    The phrase, “shiny white family”? Of course an editor should keep that as it is, and if it was meant by the writer to have a racial reference, then it’s better to just let it all out in the open and let the readers make their own judgments of the writer. (Oh, someone might be offended! Jeepers, we can’t have that!)

    And if Dowd were describing the Obamas similarly, she would have described them as “articulate and bright and clean.” (Wait, someone else did that already.)

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Scott: If Dowd gets raked over as much as Biden did, I’d be very surprised

  6. Stephen Stein

    @Dan – I don’t know if Somerby has ever been as influential as he should be. And I heartily second @BP’s nomination of Pierce, who has a bigger platform.

  7. Matthew Peter Donoghue

    In response to your rather rueful question, I’d say that Bay State native Matt Taibbi is a fairly worthy successor to the sort of probing, trenchant and witty political journalism practiced by the inimitable, perhaps irreplaceable Hunter S. Thompson. He is coming into his own, apparently without benefit of Wild Turkey, Jack Daniel’s, acid, LSD and ‘shrooms.

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