Asian politics, American politics, press fail: My colleague Marc Ambinder has just published a very astute and important, and in its way very depressing, analysis. It is an assessment of the Washington press corps' reluctance to look outward, to what we might quaintly call the "real" world, as opposed to informing itself purely with its own inside assessments of "narratives" and "perceptions" and "optics."
Yes, all those "perceived" things matter. In the real world, Gerald Ford had been a collegiate all-star football player; in the world of optics, he became a stumblebum, thanks his misstep on an Air Force One stairway and the virtuosity of Chevy Chase's subsequent riffs on SNL. Ford lost by a surprisingly narrow margin to Jimmy Carter in 1976; the bumbler image was part of the reason. I was working for Carter during that campaign, and we exulted in a front-page photo of Ford at a stop in Texas eating a tamale -- corn-husk wrapper and all, which fit the bumbler theme.
Perceptions have always been part of political life, and always will be. But the purpose of the press is supposed to be giving reality a better chance. And as Marc Ambinder demonstrates, this past two-week episode of Obama-in-Asia represents a really flagrant and consequential failure in that regard.
Ambinder's assessment tees off a new Politico item by John Harris that is a distillation of the "perception is all we care about" approach to the world. Yes, I realize -- as Ambinder obviously does -- that the topic of the Politico item is perception itself. But in talking about a damaging story line (one of seven!) the Obama Administration has to fight, the item asserts as truth something that simply is false*, and that seemed "true" only to White House reporters judging a diplomatic trip as if it were a series of stump speeches on a campaign swing. Actually, it's worse than that. If the trip to Asia had in fact been a campaign swing, political reporters would probably have been amenable to a more sophisticated analysis: what matters isn't the boilerplate at the press conference, it's the developments we see over the next weeks or months. That's a kind of looking-beyond-the-obvious that politicos would pride themselves in when thinking about, say, pledged-delegate counts or vote-wrangling in the House. For whatever reason, it didn't happen when it came to the substance of dealing with China.
Essentially we have journalism about an important topic -- America's relations with the country that has a lot to do with our environmental and financial well-being, plus with the prospects for containing Iran -- presented as if it were coverage of another branch of pro sports. What's the difference? In sports, the only thing we finally care about is how well the game is played. People in Washington are depressed because the Redskins are so terrible, but that's not going to cause a run on the dollar or lead to international crises. The interestingness and drama are the only point. But the "sport" of negotiating with China involves something that are objectively very important -- as Ambinder, to his credit, goes on to examine by asking, "is the damaging story actually true?"
This is about as destructive a case of "who cares about the realities?" press mentality as I remember since miscoverage of the Clinton health care plan 15 years ago, as described here and here. (I am excepting the buildup to the Iraq war, when there were a lot of other factors at play.) I have said several times before that I'll give the theme a rest -- and maybe this time I finally will, leaving it in Ambinder's hands. But it matters.