How Beto O’Rourke quickly lost his status as the media’s favorite slacker

Beto O’Rourke. Photo (cc) 2018 by Steve Standeford

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Betomania had somehow eluded me. And so when I set out to write about how the media have reacted to the launch of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, my first plan was to criticize the elevation of yet another celebrity candidate over his more substantive but less magnetic rivals.

That’s not how it’s worked out. Yes, there was the 8,800-word Vanity Fair profile by Joe Hagan, accompanied by an Annie Leibovitz cover shot of O’Rourke standing by what I assume is his pick-up truck, with archetypal dirt road, hills, and dog in the background. But that proved to be an exception.

“It is a well put-together, if unsubtle, piece of propaganda, and it should be read by anyone looking to learn the art of the puff piece,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson at the website of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs. Personally, I didn’t think it was that gushing; certainly it was spritely and readable, but it also included some harsh passages about O’Rourke’s drunken-driving arrest years ago and his alliance with the white Republican power structure during his early days in El Paso politics. But as substantive political pieces go, well, there was a lot about his youth as a punk rocker.

After O’Rourke made his candidacy official last Thursday, though, the tide quickly turned, at least according to my shockingly unscientific survey of media coverage. Yes, his record one-day online fundraising haul of $6.1 million was duly noted. But so was a less-than-woke comment he made about how he sees his role as a father and a husband — a danger zone given that his rivals for the presidency include a number of well-qualified women. Matt Viser of The Washington Post tweeted the details:

That was followed by criticism both serious and silly. On the serious side, Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo called O’Rourke’s rollout “A Bad Day for Beto,” arguing that O’Rourke’s early support has come from centrist elements of the Democratic Party — and that’s not where the energy is. “The Democratic nominee is not going to be the factional candidate of Democratic centrists,” Marshall wrote, adding that O’Rourke had, to his detriment, “made a good start toward becoming that guy.”

Hanna Trudo of National Journal (and, ahem, a former student of mine) offered a similar point on the podcast “Quorum Call,” suggesting that O’Rourke may have a problem running as a moderate during a year when Democrats seem to want someone more progressive. “He’s to the right of nearly every other candidate aside from Biden, I would say,” Trudo said of O’Rourke. “He’s far to the right of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. He’s voted for Republican policies more often than most Democrats running.”

In contrast with Marshall and Trudo, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered a snark-filled update of her dreadful columns referring to Barack Obama as “The One.” And yes, it seems indisputably true that O’Rourke, like Obama, has a healthy ego and a sense of destiny that may or may not be shared by Democratic primary voters. But there’s really no excuse for Dowdian drivel like this: “We have The One again, a New One — another lanky, bookish, handsome man with an attractive young family, a thin résumé, an exotic name, a hip affect, a rock star aura, an enticing smile, a liberal press corps ready to fluff his pillows and a frothing Fox News.” As Charles Pierce of Esquire tweeted, “I was reading this but my laptop floated to the ceiling.”

So what is going on? I think part of it is that candidates never look as good as they do the day before they announce — and that O’Rourke, who was already a political celebrity, was bound to come in for more of a thrashing than a lower-profile politician might. The pundits may also be having second thoughts about O’Rourke’s loss in the Texas Senate race last year to Ted Cruz. No doubt O’Rourke deserves credit for coming within three points in a state where Republicans have a virtual stranglehold. But good grief, Ted Cruz.

And questions about whether O’Rourke is too white, too male, and too moderate for Democrats in 2020 are perfectly legitimate — notwithstanding the reality that Bernie Sanders and the still-unannounced (or should I say semi-unannounced) Joe Biden sit atop the Iowa polls, for whatever that’s worth at this early stage of the campaign.

More than anything, though, O’Rourke’s self-regard puts him in danger of becoming the most easily mockable Democratic candidate, especially since he doesn’t have a concrete issues agenda to fall back on. “I want to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair’s Hagan. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”

I’m just born to be in it. It’s a comment that a number of women have picked up on, and not in a good way. Writing at Vox, Laura McGann called out the double standard of a man making a comment that would be deadly if a woman said it, adding, “Men are rewarded in politics for showing ambition, while women are punished.” McGann is right, except that in 2019 the sense of entitlement in O’Rourke’s remark didn’t seem to make a good impression on anyone.

That old war criminal Henry Kissinger supposedly liked to joke that the infighting in academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. In Campaign 2020, it’s just the opposite: Democrats and other voters in the anti-Trump coalition are so determined to win that every remark, every gesture is being held to an impossibly high level of scrutiny. And the infighting is going to be vicious.

Whether O’Rourke’s toothy, charismatic, hazy-on-the-issues appeal will have staying power is months away from being put to the test. The criticism has already reached the unserious stage, as Fox News is pillorying Reuters for sitting on a story about O’Rourke’s youthful exploits as a computer hacker on the grounds that the reporter was supposedly trying to help him beat Cruz. If nothing else, it’s a sign that if O’Rourke and his supporters were assuming that the media would be on their side, they may be in for an unpleasant encounter with reality.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Advertisements

Jill Abramson, accountability and The New York Times

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Previously published at WGBH News.

My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.

The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)

According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.

To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.

Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”

Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.

But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.

I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.

Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.

And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)

Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)

“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.

I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.

In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.