THERE ARE THREE MEDIA ANALYSTS who command wide readership and deserve their influence--Jay Rosen of NYU, who writes PressThink, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine and now the New York Times, and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.
Of the three, Kurtz commands the largest audience because he has managed the old media-new media divide admirably, writing for both audiences with humor and spark. But even the best stumble, and Kurtz did so on Tuesday in his Media Notes column, and in a very telling way. Wrote Kurtz about Howard Dean and Ken Mehlman:
"On the other hand, journalists should thank their lucky stars that they have a colorful chairman [Dean] to cover, as opposed to another strictly-on-message Ken Mehlman type."
This is a give-away, a truly candid aside that tells us a great deal about mainstream media. That the media love an easy story is no big surprise, but that they love a loudmouth, vulgar, and easily excitable small-state pol is interesting. But what is really revealing is Kurtz's contempt for Mehlman, who along with Karl Rove is one of the few political geniuses to come along in the past generation.
I have interviewed Mehlman perhaps a hundred times, and have rarely known how he would answer a question. Just last week we tangled over whether Lincoln Chafee ought to be reelected--I don't think so, but Mehlman does--and he marshaled surprisingly convincing arguments on Chafee's behalf. (Not persuasive enough for me, I hasten to add; more on the necessity of beating Chafee like a bongo drum will follow in future columns).
Mehlman is never not full of facts, and facts of the sort that political reporters ought to love, like the number of total contributors to Bush-Cheney in 2004, and the average dollar contribution of those donors. Mehlman can quickly and accurately summarize every key race in 2006, and update you as well about the state demographics of the battlegrounds. He's a volcano of facts, just not the sort of facts that interest many in the mainstream media. In short, Mehlman's a great source, but Howard Kurtz thinks journalists are better served by Dean because he's "colorful."
And in that aside is the problem with today's political journalism--a keen distaste for the men and women who have the facts and the storyline, matched with a love of the novel and the "colorful."
Most Americans can skip the "color" and prefer the facts. But not journalists interested in their own careers and in stirring the pot. Dean is a Godsend to them for the same reasons Dean is a nightmare for the Democratic party: Dean is all about Dean, a celebrity who frees the political press from the dreary work of having to figure out what is happening in the country and reporting it without embellishment.
Dean makes great copy. Mehlman makes majorities. Until the press figures out that "being on message" means telling the truth about the way Red State America works, keep betting on the mainstream media being surprised, and embarrassed, at how out of touch it collectively is.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.