Thursday, February 4, 2016

Of course journalists can be shills

Finally, there's the tendency of online Sanders supporters to call Clinton fans corporate-shilling “Hillary bots” and to argue that journalists are “auditioning for jobs with the Clinton White House.” Put it all together, and you have a perfectly reasonable (though not unimpeachable, and certainly not universal) argument that Bernie has a little bit of a Bro problem. - Amanda Hess
It's easy to get caught up in the broader political controversy and electoral implications of this article, but the premise Hess slips in here is absolutely extraordinary. She is not rejecting specific allegations of corruption against journalists. She's not even making the more modest claim that such allegations tend to be unfounded. She neither argues against them nor registers any skepticism of their merits whatsoever.

In the absence of any stated disagreement with these critics, Hess's point can only be understood as ridicule of their accusations as such. She presents the mere allegation of corruption against journalists as some kind self-evident proof that Sanders supporters are a "a Bro problem", as if this line of critique steps necessarily steps past the bounds of decency and plausibility and can be summarily dismissed without any scrutiny whatsoever.

If the facts matter when it comes to allegations like this, it turns out that there are all kinds of well-documented and uncontroversial instances of pro-Clinton corruption in the media. We know that Clinton's SuperPACs openly claims the right to coordinate online communications with her official campaign in defiance of the FEC. We know that the same SuperPACs are actively trying to influence media messaging - to the point of attempting "off-the-record" story pitches to local newspapers. We know that these same people are straight-up buying media outlets and appointing former campaign flacks to run them.

And while they generally keep quiet about it, most DC journalists can name at least one or two conflicts of interest they're aware of among their colleagues. Usually these problems hover in the familiar grey zones having to do with access and career politics: journalists can feel pressured into biased coverage so that they can continue to report on Clinton in the future, or they worry about what their pro-Clinton bosses might think. But all too often the problems are a lot more serious: journalists take "outside" work with various formal and informal campaign arms, or they conveniently fail to disclose past work with Clinton operations, or they quietly subscribe to mailing lists that feed them "story ideas", "topics worth exploring", and so on.

None of this is speculative - I'm personally aware of specific instances of all of this happening. Nor is it even particularly unlikely; the most surprising thing would be if there were not journalists actively shilling for Clinton. She has a historically massive campaign budget, she clearly invests an incredible amount of thought, energy and resources into media messaging, she has a massive network of professional, high-placed media contacts that she has built for decades and decades, and she stands atop an enormous apparatus of SuperPACs, organizational allies, and activists over whom she only has extremely limited control. She isn't unique in this regard; the same situation holds for most of her opponents, and even the sainted Bernie Sanders probably has a few media figures in his back pocket.

Regardless, Hess isn't wrong in regarding suspicion of the media as a "problem" for the Sanders campaign. He may have an army of Reddit trolls and Twitter eggs, but if Clinton's base of media power is anywhere, it's among the professional journalists and career columnists with giant corporate platforms, huge advertising budgets and massive promotional engines at their backs. These are of course precisely the people who are most likely to defensively circle the wagons as soon as the integrity (and competence) of the media is called into question. From there, of course, the temptation will be to fold that defense -- to "put it all together" -- into a broader indictment of the campaign itself, precisely as Hess does here.