January 22, 2013

Monday’s inauguration ceremony (Reuters)

John Dickerson has one of those great Washington hybrid titles: political correspondent for Slate magazine and political director at CBS News. That double-barreled bio means at least one thing: When Dickerson takes his political analysis to provocative territory, he’s a juicy target for those who despise the mainstream media.

And that’s pretty much the way things went over the weekend. On Friday, Dickerson, in his Slate role, wrote a story titled simply, “Go for the Throat!” The piece chronicled the problem facing President Obama in dealing with his second-term ambitions:

How should the president proceed then, if he wants to be bold? The Barack Obama of the first administration might have approached the task by finding some Republicans to deal with and then start agreeing to some of their demands in hope that he would win some of their votes. It’s the traditional approach. Perhaps he could add a good deal more schmoozing with lawmakers, too.

But the president has decided that accommodation didn’t work, Dickerson notes. So the Slate/CBS analyst takes the logic to its next step:

Obama’s only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition’s most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.

The right didn’t like a guy from Slate, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., and CBS News speaking freely about a strategic imperative to pulverize the Republicans. NewsBusters said this: “[M]aybe someone at CBS ought to remind Dickerson of what his role is at the organization and what it means to be a journalist. Like most in his industry, it appears Dickerson has forgotten.”

Fox News: “To hear Dickerson tell it, Republicans have proved so intransigent that Obama’s only option is to obliterate them. The subhead on the article said, ‘Obama must declare war on the Republican Party’ if he wants to transform American politics.” The Fox piece noted that the Republicans had given ground on taxes in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations and shown new flexibility on raising the debt ceiling.

Now Dickerson is explaining himself. In a piece that just hit the Web, Dickerson starts out, “When you are on the Fox News’ ticker for the wrong reasons, it’s time to put things into context.” The controversial piece, says Dickerson, was political analysis based on some very clear facts — namely, that the president has written off cooperation with Republicans and that he wants a transformative second term: “This is the only plausible path for a bold, game-changing second term for a president who has positioned himself the way President Obama has,” writes the analyst. Dickerson even boasts that his piece “accurately anticipated” the defiance that the president put on display yesterday in his inaugural address.

Dickerson is dead-on correct. Knocking down the arguments of his detractors requires little brain activity:

*He’s giving advice to the president. The analyst challenges this criticism: “Some people thought I was giving the president my personal advice,” writes Dickerson “No. My goal was to make a compelling argument based on the facts.” Whatever his protestations, the piece reads as a cross between advice and analysis. Not personal advice, though. The real scandal would be a situation in which Dickerson were meeting with administration officials on the sly and passing along his wisdom. “Advice” in the form of a published work is something much different — it’s merely a columnist deploying an uncustomary literary device to deliver information. A political director of CBS News, of course, would want to deploy this advice across the political spectrum.

*He’s purveying media bias. Here’s a predictable charge. The truth, however, rubs in the opposite direction.

The columnist’s call for pulverization actually upends the media’s slavish and long-standing bias in favor of the hope and promise of bipartisanship. Any news consumer knows how this bias rolls out. Commentators reflexively praise the act of reaching across the aisle and credit the bold politician who struggles to reach compromise. Partisanship in all its tendentious guises gets treated poorly.

This particular bias often works well for democracy; after all, we don’t want everyone actively rooting for conflict and division. But the role of political analysts is to occasionally jilt received wisdom. When that happens, sometimes people get upset.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.