Over the weekend, The New York Times published an article about George H.W. Bush’s unsurprising disappointment that his son, Jeb, is faring poorly in this year’s GOP primary. The story embodies everything that confounds me about the “objective” style of newspaper writing, even though it was authored by two accomplished journalists at a publication as adept as any at shining despite its strictures.
The article’s headline: “Bush at 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race.” Readers are told that Bush 41 is following the election closely, but is confused by what’s happening: “Former President George Bush, 91 and frail, is straining to understand an election season that has, for his son and the Republican Party, lurched sharply and stunningly off script. And he is often bewildered by what he sees.”
The article reports on his loyalists as well:
These are confounding days for the Bush family and the network of advisers, donors and supporters who have helped sustain a political dynasty that began with the Senate victory by Prescott Bush, the older Mr. Bush’s father, in Connecticut 63 years ago. They have watched the rise of Donald J. Trump with alarm, and seen how Jeb Bush, the onetime Florida governor, has languished despite early advantages of political pedigree and campaign money.
John Sununu, Bush 41’s former chief of staff, is quoted too.
“I have no feeling for the electorate anymore,” he said. “It is not responding the way it used to. Their priorities are so different that if I tried to analyze it I’d be making it up.”
This is an unusual primary. No one expected Donald Trump’s success as a candidate. Millions are confounded by his frontrunner status and what the GOP base wants. Even so, the reasons for Jeb Bush’s electoral struggles are hardly a mystery.
One wouldn’t know that from the article.
Here’s the closest it comes to explaining why Jeb is flailing:
The former governor’s campaign has struggled amid steeper-than-expected competition for establishment-leaning Republican donors and an inability to harness the kind of passion powering rivals like Mr. Trump. His aides are now promising a wide-scale shift, with staffing levels at the campaign’s Miami headquarters reduced sharply. There have been pledges that the candidate will spend more time in front of voters in early states...
That’s all technically true in its very carefully worded way.
But an inability to raise money isn’t the root of Jeb’s problems––and saying he’s unable to harness as much passion as those beating him is just another way to say he’s losing.
The article goes on to state:
More is at stake in this race than Jeb Bush’s political career, friends of the family say. The Bush name has been prominent in national politics for three decades, and a rejection of the younger son by the electorate, especially in the primary, could be deeply wounding to a family proud of its role in American history.
That, too, is very carefully written. It is assiduously neutral and technically true, but trivially so. A family of politicians is invested in the success of the family member presently seeking office. A loss “could be deeply wounding,” whatever that means. The writing is contorted to make banal truisms seem like reported insights. And all the reasons that Jeb is actually struggling are missing from the analysis.
The conventional wisdom is not complicated. Jeb is out of step with the primary electorate on immigration. He has struggled in multiple interviews and two debates. He is identified with a political establishment that voters mistrust due to huge failures: foreign policy that made a mess of the Middle East, a catastrophic financial crisis, and stagnant middle-class wages.
This is basic stuff. The Bush family surely understands it.
And I find it hard to believe that neither the Bush camp nor The New York Times journalists reporting on it are aware that the family’s “role in American history” and mistrust of Jeb are also inseparable from a certain other Bush, whose unsuccessful presidency alienated Democrats, independents, and many Tea Partiers.
Why is George W. Bush scarcely mentioned in this article?
Jeb’s struggles were always predictable, and they make sense even as they unfold. But an article that relies on establishment insiders for all its quotes and adheres to a style that doesn’t allow its authors to inject skepticism is going to fail to adequately explain an election in which establishment failures are driving voter behavior. This is especially so when the figures being quoted are sophisticated political operators who have every reason to speak strategically rather than candidly.
Look at this passage:
In July, even after breaking a vertebra in a fall that left him hospitalized in Maine, the elder Mr. Bush was fuming at the news of the day: Mr. Trump had belittled Sen. John McCain of Arizona for being taken prisoner in Vietnam.
“I can’t understand how somebody could say that and still be taken seriously,” said Mr. Bush, himself a naval aviator in World War II, according to his longtime spokesman, Jim McGrath, who had visited him.
This doesn’t merely ask us to treat a politician father’s statement about his politician son’s campaign as earnest, not strategic––it also asks us to believe that a longtime PR flack faithfully represented that father’s words to a New York Times reporter during a primary race; and that even though Bush 41 saw Bush 43’s campaign trash McCain in South Carolina––and saw Swift Boat Veterans for Truth four years later––he just can’t fathom how unfair attacks on a Vietnam vet aren’t disqualifying.
The writing is so smooth and official-sounding that one almost fails to notice all those asks.
But, come on.
What the “neutral” or “objective” style of newspaper writing ultimately obscures is that there’s no such thing as what Jay Rosen of NYU calls “the view from nowhere.”
To end up with “Bush at 91: Irritated and Invigorated by ’16 Race” required lots of contestable news judgments. Implicit are the notions that the Bush family somehow established a valid original script for the Republican Party’s nominating contest; that Jeb’s campaign struggles are so hard to understand that they baffle and confound a former president and his circle of sophisticated politicos; that readers should accept their claims that they just don’t understand all this ugliness and populism in politics, never mind that they’ve worked with Lee Atwater and Karl Rove; that George W. Bush’s effect on the family’s legacy and Jeb’s campaign is best left unexplored; and that insiders rather than outsiders are best positioned to offer insights into the subject of the article.
The New York Times is often accused of having an unacknowledged liberal bias. Leftists sometimes insist that it has a conservative bias. I don’t think any newspaper in the world does better than the Times. I subscribe to it, often marvel at its scope and excellence, and believe that, like everything, it is biased in all sorts of ways, perhaps none more than this: It is an establishment paper. It overvalues the voices, perspectives, assumptions, and observations of powerful establishment insiders, whom it treats with far more credulousness and deference than they deserve.
That’s further illustrated by a passage in the article that I haven’t quoted yet. It’s hilarious if you’ve followed attempts to limit anonymous sources at the newspaper:
Contempt for Mr. Trump runs deep in the clan. Two people interviewed, who are in direct communication with the elder Mr. Bush but requested anonymity to avoid betraying a confidence, said Mr. Trump had revived painful memories among the Bushes of another blunt populist: H. Ross Perot. The family has long believed Mr. Perot’s third-party candidacy helped Bill Clinton capture the White House from Mr. Bush in 1992. Jeb Bush’s brother Neil has also vented privately about how bad Mr. Trump is for the country, say people who have spoken to him but did not want to be quoted revealing private conversations.
Anonymous sources are often useful. But it’s absurd to grant anonymity to a political machine so that it can attack a candidate challenging that political machine!
It is doubly absurd that the newspaper can find no one in Bush world to criticize Trump on the record.
And it is triply absurd that the insight meant to justify an anonymous source is that Neil Bush thinks Donald Trump is bad for the country. Of course he does. Trump is a bully who is insulting his brother on a daily basis. Still, can anyone imagine The New York Times granting anonymity to people who have spoken to Ivanka Trump so they can relay hearsay that she believes Jeb and Hillary are bad for America?
I suspect that The New York Times would show somewhat less of an unconscious establishment bias if the “objective” style it employs didn’t do so much to mask its manifestations.
And I suspect that the article under discussion would’ve been much more insightful if either author could’ve written it as an email to friends. Take one last look and ask yourself this: If you sat down with the two of them over beers and asked, “So level with me, what’s really going on inside Bush family circles as Jeb loses?” wouldn’t they say something more interesting than what they wrote?
“Of course,” says a veteran journalist familiar with newspaper writing, its tricks, and its limitations.