The Actual Liberal Media Has Arrived

A couple days ago Ed pulled out some quotes from this Noam Scheiber piece on Romney’s steroid-taking, screenwriting top strategist Stuart Stevens. It’s a good piece, and worth a read, but I’d like to highlight this aside:

But just because Romney and Stevens get along doesn’t mean they’re a great team. In fact, they have similar blind spots. Consider their take on what Romney’s stump persona should be. Stevens likes his politicians simple and unadorned, in keeping with his aesthetic style. Even as he has depicted his boss as an economic fixer, Stevens has sought to contrast Romney’s plainspoken good-guy-ness with a remote and self-regarding president. Romney has clearly embraced the motif. After a major economic speech by Obama, Romney told a crowd in Wisconsin that “he’s a very eloquent person and is able to … tell you that night is day and day is night. But people know better.” Romney even played the speech for laughs: “Yesterday, the president gave a speech—a very long speech,” he said in New Hampshire. He repeated the joke at several campaign stops.

Certainly, there was a time when a Republican nominee could control his own narrative with relative ease—or, at least, with enough advertising dollars and straight-faced conviction. George W. Bush’s 2000 convention film, which Stevens produced, bathed him in a dusty authenticity as he surveyed his ranch and discoursed on leadership. The glow lasted all the way through Election Day. But somewhere between the Florida recount and John Kerry’s swift-boating, a whole liberal industrial complex—cable channels like MSNBC, watch dogs like Media Matters for America, blog partisans like Daily Kos—began hacking away at the artifice. It has left Romney, already less believable in the just-folks role, badly exposed.

Stevens’s indifference to this shift—and to the partisan bloodlust that fuels it—helps explain how the campaign was caught flat-footed by allegations that Romney hadn’t severed his ties to Bain Capital until 2002, three years after he’d initially claimed. “The headline story above the fold in The [Boston] Globe: ‘ROMNEY STAYED LONGER AT BAIN’ … is totally, totally misleading,” one Romney adviser complained to me. “Maybe the newspaper’s got an angle because of political bias or because it sells copies—who knows what?” But the Bain story didn’t reflect the sudden vindictiveness of the mainstream media. It reflected the holy-war relentlessness of the left. As The Globe later acknowledged, the story was initially driven by enterprising bloggers at the liberal websites Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.

I might quibble slightly with the tone here (“holy-war relentlessness,” really?) but basically I think this is correct, and it’s about damn time. The right’s strategy of working the refs and shouting down the opposition has paid off for far too long. It’s been ten years or more doing the grunt work of building the institutional heft that can challenge the noise machine, and the dividends are rolling in.

There remains, of course, a whole lot of classic intra-left sniping, and hand-wringing over whatever cutthroat stuff the likes of Harry Reid happen to be doing, but I think this is healthy. Greenwald and company are a price worth paying for avoid becoming a lockstep, humorless propaganda machine. Because a big part of what enabled George Bush to be such a miserable failure was the unwavering loyalty of the Drudge-Fox-Limbaugh treadmill. Good governance requires honest criticism.

So pat yourself on the back, progressive media. Now back to work. This is a fight that will never end.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.