Knowing how to tell the media what it wants to hear

KNOWING HOW TO TELL THE MEDIA WHAT IT WANTS TO HEAR…. Politico‘s John Harris and Jim VandeHei have an interesting item today on how President Obama “is playing the press like a fiddle.” At first blush, the premise seems way off base — the relationship between the White House and the D.C. media establishment is often strained and almost always adversarial.

But that’s not really the point they’re getting at. Rather, the piece is about the president and his team recognizing — and exploiting — what political reporters are looking for. Most notably, “their favoritism for politicians perceived as ideologically centrist and willing to profess devotion to Washington’s oft-honored, rarely practiced civic religion of bipartisanship.” (via Steve M.)

Conservatives are convinced the vast majority of reporters at mainstream news organizations are liberals who hover expectantly for each new issue of The Nation.

It’s just not true. The majority of political writers we know might more accurately be accused of centrist bias.

That is, they believe broadly in government activism but are instinctually skeptical of anything that smacks of ideological zealotry and are quick to see the public interest as being distorted by excessive partisanship. Governance, in the Washington media’s ideal, should be a tidier and more rational process than it is.

In this fantasy, every pressing problem could be solved with a blue-ribbon commission chaired by Sam Nunn and David Gergen that would go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force Base for a week, not coming back until it had a deal to cut entitlements and end obesity.

That sounds largely right to me. When push comes to shove, it’s a D.C. industry filled with David Broders. I generally believe the media establishment is “wired” for Republicans — news organizations internalize GOP talking points, and unknowingly take more of an interest in stories Republicans promote — but when it comes to ideology, the cult of centrism is surprisingly strong.

For Harris and VandeHei, this relates to President Obama’s improved fortunes as he’s taken steps that make the Broders happy. For example, he struck a deal on tax rates with congressional Republicans, which the media loved, in part on the substance, but mainly because of the obsession with “bipartisan process.” This is reinforced with presidential outreach to conservative foes, as evidenced by Obama’s speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today.

But there’s a larger context to this that Harris and VandeHei overlook — by even making this observation in print, they’re implicitly acknowledging one of the left’s more common media criticisms. Greg Sargent, who emphasizes the fact that Harris and VandeHei “carry tremendous respect with the Beltway establishment,” had a good post on this today.

The claims that Washington’s political and media establishment fetishizes bipartisanship regardless of policy details, and that this establishment is all too willing to confer the label of Very Serious Beltway Wise Man on those who profess outsized concern about the deficit, have long been twin pillars of the left’s critique of our political discourse.

I don’t really expect the Politico‘s recognition of this to generate any introspection — the media culture in D.C. is too ingrained — but it’s heartening to see the acknowledgement of the problem anyway.