Glenn Greenwald Explains It All

[Ross] This post, in which Glenn Greenwald explains how Beltway conventional wisdom gets created, illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the left-wing blogs' critique of how the D.C. media covers politics. Greenwald takes two stories - John Edwards' $400 haircut and Barack Obama's post-Virginia Tech speech, both of which were originally written up by Ben Smith at Politico - and traces their migration through the media ecosystem. He then explains how the whole thing works:

STEP 1: A new right-wing gossip (Ben Smith) at a new substance-free political rag (The Politico) seizes on some petty, manufactured incident to fuel personality caricatures of Democratic candidates.

STEP 2: The old right-wing gossip (Drudge) uses his old substance-free political rag (The Drudge Report) to amplify the inane personality caricatures.

STEP 3: Right-wing hacks with pretenses of respectability -- like Mickey Kaus and others -- follow the script by "analyzing" the gossip and embracing it.

STEP 4: National media outlets -- such as AP and CNN -- whose world is ruled by Drudge, turn the gossip into "news stories."

STEP 5: Our Serious Beltway Political Analysts -- in this case, the very somber and smart Substantive Journalists at The New Republic -- mindlessly repeat all of it, thereby solidifying it as conventional wisdom, showing that "even Democrats and liberals are embarrassed by their candidates."

Well, yes and no. Greenwald is right about the Edwards story - right that it was pointless gossip, right that it was seized on by conservatives because it confirmed their narrative of Edwards' "Breck Girl" persona, right that "Serious Beltway Polical Analysts" ought to have better things to do than talk about the price of the candidates' haircuts, and so forth. But he can't stop there: He has to say the exact same thing about the coverage of the Obama speech (and throw in specious generalizations about how The Politico is a "substance-free rag, and Smith is a "right-wing gossip"), when the narrative doesn't apply at all. Greenwald does allow that "a candidate's speech is obviously far more legitimate grounds for such criticism than the costs of his haircut or which spas he visits," but then rushes on to insist that the critiques of Obama's speech were just "petty, cheap personality-based mockery of the strain that dominates (and degrades and destroys) our political discourse."

Look, Obama gave a bad speech at a big political moment - the aftermath of a national tragedy. Or at least, he gave a speech that a lot of people thought was bad, and they explained why - Ben Smith here and here, Mickey Kaus here, Steve Sailer here and Daniel Larison here. (I'm not quite sure where the paleocons fit into Greenwald's unified-field theory of punditry ...) It's true that some of their criticisms reflected the Beltway conventional wisdom about Obama - namely, that he prefers to leap quickly from any particular controversy to the generalized observation that "our politics is broken" - but frankly, that particular bit of conventional wisdom happens to be entirely accurate. Some of their criticisms, meanwhile, just focused on the fact that Obama's speech was clunky and tone-deaf and inappropriate to the occasion. (As Daniel wrote, "there is something pretty badly out of joint if politicians find it appropriate to liken unemployment and slurs to terrorism and criminal violence.") And while there are a lot of things you can't learn about a candidate from listening to his speeches, there are a lot of things that you can learn - particularly since Barack Obama is auditioning for a job where one of his key duties (not the most important one, but not the least important either) will be giving speeches to a national audience.

Which is the trouble with the Greenwald critique, and the larger left-wing narrative of the media and politics: Having identified a particular aspect of contemporary journalism that often disadvantages Democrats (the ability of conservatives to push substance-free caricatures of liberal politicians), it then rushes to apply it to any situation in which a Democrat comes out looking bad, even if the Democrat in question happens to deserve it.