Covering Washington like Kabul

On his New Yorker blog, George Packer takes aim at the "devastatingly unremarkable" bloviation of Beltway journos. He cites Washington Post columnist (and "dean" of the Washington press corps) David Broder's analysis of a recent Sarah Palin speech as "[showing] off a public figure at the top of her game -- a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself." He also offers up the New York Times' Adam Nagourney's coverage of a recent Republican leadership conference: "Here in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way."

These two characterizations from two top writers for the United States' two leading papers, Packer argues, are but purple guff -- in the words of Michael Kelly, examples of how the "idea of image" is "faith in Washington." The journalists follow the same, strange, well-worn routine. They take the mundane comings and goings of major political figures, interpret them according to prevailing partisan winds, and write them up in the overheated, undercooked language of a harlequin novel. The result is airy nonsense that fervently insists on its trenchancy. 

Packer further demonstrates the absurdity of this journalistic convention by satirically recasting the Palin passage about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats."

The point is that Washington coverage of major political figures is not just bizarre stylistically, but dead substantively. To discuss for hundreds of words how Palin is at the top of her game is to spend hundreds of words not discussing her actual relevance to the fractured conservative scene. Foreign correspondence on major political figures needs to be more explanatory than illlustrative -- and it would be better if coverage of Washington were more like the clear-eyed, clean-written analysis of Kabul.

Yet, Washington is -- we all must agree -- as complicated and tribal and strange a town as any. Contrary to Packer, I see it as increasingly covered as if it were, with the conventional-wisdom reporting shifting away from personality-focused atmospherics towards structure- and process-focused explanation.

It is a matter of necessity. It once used to be that you understood the presidency by understanding the president, at least according to the corps. Clinton was a man of appetite and a bleeding heart -- ergo the klieg-lit campaigns, the Lewinsky affair, the Brady Bill, the low-income tax cut. Then, the press corps put George W. Bush on the couch. The stubborn Texan-by-way-of-Connecticut was always trying to prove himself to his father, the correspondents said, hence the invasion of Iraq and the wartime tax cut.

But you'd look like an idiot trying to explain Obama's Washington by explaining (the rather Vulcan) Obama. To be sure, the press corps has limned his psychology -- most brilliantly in the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza's profile of Obama's sharp-elbowed navigation of the Chicago machine and most obviously in the Obama-as-poker-player stories. Both Broder and Nagourney have filed the profiley fluff Packer derides. But both Broder and Nagourney have also written granular pieces on the strange conventions and rules of the White House and Hill. 

It seems the deans of Washington journalism are increasingly treating their home city the way Packer treats Kabul -- and it is a very good thing indeed.


Is the NYT ignoring "Climategate"? Part II

Walter Russell Mead responds to yesterday's post about the IPCC's recent woes. And it seems we're more on the same page than I thought. Mead's bottom line:

Let me say this again one last time:  the story here is that the movement to stop climate change is being swift-boated right before our eyes.  And just as Senator Kerry and the journalistic establishment failed to see the importance of the swift boat attacks and develop a counter strategy early, so the Times along with the climate change establishment is, yet again, missing the boat on a major piece of news. 

Bingo! And he's right that the Times is missing that story. A tweet yesterday by Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin hints at why: "Journalism Review wonders why US media still not covering IPCC issues beyond old dispute narrative," Revkin writes, refering to a Columbia Journalism Review story on the matter. Revkin, having covered all these characters and debates many times before, especially over the "hockey stick" graph before, apparently has little interest in delving into them again. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to team Revkin up with, say, an Adam Nagourney type who can do the political side of this story.

One other note: U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern was asked today about the IPCC's screwups over Himalayan glaciers. Here's how he handled it:

QUESTION: Now my question about – India has distinctly announced that they will set up their own IPCC because they believe that the UN’s IPCC is not that realistic, that they are a bit confusing and it’s – they’re not reliable. What’s your opinion on that?

MR. STERN: Well, look. I think it’s a good thing for countries to have an active scientific effort. I don’t know what the details are. I don’t know what Minister Ramesh or others in India have in mind. But I think, obviously, the United States has all sorts of scientific work that we do through our various agencies of the U.S. Government. So I think that’s all a good thing.

I think the IPCC as an institution has made a very large contribution and I think it’s an important body that will continue and that is very representative of countries all over the world. So I don’t know what – I’m not familiar with the specifics of what India --

QUESTION: He was talking about – Minister Ramesh was talking about recent controversies about Himalayan glaciers.

MR. STERN: About what?

QUESTION: About Himalayan glaciers and the – some of the facts and figures in the IPCC report which has raised a lot of doubts.

MR. STERN: Right. Well, look, as I said, I think the IPCC is a very important body. I think it’s made a very important contribution. To the extent that there were any – that any errors appear in their lengthy report, I think that’s regrettable. But again, I’m not – I don’t have any – I’m not a scientist and I don’t have any considered view on the specifics. But I think the IPCC as an institution has been quite important and will continue to be important.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that, actually? How much more difficult has your job been since the errors in the IPCC report came to light, both globally and –

MR. STERN: It was difficult already. (Laughter.) No, look, I think that the scientific underpinning for action on climate change, the fundamental science of climate change and the observed data, is quite overwhelming. I think that to the extent – and again, I make no comment one way or another about whether they’re mistakes – I just don’t know. But to the extent that there were any mistakes in the IPCC report, reports, assessments, or anywhere else, that’s regrettable. You don’t want there to be mistakes.

But what should not happen is that any individual mistakes, typos, whatever they might be, be taken to undermine the very fundamental record that exists from scientists all over the world and from observed data from all over the world that this is a quite serious and growing problem. So I think that that’s really the kind of underlying important point.

And nor should – and I think what you do see sometimes is that people who have an agenda that is directed toward undermining action on climate change grab whatever tidbit they can find and say, look, there’s no climate change, it snowed last week in Washington, there’s no climate change. That kind of stuff is nonsense. And the exploiting of this or that mistake that might have occurred in some part of long reports that pull together a lot of scientific data, again, I think is – I think it needs to be seen for what it is, which is a deliberate attempt to undermine. The fundamentals haven’t changed.