Tuesday :: May 27, 2008

Recount and All That

by eriposte

I just watched the gripping HBO movie Recount this weekend (and I agree Laura Dern was just great as Katherine Harris). It's a movie about the fateful Florida (non) recount travesty in Nov/Dec 2000. Kevin Spacey - who did a good job playing a lead role in the movie as Ron Klain (President Gore's former chief of staff) - unfortunately proved himself to be the Biggest Loser in the world in a couple of ways.

First of all, in the movie, Ron Klain was very concerned about the actual popular vote in Florida in 2000 even though it was only the Electoral Vote of Florida (The Will of The People) that counted. For some bizarre reason, Klain obviously thought that if Gore had really won the popular vote in the state, he would have clinched the electoral vote from that state. Imagine the Delusion! It was rather Depressing to see such Ignorance from someone so high up the Democratic food chain. 

Second, Kevin Spacey, speaking for himself unfortunately said this in an interview with MSNBC:

I do not see how you can pretend two million people did not vote.

Of course he was referring not to Florida 2000 but rather Florida 2008 - the 2008 Democratic primary - which naturally revealed his contempt for The Will of The People as the non-Ron-Klain. How dare he violate The Rules and show himself as just another pathetic hack by talking about voters being disenfranchised!

I have to say, though, that the most favorite part of the movie for me was a very brief segment right near the beginning. This ad for the movie begins with that very segment (for some reason the video refuses to get embedded in my post so I've removed it). The segment in question shows a person who says (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

By tomorrow mornin' the stains of Bill Clinton will be washed away and honor and dignity will be restored to the White House.

I laughed heartily when I saw that because if I didn't know that the person who was uttering those words was a key member of Bush's Republican team in Florida I could easily have assumed it was one of the so-called liberal bloggers discussing the Clintons. (Ahh, the sweet smell of "Unity"!) It was to me one of the most understated and poignant moments of the movie - not just given the "honor and dignity" we have witnessed since (including in the past few months). As Avedon Carol said:

I really look forward to the day when I don't get up in the morning and find my formerly favorite blogs littered with so many stupid posts attempting to twist statements by Hillary Clinton into Proof of Evil. When the Republicans say stupid things about Obama, everyone is perfectly capable of seeing through it and tearing it apart - in fact, y'all do it so well that I have little to add. Why can't we do that for Hillary? And why is it that when I try to do that, I get attacked as a "Hillary supporter", even though I've made it clear that I can't choose between her and Obama? What's wrong with you people? Do the Republicans spend half their time trying to destroy the reputation of the Reagans, or Gingrich, or any of their standard-bearers? Do you think they would spend five seconds doing this kind of self-immolation? Pull yourselves together - you're just joining in with a favorite Republican sport, and you are not helping clinch the nomination for Obama. The corporate media is always going to attack the Clintons, and they don't actually need your help. [And, for the record, HRC was talking about nominating races that ended in June, as she clearly emphasizes that word in the clip. And she picked the two June races that were most memorable for her. Now, if you can't figure out why the '68 and '92 races were particularly memorable for Hillary Clinton, you should consider the possibility that your prejudices are clouding your judgment.]

In that context, one of the fascinating articles to emerge over the weekend was John Harris' um, "Shit Happens" piece (h/t Oxycon for that succinct summary) in The Politico, titled "How small stories become big news". He starts by saying:

This weekend’s uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child — overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience.

The truth about what Clinton said — and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant — was entirely beside the point.

Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. Thus, the story made the front page of The New York Times, was the lead story of The Washington Post and got prominent treatment on the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC.

You don't say! I could have never guessed! He continues:

I should say at the outset that I have a pretty good vantage point on this particular case — both as witness of and participant in the echo chamber.

On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk.

Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it’s only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.

Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It’s not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign.

Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up!

He needed no prompting.

As leaders of a new publication, Politico’s senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. The way to get links is to be first with news — sometimes big news, sometimes small — that drives that day’s conversation.

We are unapologetic in our premium on high velocity. In this focus on links and traffic we are not different from nearly all news sites these days, not just new publications but established ones like The New York Times.

Traffic! Especially nowadays from so-called "liberal" blogs and websites, surely! High velocity - yup, I've certainly observed rather high velocities and acceleration (Newton would be proud) in the past few months in some so-called "liberal" blogs when it comes to fake stories about the Clintons.

I urged Martin to keep his foot on the gas: Be the first to post reaction from the Obama campaign. Obama spokesman Bill Burton quickly obliged, denouncing Clinton’s comments and saying such sentiments have “no place in this campaign.” Burton’s comments quickly went into Martin’s blog post. Soon enough, several websites and cable news outlets were giving the story trumpet-blaring treatment.

Perhaps half an hour after the story broke Martin called me back over to his desk. It turned out the Argus Leader had video of its big interview. I huddled over Martin’s computer as we watched.

It was a deflating experience.

The RFK remarks were deep in a 20-minute clip of an otherwise routine conversation. Then, once we actually got to the relevant portion of the video, it was hardly an electric moment.

Clinton does indeed mention the Kennedy assassination, speaking in a calm and analytical tone: “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

Martin and I both thought we saw a slight twinge in Clinton’s facial expression, as though she recognized she had just said something dumb.

Whether she recognized it or not, she had.

But it was also clear that Clinton’s error was not in saying something beyond the pale but in saying something that pulled from context would sound as if it were beyond the pale.

That last sentence is, of course, another way of saying what I said over the weekend. Harris continues:

It would be a big story if Clinton said something like this: “Hey, I know it looks bad for me now. But, think about it. Obama could get shot and I’d get to be the nominee after all.”

It is a small story if Clinton said something like this: “Everyone talks like May is incredibly late, but by historical standards it is not. Think of all the famous milestones in presidential races that have taken place during June.”

It seems pretty obvious that the latter is what Clinton meant, and not too far from what she actually said. It was not surprising that the Argus Leader’s executive editor, Randall Beck, put out a statement saying, “Her reference to Mr. Kennedy’s assassination appeared to focus on the time line of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself.”

Make no mistake. Clinton stepped on a rake with her comment and got bopped in the face. This was entertaining political slapstick, for those of us who like that kind of thing. Little wonder she apologized.

But Clinton’s clumsiness does not excuse news media clumsiness in making a minor story seem like a major one. A note on the randomness of the news: If this really was a big story, then the media has blown it for months. Clinton made similar remarks to Time magazine back in March. (The Wall Street Journal reporter with Clinton has an entertaining look at how the pack traveling with the candidate initially missed the story.)

Harris is unsurprisingly unapologetic despite his candid assessment:

Keeping one’s journalistic bearings amid a hype storm is a challenge for every publication, this one included. In the early months of this publication (we launched in January 2007), a short news item broken by Ben Smith about John Edwards’ $400 haircut became one of our most-trafficked stories. I thought we handled that news nugget with a decent sense of proportion. The item, for instance, never led our site. But it’s true I was not exactly despairing when other websites and cable TV networks went way overboard on the story, with citations to Politico.

Nor is this column intended as a mea culpa for Hillary Hype. Velocity is a virtue in the Web world, and we are not going to stop trying to be fast off the mark — for relevant and fairly reported stories. What Clinton said about Robert Kennedy, whether it was cold or just a bit clueless, was newsworthy, and Martin’s original blog post was responsible in framing the context of her remark. He was equally quick to post her clarification and apology. The uproar was never the lead of our site.

But it was striking to see the broadcast networks and big papers, which were still going at full boil that evening and the next morning even though they had plenty of time to assess the (dwindling) significance of the story as the day wore on. (Meanwhile Friday, Obama was giving a major foreign-policy speech in Miami to unveil his plan for Latin America.) In an earlier era, these establishment outlets prized their role in promoting and preserving high standards of relevance.

In this era, with their business model challenged by the Web and other forces, and in the same scramble for audience as everyone else, these fabled elite media organs are if anything more buffeted by sensationalism and whimsy than their new media counterparts.

"High standards of relevance"......ha ha ha! Glenn Greenwald has a lot more on this Harris piece including some worth-reading history about Harris and The Politico (but his post at Salon.com doesn't really discuss how the so-called "liberal" blogosphere behaved in response to this story).

Other relevant posts: Garychapelhill's post at The Confluence di discussing how the fake "assassination" storm was built up by Drudge and then helpfully carried by others all around, Big Tent Democrat's post "More on Unity, Krugman, Obama and FL/MI" and Riverdaughter's observations on the movie "Recount".

eriposte :: 7:03 AM :: Comments (29) :: Digg It!