From Newsweek to CNN: The Narrowing of American Politics

Writers and magazines help establish the bounds of debate that reaches the masses -- sometimes for the worse.

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Why object so strenuously to the succession of articles from generally excellent writers who tell the story of President Obama's first term but ignore or marginalize his most objectionable transgressions? A perfect illustration of their malign effect on public discourse is now available for all to see.

On Wednesday evening, Anderson Cooper had Andrew Sullivan on CNN. They discussed Sullivan's Newsweek cover story on Barack Obama, a piece I criticized here and, after Sullivan responded, here too. In the clip, below, you'll see a writer who is adept at television appearances being afforded the opportunity to reach beyond his sizable audience of Web-savvy information junkies to the broader cable-news-watching public, a distinct demographic that tuned into a segment presented as a big-picture debate about Obama's record during his first term.

Here is the segment:

As cable news goes, an eight-minute segment dedicated to an Andrew Sullivan article is about as good an opportunity as arises for a substantive outsider critique. And at his best, Sullivan is a prescient truth-teller who challenges the establishment, as he has on torture and gay marriage. After the segment above, however, the casual CNN viewer could be forgiven for thinking that there is no serious civil-libertarian critique of Obama, that he hasn't doubled down on Bush policies that Sullivan and so many others strenuously criticized, and that all of Obama's critics just don't get his special genius.

Often enough, the broadcast media ignores these issues on their own, but in this case the bounds of the television debate were laid out in Sullivan's article, and what flowed from it was eight minutes of arguing about whether Obama bears a lot of blame or some credit for the economy. And Cooper, trying to press Sullivan on whether Obama is really as good as he says, was reduced to asking questions like, "Where is this long game? A lot of his critics will say, he handed too much over to Congress." Does anyone else find it depressing that a few weeks after an indefinite-detention bill was signed into law, as detainees languish in a still open Gitmo, as an undeclared drone war proceeds, as the drug war continues apace, as a nuclear Pakistan is gradually destabilized, as Obama asserts the power to wage wars of choice without a declaration and to assassinate Americans in secret and without charges or due process, the broadcast media is debating whether the president has given too much power to Congress?

It was fitting that Bay Buchanan, a Mitt Romney surrogate, came on to debate Sullivan, for their exchange summed up the narrow choice that voters will have if they meet in the general election. We'll have two centrists who supported the bank bailouts arguing as if their different attitudes toward the tax rate on the highest earners is the most pressing issue facing America. They'll both make promises about deficit reduction and entitlement reform that are sort of beside the point because that process depends on Congress much more than on the executive. And on national-security policy, aside from their mutual embrace of the post-9/11 executive-power grab, who can trust any particular thing they promise, given their mutual habit of presenting themselves as the morally upright champions of an issue only to flip-flop as soon as it's expedient?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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