Glenn Greenwald, Salon’s popular media critic, is a former constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He has authored three books, including Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics which will be published in April by Random House/Crown. I recently spoke by phone with Greenwald from Brazil, where he lives much of the time, and asked him six questions about political campaign coverage and the media. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. The media seems to have gotten just about everything wrong during the 2008 campaign, from picking the frontrunners to predicting the outcome of key primaries. What went wrong?
The principal flaw in the coverage is that reporters live in a bubble and they only converse with one another. The only perspective they know is the political junkie who looks at the race strictly from a “horse race” perspective. The campaign narrative was formed at a time when most voters weren’t paying any attention to the race. Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton became the frontrunners for one simple reason, which was they had names the voters recognized, but everything changed when people started paying attention. The same thing happened in 2004, when Joe Lieberman led in early polls even though he had no chance of winning. Also, reporters are bored by the substantive issues. They don’t have the same problems that drive the voters, most who face serious economic insecurities. Media celebrities are well compensated, they live in New York and Washington, and are unaware of voters’ sensibilities. To them politics is a game, a race, where what matters is endless speculation about who’s winning and who’s losing. There’s a huge gap between the people who drive our political discourse and the voters, so it’s not surprising that the predictions reporters have made have all largely turned out to be wrong.
2. Is part of the problem that reporters are too close to the political establishment?
That’s definitely one of the primary corrupting forces in journalism. The media should be an adversarial force to the political establishment, that’s basic journalism. But in the last few decades they have become dependent on the political establishment and assimilated into it, so the media is an arm of the political establishment as opposed to a watchdog over it. That dynamic has corrupted the process more than anything else, because there’s no tension between the media and political power. During recent years, the political establishment has been primarily Republican and the media gets fed mostly by Republican operatives–that’s where reporters get their access and their scoops and the feeling that they are insiders–and that’s where the loyalty of most of the establishment press therefore lies: with Republican power.
3. Has press coverage benefited any of this year’s presidential candidates?
There’s no American political figure of any national significance that is more adored by the press than John McCain, and I would point as evidence for that the reporters’ own admissions. When it comes to personality mythology and hero worship, we haven’t seen anything like it in a long, long time–not even the 2002 and 2003 media transformation of George W. Bush into some kind of conquering, infallible war hero. The press coverage of Obama has been favorable, not as much as with McCain, but at least up until now, it’s probably true that he hasn’t received the sort of scrutiny a serious contender deservers. The reason for that is that he became the only hope for creating a contest, which reporters want first and foremost, but also the only hope to defeat Hillary, who is the bane of the press corps. It remains to be seen what will happen if Obama wins the nomination and there’s no more Hillary, if that favorable coverage will continue. I doubt it. If Obama becomes the only person standing between McCain and the White House, I’ll bet that will change rather drastically.
4. Do you see the media as being fundamentally tilted towards the GOP?
It’s hard to talk about the press as a monolith, but it can’t be doubted that the media has been more sympathetic to Republican politicians. Go back to 2000–the press revered George Bush and despised Al Gore. The predominant theme of the election was that Bush was the likeable candidate and Al Gore was the earnest bore. In 2004, the same dynamic prevailed but by then Bush was even more revered as the swaggering war hero and John Kerry was the effete loser. Chris Matthews is the most vivid example of all that is wrong with political coverage. He’s endlessly obsessed with personality-based politics and likes to promote the strong, masculine tough guy who you can have a beer with, versus the nerdy loser. And he has a cast of characters who go on his show, like Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who gush over the maleness of the Republican candidates and warn Democrats about how that has real appeal to American voters. Most political reporters judge candidates on the basis of the likeability factor–Matthews is just more explicit about it. It resembles the high school mindset more than anything else. And because they have been trained to view Republican leaders as the cool, popular high school quarterbacks, and Democrats as the geeky, overly serious losers, they want to be liked by Republicans, and finally become part of that clique by deriding and mocking the nerdy liberals.
5. Yet conservatives still charge that the media is too liberal. Have those complaints impacted political coverage?
For the past two decades there’s been a drumbeat of complaints from the right about the media being too liberal, so that now the media bends over backwards to accommodate conservative viewpoints. It’s almost impossible to find a doctrinaire liberal on television, yet even supposedly liberal sympathizing cable shows on networks like MSNBC are chock full of hard rights ideologues. News executives are afraid of being seen as too liberal, which is why the New York Times hires William Kristol as a columnist and CNN puts on Bill Bennett as a political commentator.
6. What’s the future look like? Will political coverage improve in response to the recognized failures during the current presidential campaign and to criticisms voiced by blogs?
I’ve had a lot of interactions with mainstream reporters, they hear the criticism and they take it more seriously than they used to. But I’m pessimistic about the ability of the mainstream press to change in any significant way. You would have thought that the press would have learned a lesson from its reverential treatment of Bush, but look at the coverage of McCain. It’s exactly the way Bush was covered in 2000: he’s a new type of Republican, he’ll change the tone in Washington, and that even if you disagree with him you know where he stands and what he believes. It’s the Bush packaging from 2000; the media has learned nothing. So the press might be improved at the margins, but the goal shouldn’t be to reform the press but to create an alternative to it. Bloggers are doing that by filling in the gaps that the press won’t cover and performing the tasks and fulfilling the duties that the press long ago abdicated.