Monday, January 20, 2014


Out here on our little green stripe that separates the High Plains from the southern tailbone of the Rocky Mountains, we don’t watch as much TV as we used to, so we depend on people like Michael Barbaro and Bill Carter of the NY Times bring us up to date on the latest news about TV news, like the break-up in the romance between MSNBC and Chris Christie.

MSNBC fell in love with the Garden State Governor for a very good reason: he would talk to them, which very few Republicans would be caught dead doing (because they fear becoming politically dead within minutes of their appearance).

Christie reciprocated MSNC’s ardor because being “the Republican who can talk to Democrats” would enhance his chance of winning a Presidential election, if it didn’t kill him in the primaries.

Then the kiss-kiss turned to bang-bang when 4 days of New Jersey commuter Hell in September became a huge story in December.  Evidence strongly suggested the hours-long paralyzing I-95 traffic jams had been intentionally created by Christie’s staffers and appointees to the Port Authority.

This whiff of scandal sent both the network and the governor rushing back to their “bases.”  For MSNBC, this meant delighting their mostly (oh, Hell, probably entirely) liberal Democrat audience by endlessly banging on “the bully’s bullies.”

Reports the Times, “Over the nine-day period since the controversy erupted, MSNBC has dedicated nearly twice as much coverage to Mr. Christie as CNN and about three times as much as Fox News, according to Mediaite, a blog that tracks the industry. Detailed dissections of the case, and a rotating cast of indignant lawmakers from New Jersey, are now a staple of the network.”

It is not surprising that Christie has taken this personally, hitting back with criticism of the channel and turning aside requests from MSNBC’s bookers and show hosts. 

So far, so what? 

Christie is under no obligation to submit himself to public flaying, and until the story of the political strangulation of the George Washington Bridge goes away, his reply to MSNBC, the Jerseyese “I don’wanna tawkabouddit,” is perfectly appropriate. 

If, as I suspect (see: this story has marathoner’s legs, the Governor may not be seen on MSNBC for a while, since, as he showed in his “apology” news conference, confession is not a Christie specialty.

This is politics and politics is news, and MSNBC’s news agenda is presently in conflict with Chris Christie’s political agenda.

So, who cares if Christie plays to the ever-more-conservative Republicans he needs (if he’s to have any political future) by acting mad at MSNBC?

But, I care when MSNBC’s hosts act sad about losing Chris.  Turns out they were “friends.”

“[Mika] Brzezinski called him ‘my friend,’” note Barbaro and Carter, “her co-anchor Joe Scarborough called him ‘my main man,’ and Chris Matthews referred to him, with the familiarity of a family member, as ‘the guy we like around here.’

“On Sunday,” the Times reports, “Ms. Brzezinski still spoke fondly of Mr. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, ‘whom I have the biggest admiration for.’”

I have known a lot of politicians whom I liked and admired, and who, I’ll bet, would have made great friends.  One, I actually invited to my house, but that was only after he had retired from politics.  As long as there was a chance he’d be more than a source, but a story, he was kept at arms’ length. 

This is why, although I was twice based in Washington, for a total of 17 years, I never aspired to be a “Washington journalist.” 

Washington may have once ruled the world, and still can uniquely rock it, but Washington, political Washington, does not live in the world.  It lives in the Capitol and works so hard inside the Beltway that it rarely ventures outside it.  Which explains why the inmates know so little about the lives lived “out there.”

Almost everything political Washington thinks it knows, it learned from someone else, which makes them as dependent as our drone shooters in Yemen, who are only as good as the unbiased accuracy of their local sources (whose record for inaccurate targeting, killing innocent civilians, has been appalling.)  This is also true for Washington journalists who rarely reality test what their “inside sources” tell them about the "real world.".  But, inside the Beltway, this crippling handicap is largely ignored, because the particular realities of the world are subsumed in the reality of Capitol City political conflict. 

The best sources on that game are the players and their associates.  Often, they are not just sources; they are the story: "Congressman X to investigate Y,"  "Senator S says such and such."  Nowhere outside Washington is the universal overlap of opinions and assholes so highly valued as breaking news. 

Where access to sources (and not access to “the scene of the crime”) is the key to successful reporting, granting access becomes a “friendly” act, which is reciprocated by “friendly” coverage.  In Washington, professional friendship is reinforced by social friendship.  You can’t cultivate sources at parties or events, if you’re not invited.  And no one knowingly invites a skunk to a Washington garden party.

This may explain why, every election pollsters say, “American voters want change,” and almost nothing changes in Washington, where incumbency, and the incurious, militantly conventional reporting that enables it, are chronic afflictions.

Until the actual emails or text messages or Flickr accounts confirming a miscreant’s misdeeds are too public to give a pass to, friends don’t badmouth friends.  

You cannot honestly cover a friend, was always my assumption, so better never to be a friend than to have to betray that friendship.

Of course, this was when my stock in trade was news (before I loosed the opinionated commentator of blogspot), when my credibility depended on my disconnection from, as well as my reporting and knowledge of and  insight into, a story. I “interviewed” people; I did not conduct “friendly chats” with them.

This not to say that friendly chats cannot turn up as much information as less chummy interrogations; Bob Woodward has proved that, even as he has proved his “friendship” to his sources in his books.  But, notwithstanding their magisterial tone, and often deep reporting, Woodward’s books are less fact-based journalism or analytic history than tendentious collections of particular "friends'" inside views.

The Dagwood and Blondie of Morning Joe specialize in chummy chatter around what might as well be a breakfast table, and they, like Woodward, often have something interesting to say.  But they talk about news, but they do not report it.  One proof of that distinction is that newspeople neither celebrate their friends (while they are), nor mourn their disaffection (after they aren’t).   

It goes against our job.

1 comment:

  1. Having lived inside the Beltway twice, I was astonished at how unfriendly, un-neighborly people seemed. Perhaps it was mostly me, coming from out West where it I might have learned social skills that don't play well inside the Beltway. On the other hand, thinking about Mr. Marash's post, the toxic pseudo-friendship relationships he describes might have a damaging influence on the entire social scene out there. As it happens, Mr. Marsh is a neighbor of mine and he's as good a neighbor as anyone around here in this New Mexico mountain valley. So I expect he knows a thing or two about how us normal Americans live and what it means to be friends.