Fix-ing Aaron Blake

At the risk of entering another flame war with NYU professor Jay Rosen, I'd like to suggest that Aaron Blake is not the apotheosis of all that is wrong with political journalism.

Blake, part of the reporting team that produces The Fix at the Washington Post, wrote an item last week about the Romney campaign's use of President Obama's "it's working" line. Alec McGillis, smart New Republic editor and pride of Pittsfield, got really annoyed about it, followed by Rosen, with supportive Tweets from others. The great Greg Mitchell has recapped.

I don't know what they think Blake has done wrong exactly. The Fix is a blog catering very specifically and unapologetically to a desire, among a narrow slice of the consumer audience, for inside, horeserace-oriented political news and analysis. It does this very well. Blake was making what seems to me very reasonable observations: that "it's working," like "you didn't build that," has been unfairly ripped out of context, but with enough of a facade of arguable fairness that there's not much anyone will be able to do about it -- and as a result, in Blake's opinion, it is likely to "work" in the sense of political effectiveness.

I don't get any sense that Blake's detractors disagree with any of that. Rather, they think that Blake is resigning himself to the fact rather than stepping in to forcefully reject the facade of arguable fairness that allows the Romney campaign to get that effectiveness.

I certainly understand, and agree with, the general premise that the news media is not preventing the cynical manipulation of messaging by the most sophisticated brand-messaging operation ever to hit national politics. A year ago I wrote, in a post about academic criticism of political journalism:

I think there is, generally, a sense in the politicojournosphere that we’re all caught being pawns in these candidates’ games, that we’re pretty helpless to claw our way out of.... The problem is that in the broad realm of informing the democratic electorate, we journalists are being run over and left in a ditch. I don’t know if you academics have any help to offer, but we sure could use it.

 Six months later, after Romney's first blatantly out-of-context-Obama ad, I wrote this:

With or without Romney, the political world has been and will move more and more in the direction of the corporate world's advances in media and message manipulation. I have suggested, on previous occasions, that the political world, and the political news media in particular, are not keeping up. We're seeing a small taste of that now, in the flummoxed reaction to this latest little Romney lie.

We certainly feel like there's something wrong here -- that Romney shouldn't just be able to manipulate America into making him President the way Activia manipulated them into buying their yogurt or Axe manipulates people into buying their cologne... It's an awful lot to think that I, or some New York Times reporter, or some talking head pundit, can effectively stand athwart of it now. ...

All Blake was doing, as I saw it, is acknowledging that reality and using it in his analysis to explain why he thinks Romney's nonsense works. That's exactly what he's supposed to do in the particular corner of the media world he occupies.

Look, I'm all in agreement with McGillis's admonition that "That’s part of our job, isn’t it, holding the candidates to some modicum of reality?" I would actually argue that Blake was contributing to this, by describing the problem. He showed what a stretch the Romney campaign's defense of their context is; he observed that history suggests the flimsiness of that defense will be no obstacle to the out-of-context quote's dissemination; and he predicted that the attack would prove politically effective despite its dubious accuracy.

OK, he didn't carry the ball as far as some would like, to demand that we all rise up against this situation by... well, as suggested in those snippets above, I don't know what.

"Fight for what is true" is Rosen's prescription for journalists. I respect Rosen a great deal, and read him pretty regularly in hopes of gleaning some useful insights, but I think he doesn't understand the problem if he believes that Aaron Blake, and me, and other journos (with our small, atypical audiences of little interest to the campaign strategies) will do anything to slow down the Romney armored tank of mass-opinion manipulation, by "fighting for what is true."



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