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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Are you now or have you ever been...

It was a question made famous by the Old Tail Gunner himself: "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party." And it's modern posing -- by a political operative now working as a "journalist" -- takes me back to the beginning.

The Globe takes a look today at the origins of George Stephanopoulos' question to Barack Obama about his association with Bill Ayers, a one-time Weather Underground member who now teaches English at the University of Chicago.

It is guilt by association of the worst kind -- straight out of the McCarthy era. And it was posed by a man who learned his political journalism in "The War Room"-- in the service of Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

See how easy it is to smear?

Let's get the basics out of the way: Obama's answer that he was 8 years old at the time was on point. And let's look at his "relationship": being at a house party in 1995 and serving on the same community board.

Brings back another famous question: what did you know and when did know it? Do you vet the deep dark past of casual acquaintances?

The Globe today looks at the passage of information from blog to the mainstream media. But that only scratches the surface of a colossal smear.

Ayers addresses the controversy himself in a blog post himself on April 6 (and followed up on by the Washington Post here.)

That the Right is prone to hyperbole and smear is not news. That's the purpose of talk radio and cable yak shows like Bill O'Reilly and Hannity and Colmes on the "Fair and Balanced" Network.

And while the factoid about Ayers sprang up on a blog the Globe describes as being written by someone to the left of Obama, the distortion and the noise grew in the right wing blogosphere and on the Official Network of the Republican Party (ever hear of Roger Ailes?)

That an alleged journalist should make it front page news is, however, something a little different. It says something about the state of the profession I was once proud to earn a (meager) living in.

Today, political journalism is a germ factory. Rumor and innuendo co-exist with fact in a closed environment populated by operatives, pundits and reporters. The inbreeding is intense too. Stephanopoulos, as noted, cut his teeth as a Clinton political operative. Tim Russert toiled for Mario Cuomo. George Will fed Ronald Reagan questions from Jimmy Carter's debate book.

While ABC says the question emerged through reporting by Jake Tapper, conspiracy theorists on the left note that Stephanopoulos was a guest of Hannity the day before the debate, where the Ayers issue was raised as a possible question, prompted a flip Stephanopoulos retort as "I'm taking notes right now."

A good journalist would never have put himself into that position in the first place. Many respectable news organizations prohibit their reporters and anchors from appearing on the yak shows, because it is guaranteed to raise doubts about a person's objectivity when they appear on a program that traffics in opinion (and the snarky and more pointed the better).

But Stephanopoulos is not a journalist. His training is in political science and he worked as a sports broadcaster in college. He rose to prominence as a political operative, served as a spokesman for the president where his job was to present one side of the issue.

He then crossed the line into television news. And on Wednesday, he crossed the line again, by trafficking in half-baked information.

Why? A good journalist would have also taken a look at Ayers' blog posting, tried to talk to the man himself, checked out whether he had "no regrets." No evidence points to that being done.

Stephanopoulos himself professes no regrets. "Our job was to just ask questions," he says.

But Stephanopoulos is not a journalist. He posed an ill-formed, not thoroughly reported question and played "gotcha."- the trademark of all that is wrong with American political journalism -- stretching back to Donna Rice and Gennifer Flowers up through an through today.

And that's why I am a recovering political reporter.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said and thanks for saying it so beautifully.

April 18, 2008 5:49 PM  

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