Is the Press an Obstacle to Getting Things Done?

Yes, says the poli-sci blogger Jon Bernstein. In the course of responding to a series of posts by Ezra Klein, he writes:

If Americans in general don’t like dealmaking and self-interest, I think it’s fair to say that journalists double down on that. Goo Goo bias is far more pervasive — and, more importantly, far more the basis for action — than is any other type of ideological bias, because Goo Goo (Good Government) bias is far closer to the core mission of journalists, as they see themselves. Post-Watergate, people have become reporters so that they, too, could uncover nefarious plots and hidden, backroom deals. The idea that backroom deals could be benign just wouldn’t occur to most (not all, but most) reporters. And while most liberal reporters for mainstream news outlets believe that doing their job well requires them to put aside their positions on public policy issues such as tax rates, abortion, or gun control, they do not believe that they should put aside their sense that acting on the basis of self-interest is a bad thing when done by politicians or interest groups. At least, that’s been the view of virtually all the reporters I’ve ever talked to, and all the reporters I’ve read who talk about their views on such things.

The result, Bernstein says, is to create “a tremendous strain on anyone who wants to get anything done in the American political system, which is structured to give incentives to everyone involved to cut the best deal they can.” (He suggests politicians ignore the criticisms and make the sausage—“as long as the things being done are really worth doing”—as the press and the public also have short memories.)

Leaving aside the question of whether this is a good or bad thing, is it what is actually happening? Bernstein is right that a good-government ethic runs pretty strongly through political journalism. That’s a by-product, in part, of the press’s attention to process, which is itself partly a reflection of its stance of neutrality. If you’ve decided that the question of whether something is worth doing is outside your purview, as most of the press has done for most of the past century, then what’s left to focus on is how it’s done. And it’s an ethic that is reinforced by all sorts of professional incentives, from credit for a scoop to awards for muckraking reporting.

But there’s another wrinkle here, which is that if there’s something the press likes even less than backroom deal-making, it’s hypocrisy. The elite press does know how the political game is played, and a politician who plays it shamelessly and skillfully—or with an ironic, slightly cynical wink-and-nod—gets a lot more rope than one who seems, or can be made to seem, sanctimonious. To put it another way: the grief Barack Obama got for striking deals on health care with industry groups, or not holding negotiations on camera, was in part a reflection of the press’s goo-goo ethics. But it was also a reflection of the instinct to take Obama—who’d raised expectations about rising above interest-group deals, providing unparalleled transparency, and generally superseding politics—down a peg.

Update: Bernstein responds with further thoughts on the distinction between hypocrisy and broken promises at his blog.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.