The Apex of Short Attention Span Journalism

Everybody’s favorite angry young man, Salon‘s Alex Pareene, is at it again with another of his incendiary “Hack Lists.”

This time around, he’s done sort of a hybrid attack on hackish institutions for enabling individual hacks, and it gets a little intellectually messy, as when MSNBC makes the list despite Pareene’s description of Rachel Maddow as “obviously and deservedly a national treasure.” (Alex’s take on cable TV shows is consistently a bit confusing insofar as he identifies the inherent mission of cable political television as the presentation of really stupid entertainment).

But ignore the framing and ranking, and Pareene’s deconstruction of hackishness is both devastating and hilarious. Unsurprisingly, Politico winds up Number One on the latest list, mainly as a vehicle for Alex’s exposition on Jim VandeHei’s and Mike Allen’s 2012 campaign coverage. Gaze in awe:

Allen and VandeHei’s 2012 campaign was a wild roller-coaster ride of shifting narratives, starring campaign heroes and goats who occasionally switched from one role to the other in the space of a few weeks.

On Sept. 11, 2012, Romney was in deep trouble. GOP strategists were alarmed at Mitt Romney’s failure to mention the troops at the Republican Convention. The omission was “‘felony stupid,’ raising ‘a leadership issue, a spine issue’ for Romney.” And Romney was to blame, because unnamed advisers had warned him not to concede national security to Obama.

On Sept. 16, the Romney campaign was in disarray and everything was the fault of strategist Stuart Stevens. The next day, Allen and VandeHei revealed that Stuart Stevens was going to rescue the Romney campaign by talking about the Middle East and getting specific on policy.

On Sept. 19, in a story that literally said the Sept. 16 story “doesn’t matter,” Allen and VandeHei revealed that the Romney campaign’s rescue plan would actually be “more Mitt,” and that more “personal appearances” from Romney would right the ship. On Sept. 28, Allen and VandeHei revealed that the real problem with the Romney campaign was Romney himself, because Romney was a “lousy candidate.” (You’re off the hook, Stuart Stevens.)

Thankfully, by Oct. 4, Mitt Romney was a good candidate again, because he had “transformed himself” into one during the debate. On Oct. 9, it turned out that the Romney family, led by Tagg, had seized control of the campaign from Stuart Stevens, who was the villain again. Once they “let Mitt be Mitt,” things began to turn around.

Finally, on Nov. 4, Allen and VandeHei reported that if Romney were to lose, it would be because there aren’t enough white people anymore, and not because of Stuart Stevens’ decision to focus on the economy, Romney’s personal lack of charisma, or the campaign’s failure to allow the uncharismatic lousy candidate to be himself.

No one reading any of these pieces as they ran gained any genuine insight into the state of the presidential race.

As Pareene shrewdly notes, VandeHei and Allen don’t seem interested in covering campaigns anyway: despite all strict adherence to newsroom conventions and jargon, they aren’t reporting–they are “crafting narrative.” One suspects this is central to a Politico business model that may well have been originally developed by Lord Satan himself. Regular readers of Politico–even those who, like me, find value in many of its non-VandeHei/Allen offerings–probably sense this instinctively, but Pareene performs a useful public service in stacking up quotes to show exactly how mindless and self-contradictory this form of short attention span journalism can become.

It’s interesting that the kind of journalists who seem to gravitate to Politico tend to look down on us despised and impoverished bloggers as “unprofessional.” Compared to VandeHei and Allen, the better bloggers deserve Pulitzers every year. And maybe that’s why Alex Pareene stays so angry.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.