Above the Fold: Beltway Journalism, “Swallowed by an Hourglass”

It's long past time to expand the spectrum of Sunday-show punditry

The more things change, the more Beltway punditry stays the same.

If only the voters could change the composition of the talking heads on television the same way they replace presidents and members of Congress, we might all get a better idea of how different Washington—and the nation—is becoming under the new administration we elected last November. But while President Obama and his advisers are guiding the country forward, Washington’s chattering classes remain stuck in a hopeless time warp.

As James Wolcott documents in a brilliant rant in the latest Vanity Fair, the results of our last election have so far had almost no noticeable effect on who gets to pontificate on the Sunday chat shows.

Watching ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, for instance, is like receiving an engraved invitation to apoplexy. When the panel that Stephanopoulos conducts after his “Newsmakers” interviews includes Sam Donaldson, George Will, and Cokie Roberts, longtime observers of Roman folly, it is like being swallowed by an hourglass; they saw away at the same old creaky strophes of received wisdom as if nothing short of divine revelation could awaken a new thought, eject the dust bunnies from their brains. (Will, who might have filled the throne of conservatism’s beloved elder statesman vacated by William F. Buckley Jr., seems to have resigned and consigned himself to tedium.)

To delve into the editorial pages of The Washington Post is to crack open an even creakier sarcophagus, where the dead paw of consensus maintains a semblance of order, continuity, prudence. Screams of boredom echo through the vault, but the sneer etched on columnist Charles Krauthammer’s face remains unmerciful. Every time political analysts Dick Morris, Bob Beckel, and Karl Rove surface on Fox News like plump juicy roasters, I think, Shouldn’t they be floating on a barge somewhere, bound for obscurity? Why’s Pat Buchanan still hanging around?

On CNN’s political panels Jeffrey Toobin appears to be the only intellectually adept non-android. With Barack Obama as president and the super-happening Michelle Obama as First Lady, you would think a new tone, a new tune, a kicky new jazzitude, would have entered Washington discourse, but it remains a landlocked island unto itself, held captive by its tribal fevers.

Because of the bad habits nurtured during most of the last forty years—as Glenn Greenwald and Talking Points Memo’s Joshua Marshall have also pointed out—most Washington-based broadcast pundits (and hundreds of other capital journalists) remain stuck in a spectrum that ranges all the way from center-right to extreme right. As Marshall put it on his TPM blog, Washington’s culture remains “wired Republican.”  (Indeed, when George Stephanopoulos shattered precedent last month by having two left-of-center pundits—Frank Rich and Robert Kuttner—on the same program, it felt almost like an out-of-body experience.)

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the departing political strategist of the most disastrous administration of modern times would have been consigned to the obscurity he so richly deserves. No more. When Karl Rove left George Bush’s White House, the editors of Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal fell over themselves in their dash to provide Rove with new soap boxes, both of which were inevitably amplified by Rove’s ubiquity on Fox News. 

Only on MSNBC do Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow regularly counter-balance the right-wing sludge that still oozes from most other mainstream broadcast outlets. They are also the only important pundits on commercial television who consistently highlight the shortcomings of the new administration, which so far has too often mimicked its predecessor in its sweeping defense of official secrecy in several different court appearances. In other words, Olbermann and Maddow are acting like real journalists, instead of ideological shills.

George Orwell, who was the greatest English-speaking journalist of the twentieth century, once remarked to Stephen Spender that he didn’t “mix much in literary circles” partly because “I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”

There aren’t any famous journalists in Washington who take that approach today, and I can’t think of one who has since I.F. Stone—who stopped publishing his “Weekly” more than thirty years ago. That’s one reason that people like Frank Rich (based in New York) and Glenn Greenwald (who lives in Brazil) are so much more interesting than almost every regular contributor to the Washington Post op-ed page (E.J. Dionne excepted): they live outside the echo chamber where the most cherished values are clubbiness and mediocrity.

Walter Lippmann was the most celebrated Washington columnist of the postwar period, but his copy always suffered from the fact that he devoted almost as much time to the cultivation of the powerful as he did to the construction of his columns. Only at the end of his life did Lippmann redeem himself by breaking sharply with Lyndon Johnson and becoming a fierce critic of the Vietnam War. But that act of courage made the ultimate Washington insider a pariah within the capital. As a result, Lippmann finally decamped from Washington’s fetid swamp, and spent his final years in New York.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.