TNR’s Press Corps Class War

Plus: Courting the saucy, snazzy “MoDowd”

There are Two Americas in the Obama traveling press corps, according to The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber. And just like the Two Americas in America, the rich in the Obama press corps get enriched while the “working stiffs” get stiffed (and they’re mad as hell and—as of March 3 in San Antonio—are not gonna to take it anymore).

This is the gist of Scheiber’s piece, the latest in the “has the press gotten tougher on Obama recently” genre?

It’s not that the press has, of late, “turned on Obama,” Scheiber argues. Rather: “There are simply two different press corps covering him and the crankier one”—the “working stiffs”—“carried the day in San Antonio,” the day held up by many in the media (see Milbank, for one) as a turning point in the tone if not substance of Obama coverage. This is how Scheiber defines the Press Corps Divided:

In some respects, the split resembles the now-familiar divide in the Democratic electorate between blue-collar voters and affluent liberals. The press’s version of the lunch-pail set includes some of the local Chicago scribes, tabloid and wire-service reporters, cable TV and radio correspondents, and the ever-present “embeds”… The campaign’s white-collar set includes many of the reporters at elite national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek, and general-interest publications like The New Yorker; columnists from all of the above; and writers from political magazines like this one.

How are their jobs different? “[The “lunch pail set” is] charged with chronicling every twist and turn of the campaign…If the campaign claims to have raised no money from lobbyists, and a lobbyist’s check turns up, these are the people who pounce.”

This frees the “white collar set” up nicely—though Scheiber doesn’t say it that way—to “assume a more analytical posture” (though the “elites” may also “to varying degrees try to break news”—it’s their prerogative). “The elites are stringing together a ‘larger narrative.’” And the white-collared, writes Scheiber, “also write at length about themes that sometimes make the lunch-pail set queasy—like personality tics and psychological motivations—as well as internal campaign dynamics and policy deliberations.”

(We’re also sometimes made “queasy” by stories on “personality tics and psychological motivations.” Guess that makes us “lunch pail set.” Who knew?)

And what are the priorities of these two classes of reporter? “The beer track cares most about transparency and regular contact. For months now, they’ve grumbled that Obama doesn’t hold enough press conferences.” In San Antonio, Scheiber writes, “the access-starved worker-bees, who felt they’d been getting stiff-armed on Rezko and NAFTA-gate, lunged when they saw an opening”—“grousing” and getting “cranky,” to use Scheiber’s words, thereby allowing, we’d add, the “elites” to stay above it all lest they break a sweat before their turn on MSNBC later in the day. (Richard Wolfe, a Newsweek political reporter and regular on MSNBC, does the “elites” proud in Scheiber’s piece. “The questioning at the press conference [in San Antonio],” Wolfe says, “was incredibly parochial…” )

Scheiber’s article is interesting, as far as it goes. But beyond the navel-gazing—how the New Yorker scribe regards the work of the shoe-leather guy from Chicago and vice versa—how does the public regard the work of both? Might some readers, too, feel “queasy” when confronted with “wine track” stories “about personality tics and psychological motivations?” Does the public value or benefit from—or even want—all those “white-collar” stories about “internal campaign dynamics” (which, according to PEJ, they’re getting quite a lot of)? Beyond that, Scheiber seems not to have thought of the fact that a news outlet—elite or otherwise—has vets and newbies, and they tend to do different things, often on the same story. So, far from an issue of class, many of those “beer-track” reporters who spend their days chasing down every tick and tock of a campaign are no doubt paying their dues, waiting for their turn at the wine-track musings about tics and motivations.

But, back to the insider stuff. So the “beer-track” reporters value access (as in press conferences) and transparency while the “wine track” seeks “exclusive interactions with Obama that might color their musings on his worldview, his political style, or his presidential potential.”

I don’t know about you, but something about all that makes me think immediately of Maureen Dowd.

Funnily enough, Scheiber reports that “one complaint” of “beer-track” reporters is that Obama “seems to prefer the work of the elites” and that he is “unusually solicitous of Times columnist Maureen Dowd when she materializes on the campaign trail,” recalling how Obama “recently sidled up to [Dowd] on the plane and remarked on her snazzy pair of boots.”
The snazzy boots exchange didn’t make it into Dowd’s most recent column, but another coveted “exclusive interaction” did. While the down-home Dowd was “covered in barbecue sauce, somewhere over Texas,” she wrote, candidate Obama “loped down the aisle of the plane to chat with reporters” and called her “MoDowd” (clearly “feeling cocky after 11 straight wins,” in Dowd’s expert insta-psychoanalysis). Later in the column, Dowd referred to Obama’s need to be “petted on his pedestal.”
He’s not the only one.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.