I’m on vacation for two whole days, and this happens.
So anyway, if you haven’t been on vacation like I have, you have probably already seen the above video of TIME editor Mark Halperin committing a verbal Weiner (and getting suspended for it by MSNBC.)
If you’ve paid attention to Halperin over the years, you get that he’s a conservative. He gets excited about Donald Trump “taking it to the president” and thought Trump was a real candidate whose superior Obama-bashing was hurting Romney. He later similarly excited about Romney when he gets “super-smart” and also attacks the president. Halperin and his “Game Change” co-author John Heilemann are kind of the Woodward and Bernstein (where Woodward was the conservative Republican and Bernstein the liberal back in their Watergate tag team days) of political commentary.
And if you’re familiar with the Washington press corps, they often have choppy relations with presidents, and the Obama White House seems to have cultivated particularly frosty relations with the political reporters who cover the Obama beat. Perhaps if he’d given them clever nicknames…?
So to be honest, it’s not really surprising that Halperin feels that it’s, well, a you-know-what move for the president to hold a press conference castigating Republicans in advance of a debt ceiling deal, even though Republicans have been pretty much trashing the president and demanding that he “show leadership” and tell the public what he wants to do for months. That’s what you’d expect a conservative to feel about a Democratic president in this situation.
But um … you probably shouldn’t express those feelings on the air, and you really shouldn’t try to rely on the vaunted “4 second delay” — which works like aces in radio, but which pretty much only saves the west coast from bare nipples, f-bombs and the like on the teevee. Most importantly, it’s hard to imagine reporters being so cavalier and crass about trashing, say, George W. Bush, his father, or Ronald Reagan in those kinds of personal, ugly terms. Obama has been unique (with Bill Clinton coming in a close second) in earning not just the derision of some members of the Washington press corps (and I would argue, members of Congress as well), but also a paucity of respect.
Meanwhile, here’s Halperin’s apology:
Despite that, he has been suspended — indefinitely — by MSNBC. Not everyone agrees with the suspension, and the anti’s include Greg Sargent of the Washington Post’s Plumline blog, who writes:
I care less about Halperin’s use of the word “dick” than I do about the argument he and Joe Scarborough were making — that Obama somehow stepped over some kind of line in aggressively calling out the GOP for refusing to allow any revenues in a debt ceiling deal. This notion that Obama’s tone was somehow over the top — when politics is supposed to be a rough clash of visions — is rooted in a deeply ingrained set of unwritten rules about what does and doesn’t constitute acceptable political discourse that really deserve more scrutiny. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Michele Bachmann says deeply insane things about us not needing to raise the debt limit, but it should be seen as an enormously newsworthy gaffe when she commits a relatively minor error about regional trivia. This set of rules has it that it should be treated as a matter of polite, legitimate disagreement when Republicans continually claim that Dems cut $500 billion in Medicare in a way that will directly impact seniors, even though fact checkers have pronounced it misleading, but it should be seen as “demagoguery” when Dems argue that the Paul Ryan plan would end Medicare as we know it.
Halperin has certainly done his part to encourage these unwritten rules, and so maybe there’s a certain poetic justice in the fact that he’s now been suspended indefitely for violating them, but still, this is over the top. I care that Halperin uncritically claims that Drudge rules the media world, and acts accordingly. I care that Halperin published a book that accused public officials of using explosive, racially charged quotes that were paraphrased, without guaranteeing their accuracy, in order to gin up media controvery. I care that Halperin does dumb things like parroting GOP predictions of a big victory when all available evidence is pointing the other way, as he famously did in the runup to the 2006 elections. I don’t care as much that he used the word “dick.” Suspending Halperin indefinitely for this only reinforces the bogus idea that a crass and dumb slip into foul language is worse than all this other stuff we see on a regular basis.
Sargent has a point on one level. Particularly since he’s not officially part of the conservative movement, which in its online and talk radio iterations, has been open and indulgent about getting ugly with Obama. Witness the reactions on the right, which would have been completely the opposite had a liberal leaning member of the press said something similar about Dubya. Here’s David Weigel’s take from the post just linked:
Had Halperin said that Republicans thought Obama had acted like an [expletive], he still would have made a big etiquette error, but yes, he would have been conveying what some Republicans thought. News flash: People who disagree with another party’s stance, and the way their partisans say it, occasionally use or think mean things about them. What surprised me about Halperin was that this was his independent political analysis — the president was being a [rude name for male sex organ] by deriding some of the GOP’s negotiating stances. Given that Obama is not the first politician to do this, it just came off as weak analysis. Is John Boehner a [thing that Harvey Keitel exposed in The Piano] when he derides the Democrats? Is Nancy Pelosi being a [first name of failed 1996 New Hampshire Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Swett] when she says Republicans are too kind to oil companies?
Well, the fact that Halperin was proffering his own opinion, not his independent analysis as a reporter, begs an additional question: is Halperin doing political analysis as a reporter or as a conservative? That’s important information for his readers and viewers to know, even if his analysis is sometimes on point. People know that I am a Democrat, and that is allowed to color their view of my analysis. But Halperin doesn’t disclose he’s a conservative, he just occasionally makes it clear he is one. (I have the same sense about some other political analysts out there, but that’s another post entirely.) The problem with bias is not that it exists. The problem with bias comes only when people pretend it isn’t there, so it’s not disclosed.
The fact of the matter is that conservatives, generically, have made an active decision not to even pretend to respect President Obama, in part as a mangled reaction to what they feel was public disrespect for George W. Bush. They’re open about it, they’re ugly about it, and they don’t care who knows. They get incensed when he criticizes Republicans, but think its not just fair game, but smart politics when Republicans savage the president.
But they don’t work for TIME Magazine. They’re not being asked to offer clinical, not personal analyses of the president. And as the tree said in “Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers,” a wizard should know better.