DC press elite needs more than a haircut

by Glenn Greenwald, Salon

The Politico today is prominently touting on its front page another vapid, petty, and inane "news story" -- the type of story which has, in just a few short months, become its hallmark:

Romney spent $300 on makeup 'consulting'

What kinds of things do you think of when you hear "communications consulting"?

Speechwriting? Message strategy?

Well, "communications consulting" is how presidential candidate Mitt Romney recorded $300 in payments to a California company that describes itself as "a mobile beauty team for hair, makeup and men's grooming and spa services."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden confirmed that the payments -- actually two separate $150 charges -- were for makeup, though he said the former Massachusetts governor had only one session with Hidden Beauty of West Hills, Calif.

Impressively, they followed up their Romney scoop with a hard-hitting, probing interview that marks the outer limits of journalism of which their "reporters" are capable:

But Stacy Andrews, who made up Romney for Hidden Beauty, said he barely needs makeup.

"He's already tan," she said. "We basically put a drop of foundation on him . . . and we powdered him a little bit."

This is not some throw-away blog item, but one of The Politico's featured front page news stories today:

One of the reasons why vapid petty-personality "journalism" of this sort has so disadvantaged liberals and so advantaged right-wing fanatics is because the latter are not only willing, but droolingly eager, to exploit these sorts of themes, while liberals in general are highly reluctant, almost embarrassed, to do so. Thus, even after months of John Edwards being mauled in every media venue as a result of the Pulitzer-worthy haircut "scoop" by The Politico's Ben Smith, these are representative reactions by liberals to the Romney "story":

Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly:

MAKE IT STOP....From the front page of The Politico on Monday: . . . Seriously. Can we just stop this stuff? Does anyone really think that the problem with presidential campaign coverage is that it isn't vapid and half-witted enough already? Jeebus.

Melissa McEwan, Shakespeare's Sister:

OMG -- Who GIVES a Shit?!

I swear to the fates, if there's ever a museum of internet journalism, celebrating the best the web has to offer, The Politico would best be represented by a turd in the unfinished basement bathroom.

The only remotely non-critical reference I can find to the Romney story is this seven-word statement from Oliver Willis, which seems more satirical than anything else.

The real issue here -- aside from the complete lack of journalistic standards at the Politico, which is old news by now -- is whether this trashy, worthless item will be given anywhere near the coverage and attention which the Politico's equally trashly, equally worthless Edwards item received. It goes without saying that the hordes of right-wing commentators who spewed one Edwards hair insult after the next will not do anything similar with Romney. Their utter lack of consistency is far too established to be worthy of commentary.

But it is worth recalling how intense and endless the coverage of the Edwards hair item was -- and continues to be -- in our establishment media. Ever since Ben Smith broke this story, we have been subjected to countless references -- one after the next -- not just by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but in The New York Times -- multiple, repetitive "news" articles for months, along with "news analysis" and substance-free Op-Eds. All of that is just from the NYT news and editorial pages alone (the Times' coverage of Edwards' haircut almost exceeds that of The Politico itself). It was also, needless to say, endlessly repeated by one television pundit after the next and other news outlets as well.

In fact, as Greg Sargent noted weeks ago, our broken, petty media's "coverage" of this "story" was so intense and endless that far more Americans were aware of it than they are of some of the most politically important facts:

Buried in the new Fox News poll is a startling number that doesn't reflect terribly well on the priorities of our political media:

From the new Fox poll of registered voters:

32. Do you happen to know which presidential candidate has been in the news recently for paying four hundred dollars for a haircut?

Edwards 44% Hillary 2% Obama 1% Other 1% Don't know 53%

As Greg noted, a recent Harris poll had found that only 45% of Americans were aware that Saddam had no WMD's at the time we invaded Iraq. As Greg said: "the same number know about Edwards' haircut that knew the truth last year about Saddam and his phantom weapons."

And citing the poll numbers showing that Americans overwhelmingly believed even as late as September, 2003 that Saddam personally planned the 9/11 attacks, Greg observed:

So nearly 20 percent more know about Edwards' haircut than believed Saddam wasn't behind 9/11 -- two years after the attacks and six whole months after the invasion.

Something's wrong here.

Yes, something is quite wrong here. But the establishment media will not voluntarily change its behavior. Why not? Because they do not think there is a problem at all. Quite the contrary. Let us turn to Newsweek's Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe what he and hear again what he thinks about such matters: "the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general." Fantastic.

It isn't only that the press is petty and obsessed with worthless gossip at the expense of real reporting. It's also that their pettiness is so transparently one-sided. As MyDD's Jonathan Singer put it:

A whole lot of words have been spilled -- far too many, indeed -- over John Edwards' decision to spend $400 of campaign contributions on a haircut. But in the interest of balance, I suppose we should expect as much media attention to be poured on Mitt Romney's decision to spend nearly as much on a makeover this quarter. . . .

It has only been about three hours since The Politico ran with this story online, but to this point not a single other news service running its stories on Google news has run with the Romney makeover story, and the particular article quoted above has been scantly mentioned within the blogosphere thus far. This might change -- but I'm not betting on the right wing echochamber working too hard on bringing this story to the attention of the broader electorate.

There is a reason The Politico is referred to in some circles as "Drudgico" and/or "Drudge's little sister." But those terms are increasingly apt for our largest and most influential media outlets as well.

* * * * * On a not entirely unrelated note, one of the panels I am on at Yearly Kos this year is entitled "Blogs and the MSM: from Clash to Civilization". The panel, to be moderated by The Nation's Ari Melber, also features Jill Filipovic of the Feministe blog and Mike Allen of The Politico, whose journalism I examined here.

article originally published at http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2007/07/17/politico/index.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey