Washington's Comfort With Small Corruptions

Its political surrogates mislead the public so routinely that the press no longer even thinks to object.

People forget about the air they breathe, fish don't know they're in the water, and political reporters come to take many of the routine corruptions around them for granted.

Consider the media surrogate.

Lots of people in Washington, D.C., go on national television, look straight into the camera, and regurgitate talking points as if they're original, deeply held convictions. While there are honest surrogates who only advance such arguments when they really believe them, the press knows that deceiving the public is common and that many surrogates will deliver talking points that they don't really believe.

It's an open secret.

Just this Sunday, on ABC News, James Carville, a longtime Clinton loyalist, began a defense of Hillary's email habits by saying, "This is not just spin—I actually believe this," a winking acknowledgment of the fact that so much of what gets said on the Sunday political shows is just spin. He went on to argue that the email scandal is in some ways "good" for former Secretary of State Clinton because it is reminding American voters that she is treated unfairly by Republicans. Does he really believe that? I'm suspicious, but I cannot prove he's lying. That's part of the reason the press is accustomed to staying silent even when a surrogate seems intellectually dishonest: It's almost impossible to prove deliberate mendacity.

Yet last week, The Washington Post went a step farther, illustrating the danger of becoming so inured to small corruptions that one no longer treats them as objectionable.

The article, "Some top Democrats are alarmed about Clinton’s readiness for a campaign," set aside substantive questions raised by Clinton's efforts to skirt public-records laws to focus on what the email scandal says about her political abilities.

This excerpt grabbed my attention:

Last week, supporters in Congress and others were willing to go on cable television to defend Clinton on the e-mails but were puzzled when her aides did not provide talking points or other information that might help them, according to Clinton allies. “A lot of people were flying blind,” said one Democratic ally who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. Requests for information “were met with dead silence” from Clinton’s team, this person said. “This shows they have a long way to go until their organization is ready for prime time.”

Lots of Democrats were willing to defend Clinton even when they didn't know the facts or what the defense would be—they were waiting to be told what they should go on national TV and purport to believe. And some of these people still went on TV to defend Clinton even though they were "flying blind," which is to say, put in the unusual position of having to rely on their own opinions and analysis in appearances where they purport to offer their expert opinions and analysis.

Says the article:

Some of Clinton’s longtime allies in the Senate and House leadership did receive guidance from the Clinton camp, although their aides were frustrated that they had to proactively reach out to Clinton aides to get it.

Translation: When Americans saw their Democratic senator or representative defending Clinton, those elected officials didn't just go out and say what they believed to be true. Instead, their aides contacted Team Clinton so that they could coordinate. They were frustrated that they had to expend effort to be told what to say, as they expected a conspiracy to convey greater unanimity to the public than actually exists.

That this stuff goes on is surprising to no one, and is not at all unique to Democrats. What I find striking is that small corruptions like these are now so accepted that political insiders openly admit their participation to newspaper reporters. And the reaction of those reporters, having gotten explicit confirmation that various national political figures were prepared to advance arguments sight unseen about a major story, is not to expose the culture of political surrogates, but to go on with the show.

That dirty little secret only comes out indirectly.

Indeed, the Post article is really a critique of Hillary Clinton for not doing enough to supply fellow Democrats with thoughts not their own to parrot on national TV. She's shirking some of the basics of public deception! Is she really ready to run? Had Team Clinton acted to supply political allies with typical talking points, the article wouldn't have been written. No one would've thought it newsworthy.