Better Change That Game

In his rant at the San Jose Mercury News about a Mark Halperin interview with Ted Cruz that a lot of us probably never saw (I sure didn’t), conservative Latino journalist Reuben Navarette says a lot of things I agree with about the weird and offensive nature of the interview. But then he said this:

I kept thinking to myself: “What if, instead of watching a Washington insider who is also an MSNBC contributor, I was watching Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly demand that one of the Castros say a few words in Spanish so O’Reilly could determine if he is legitimately Hispanic?”

The left would go apoplectic. They’d call O’Reilly a racist, and they’d be right. In this case, the Hispanic advocacy groups didn’t say anything.

The idea that Halperin’s videotaped interviews at Bloomberg Politics are as visible or well-watched as O’Reilly’s show is bizarre to begin with, and that may be why “Hispanic advocacy groups” didn’t “say anything;” they might very well have missed it. But the planted axiom that journalists of “the left” are protecting their good friend Mr. Game Change is being rapidly refuted by the reaction to Navarette’s piece, viz. this savage take from WaPo’s Philip Bump, which discusses Halperin’s rather empty “grading system” for appearances by presidential candidates, and Sam Wang’s observation that they seem to make “substance” a non-factor:

Wang theorized that Halperin, perhaps chastened by the 2012 data-versus-anecdote debate, was trying to introduce some quantifiable metric to his analysis. Maybe. Or maybe Halperin is simply exercising his own little primary system, a system in which his inexplicable grades are the ones that count and in which if he wants to ask a guy to say something in Spanish, he’s going to ask a guy to say something in Spanish.

Halperin unquestionably believes strongly in the power of his position. When stories about contributions to the Clinton Foundation first emerged last month, Halperin appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to criticize Hillary Clinton’s response. “If they hadn’t been so careless at the foundation,” he said, “if she hadn’t deleted the e-mails, and if they put somebody out on the show today to answer the questions, I think a lot of this could be put to rest.” Emphasis added: If Clinton had appeared on the Sunday shows, on which Halperin himself is a regular, that could have settled it! Sure.

Ouchy ouchy. But Bump’s reaction was more sympathetic than that of ThinkProgress‘ Ian Millhiser, who awarded Halperin with “The Prize For The Most Racist Interview Of A 2016 Candidate.” And at Mediate, Andrew Kirell observed:

Add Halperin’s name to the list of people that do the world a service by unwittingly bringing together the left and right in jeers.

Now Halperin has apologized (though he didn’t help his credibility by suggesting his request that Cruz welcome Bernie Sanders to the presidential contest in Spanish was “light-hearted banter”), and maybe that will put out the fire. But for those of you who don’t live in Journalism Land, you might need an explanation of why other journalists don’t seem to care for Halperin.

In some cases the disdain goes back to Halperin’s days as the principal author of ABC’s The Note, the American Beauty Rose of insidery political news, punditry and gossip. It was epitomized, for me at least, by Halperin’s habit of sucking up to big-foot journalists and campaign flacks alike by over-the-top tributes and affectionate nicknames and such. Then, of course, there was Game Change, the Halperin/Heilemann book on the 2008 campaign that parleyed a few insidery, gossipy nuggets about Sarah Palin into an HBO movie–and did a lot of damage to serious discussion of what happened in that campaign cycle. The follow-up, Double Down: Game Change 2012 didn’t get picked up by Hollywood, but did earn the authors a boffo deal with Bloomberg Politics, by some accounts running into seven figures.

Now you have to appreciate that the word “envy” doesn’t even begin to describe how political writers scuffing along at low-five-figures or less feel about Mark Halperin getting rich on the kind of stuff he produces. And totally aside from any personal considerations, it creates a perverse incentive for exactly the kind of campaign coverage we need much less of–the kind of coverage that might even embarrass Politico.

The irony is that Bloomberg Politics hardly needed the Game Change duo or Halperin’s silly grading system to get attention. Hell, Dave Weigel alone guarantees I’ll visit their site often, and I’m coming to appreciate several other writers there.

As for Halperin, I should hope he’s learned from this incident that he’d better play error-free baseball the rest of the cycle. If he screws up this egregiously again, nobody’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt other writers will get for working their butts off for very little pay.

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.