The New York Times spent the eight years of President Bush’s administration politicizing every action it made — and attributing every action made by minor players on the administration watch; recall the month of front page stories the paper ran in succession in May of 2004 on Abu Ghraib. Naturally though, the Gray Lady would hate to see the current president demonized in quite the same fashion; on Saturday, Timesman Frank Bruni outlined “The Syria Babble We Don’t Need” — “we” being Obama’s fellow cheerleaders and palace guard at the Times and elsewhere:
Here’s a smattering of headlines, subheads, sentences and phrases from various news organizations last week: “Votes on Syria could have huge ramifications on 2016 contenders”; “Vote puts Republicans mulling 2016 run on the spot”; “Democrats and Republicans are choosing their words carefully, lest they take a hit three years from now”; “the difficult line G.O.P. presidential contenders like Rubio must balance in trying to project a sense of American military might without turning off conservatives skeptical about following Obama’s lead”; “the risk for Paul is if Obama’s prescription for Syria turns out to be a success”; “Mitch McConnell’s muddle”; “Hillary Clinton’s Syria dilemma.”
Some of this rightly illuminates the political dynamics that will influence the final decisions about a military strike that individual members of Congress and the president reach. It’s essential in that regard.
But some merely reflects the penchant that we scribes and pundits have for reducing complicated issues to campaign-style contests and personality-based narratives, especially if those personalities have the stature and thus the marketability of celebrities.
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It’s easy for the media and our consumers to focus on recognizable figures, how they’re faring and what they’re saying (or, better yet, shouting). I even spotted recent reports on what Chris Christie wasn’t saying. They noted that he hasn’t articulated a position on Syria, though that’s unremarkable and appropriate. He isn’t receiving the intelligence that members of Congress are, and he doesn’t get a vote.
He’s not the story, and neither is Paul or Rubio or the rest of them. What matters here are the complicated ethics and unpredictable ripple effects of the profound choice about to be made.
And if we want the men and women making it to be guided by principle, not politics, it surely doesn’t help for journalists to lavish attention on electoral calculations and thereby send our own signal: that we don’t expect, and voters shouldn’t count on, anything nobler. On a question of war and peace, we need nobler. We need the highest ground we can find.
Curiously, while the New York Times sets the agenda for the MSM even more than their marching orders from the JournoList, Chuck Todd and Matt Lauer of NBC apparently didn’t get the memo from Bruni this weekend:
On Monday’s NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd engaged in a strategy session over how President Obama could minimize any political damage from Congress voting down a strike on Syria. Lauer fretted: “Is there an escape hatch for the President? Is there a way for him to save face politically if this vote goes against him?” [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
Lauer’s concern was prompted by Todd observing: “[The White House is] very concerned, Matt, because it’s not just that they believe they need Congress on this and they want to punish Assad and all of the Syria policy, but they realize a loss like this could be politically crippling to him [Obama] all over Washington on all the different battles that he’s got coming in the next six months.”
Too bad Lauer, Todd, Bruni and other members of the MSM didn’t ponder back in 2008 what could happen if they promoted a Chicago hack from community organizer to commander-in-chief.