Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Jonathan Chait has a long cover article on the Netroots in The New Republic

The article is generally favorable. The title is "How the netroots became the most important mass movement in U.S. politics. The Left's New Machine" and concludes
"The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last."

Yep Mr Chait could hardly wait to welcome the netroots to the American scene.

I have the unusual experience of being quite familiar with the phenomenon under discussion being a compulsive reader of Eschaton by Atrios (aka Duncan Black) a fairly "regular reader of The Daily Kos, Americablog, Firedoglake, Mediamatters, and an occasional glancer at MyDD and Crooks and Liars. I also regularly read Sadly No which, for some reason, didn't make Chait's list. Chait's reporting is thorough and generally solid. I found myself thinking "yes, yes, exactly, finally someone in the MSM noticed, yes yes".

It would be churlish to contrast Chait's learned and favorable appraisal to comments made in ignorance long ago. It would take a particularly stupid churl to demand that he apologize or, at least, admit that he was wrong wrong wrong,and to scrutinize his current article for residue of his past irrational hostility to the netroots.

I am that particularly stupid churl.

Chait's central theme is presented in this paragraph

When you turn to the '60s to find an antecedent for the netroots, the natural comparison would seem to be the New Left. [snip] But the netroots do not see themselves in the New Left mold. Rather, they see themselves in what was called, in its insurgent days, the New Right, and before that was known as the Goldwater movement.

He does not mention that he made exactly that "natural comparison" and stated it as a matter of fact. Chait's research for this article was greatly aided by the flood of counter-argument rained on him from the net roots (which are, of course, Orchid roots up in the air so my metaphor isn't mixed). In fact, the article basically paraphrases all of the explanations for how Chait was wrong generously provided to Chait. And he got paid to write it. Is this a great country or what.

Chait's relative fairness to the netroots is impressive given the number of times he has been labeled a wanker in the netroots (about 1480 according to google) his possession of at least three coveted wanker of the day awards and the fact that he correctly identifies his employer, TNR, as the target of particular netroot loathing.

However, he is, perhaps unsuprisingly, not completely fair.

When beginning his summation Chait writes

Whether or not liberals ought to consider this a good thing depends on how wide their frame of reference is. At the narrow level, the netroots take part in a great deal of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty. Seen through a wider lens, however, they bring into closer balance the ideological vectors of propaganda in our public life.

This reminds me of Michael Kinsley welcoming a lefty movement capable of "Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability" without having clear in his mine exactly which paranoid theory (candidates are that Bush had decided to invade Iraq no matter what the inspectors say (not paranoid because obviously true) or that Kinsley personally saved Bush by refusing to publish an op-ed on the Downing Street Memo (not on the edge of national respectability and a joke made up by Kinsley)).

More seriously, Chait does not present any evidence of netroot dishonesty except for this

Because they convey facts and opinions about the news to their readers, bloggers associated with the netroots are often mistaken for journalists. That is, as reporter Garance Franke-Ruta (who covers the blogs) has put it, a "category error." This was thrown into stark relief earlier this year, when John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two bloggers who were prominent in the netroots. The pair quickly came under enough fire for past controversial blog posts--Marcotte, for example, had speculated, "What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?"--that the Edwards campaign decided to cut them loose. Before it announced the decision, however, Marcotte and McEwan's allies lobbied heavily on their behalf. The liberal online magazine Salon reported the firings, but the Edwards camp hunkered down and refused to release a public statement while it decided on a course of action, then denied the firings to Salon the following day. Liberal bloggers in close contact with the campaign remained resolutely cryptic about what they knew. "The bloggers closed ranks around the Edwards campaign, some even claiming that Salon had gotten the story wrong," Salon's Joan Walsh later reported. To Walsh and other journalists, the relevant metric is true versus untrue. To an activist, the relevant metric is politically helpful versus politically unhelpful.

Somehow Chait knows that the un-named bloggers who claimed that Salon had gotten the story wrong, knew that Salon had not, because, evidently, all bloggers were in close enough contact with the Edwards campaign to know the facts. Clearly reputable journalists, like Chait, do not need to present specific facts (you know like names and stuff) to prove their claims. Further it is clearly inconsistent with being a journalist to be "cryptic" about information which is, of interest to the public. If Chait had bothered reading serious coverage of the Libby trial (that is mostly firedoglake) his head would explode as he claimed that true journalists are never "cryptic" about information of interest. Of course Tim Russert considers all conversations with public officials off the record by default and Robert Woodward clearly hid information from his colleague Walter Pincus, commented on the pointlessness of the investigation without admitting that he had a strong personal interest in not being subpoened and lied about hiding the information from Pincus (or Pincus lied and neither is a blogger).

Chait's one example demonstrates un frankness which is nothing compared to what goes on every day in MSM coverage. He must know this.

I can't believe that Chait felt no need to look for further evidence of netroots dishonesty. I assume he looked a bit, found none and concluded that it was rampant. Thank God for serious journalists.

Chait's evidence of disinterest in facts is not principally the astoundingly feeble example of keeping something off the record. It is two fold. First he notes that one reads about "memes" and "frames" (and I might add "scripts" and "storylines") in the netroots. He interprets this as praise of that approach to discourse. Since he presents no context whatsoever (in fact I don't recall a quote) he does not undermine my perception that such words are used as pejoratives to describe Republican operatives and MSM stenographers. Chait is, in effect, saying "you're another" and using the original accusation as proof. I admit that bloggers do talk about political strategy and crafting effective messages as do journalists. This does not mean they are indifferent to the facts. False claims on matters of fact would demonstrate such indifference. Chait provides strong evidence that such claims are very hard to find in the netroots.

Second Chait notes admiration for Norquist etc in the netroots. Movement conservatives are certainly extraordinarily dishonest. However, admiring their effectiveness does not imply adopting all of their choices. Netroots organizers all claim that they plan to be an honest movement fighting a dishonest one. Without evidence of dishonesty, Chait should not have simply asserted that this claim is false. Such a grave accusation completely unsupported by serious evidence is name calling.

Chait claims that netroots organizers are "often" vague about the targets of their criticisms "The netroots often identify this enemy in amorphous, populist terms--"the Beltway," "the D.C. establishment," etc. Nothing vague about that claim. Chait lists as a netroots institution. Mediamatters always directs its criticsms at specific writing or speech whch they quote while naming the target and providing proof or at least strong evidence that the writing or speech is false. They also include a transcript which, I think, is of the text from which the quotes are drawn (I never bother to read it). Chait accusing a group including mediamatters of vague accusations is the height of absurdity.

Chait goes on
"When it comes to identifying its adversaries more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the DLC and tnr " yes that TNR. "Both the DLC and tnr are perpetually described as "dying" or "irrelevant," yet simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse."

Say what ??? TNR is described as "possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse." They wish. Now I understand that it is a bit tricky to explain in the pages of TNR the disdain, contempt and even pity for TNR in the netroots, but I do not recall any example of anyone suggesting that TNR has any power of influence.

Off the top of my head, the people who are not Republican operatives who are presented as having sinister and ubiquitous influence over the national discourse are
Fred Hiatt, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Joe Klein, Tom Friedman, Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd, Bob Schrum, Mark Penn (oopes that's the front page of the Washington Post) Howard Kurtz.

No one cares about The New Republic except for a few wonks.

When it is useful, Chait identifies the netroots with Marcos Moulitsas when he wants to argue that the netroots do not contribute much to policy analysis or the search for facts (you know reporting). " A major source of the ideological confusion is Moulitsas himself, who is almost comically lacking in philosophical depth. In one oft- discussed blog post, he described himself as a "libertarian Democrat" and proceeded immediately to outline a philosophy that was pure traditional liberalism." Moulitsas is just one person and he can't do everything. He is, in particular, a political activist.
In contrast, when he wants to call netrooters hypocrites for calling hawks who avoid military service "chickenhawks" Moulitsas is an irrelevant exception.

"One of the netroots' distinctive contributions to American political discourse is the extremely promiscuous use of the insult "chickenhawk." [snip]
As a matter of logic, these insults are preposterous. Taken at face value, they suggest that it's illegitimate to support a war if you're not fighting in it. But nearly all liberal bloggers claim to support at least some wars--say, the fight in Afghanistan--and very few of them have ever served in the Armed Forces. (Moulitsas is a notable exception, having served in the Army.) So, by their own standards, most liberal bloggers are chickenhawks, too.

So are the netroots lacking in philisophical depth because they are all Markos Moulitsas or are they hypocrites because they are not all Markos Moulitsas ?


Anonymous said...

David Brooks is especially prevalent and influential and sinister. Tyler Cowen is less so, but always deserves mention for smiling meanness.


Anonymous said...

Oh, at least we have Bill Moyers back on PBS.

Anonymous said...

About Maureen Dowd, I am ambivalent; at times, interesting. There are so few women columnists of interest, however. Molly Ivins was of course a gem, and there is just no one to replace her that I know of.


Anonymous said...

Why was Molly Ivins so singular? I could never understand why she had no "imitators."