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The oversimplified coverage of 'tough-talking' Rahm Emanuel

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; C01

Rahm Emanuel's candidate may have won the presidency, but that didn't dull Emanuel's serrated edge.

"He's a guy who stabbed a steak knife into the table at Doe's restaurant after Bill Clinton's election," his former colleague Paul Begala recalls. "He was screaming about people screwing us in the campaign."

The media portrait of the man dubbed Rahmbo -- the foul-mouthed, take-no-prisoners, twist-your-arm-out-of-its-socket operative -- is grounded in reality. But it isn't the whole picture.

Most journalists, to some degree, are caricaturists. We may be interested in nuance and context, but the compression of reporting often reduces people to a couple of attributes at best. You know the shorthand: "tough-talking" and "aggressive," or "soft-spoken" and "mild-mannered."

Guess which sells better at the box office? When you read an account of a closed-door meeting, isn't it more vivid if a politician "demanded" an answer, "shot back" a response or, better yet, banged his fist on the table?

That's why the recently departed White House chief of staff has been such a media favorite (in addition to the fact that he constantly calls reporters, sometimes to spin, sometimes to carp). He is, to trot out another cliche, a larger-than-life character, suitably satirized on "Saturday Night Live."

But the Rahm image, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last week, "doesn't square with the guy I've covered for the past decade. . . . Far from a head-busting capo, I've found him to be more thick-skinned about criticism than most people I write about. Overall, Rahm is a warmhearted Machiavellian."

Some reporters concede the point. "There are two Rahms," says CNN correspondent Ed Henry, who has been on the receiving end of some of his outbursts. "There's the ruthless political operator, and that's been well-chronicled -- fast-talking, expletive-filled, trying to win the day, the hour, the minute. But there's a Rahm heavily focused on major initiatives, deeply involved in policy."

Not everyone agrees. Washington Examiner reporter Julie Mason says the "underreported" story is that Rahm was rough on his staff, especially some of the women. "I'm sure he was very nice to David Brooks," she says. "But to suggest his abrasiveness was a construct of the media doesn't really wash."

Begala says his pal is "a sensitive guy," and he wasn't surprised when Emanuel choked up while talking about his parents during an East Room ceremony marking his departure. But Begala understands why, say, "The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America," which Rahm co-wrote last year, drew little attention:

"You can't expect a serious policy book to get the same amount of coverage as sending a dead fish to a pollster," as Rahm famously did. Henry points out that "it's more fun to write about the ruthless Rahm because it's someone people can relate to."

My periodic dealings with Rahm, dating back to the Clinton White House, suggest a more complicated fellow than the public persona. But that makes me wonder: Do we do this to people all the time? Do we paint everyone, from politicians to athletes to movie stars, in overly broad strokes? To what extent does our coverage oversimplify public figures?

In the case of Christine O'Donnell, those Bill Maher videos, in which she talks about witchcraft, masturbation and evolution, are certainly fair game in her Senate race. There must be more to the Delaware Republican than some wacky things she said a decade ago. But by walling herself off from the media, O'Donnell made it impossible for journalists to cast her in a fuller light.

O'Donnell has now relented, talking briefly to CNN and to the Times' Mark Leibovich for a profile in which her family described how her father had once played Bozo the Clown. Unfortunately, this claim came into question, and Leibovich wrote in a follow-up blog post that "I was mortified to have possibly played a small role in perpetrating such a falsehood." Daniel O'Donnell later told the reporter he had been a part-time clown but not an official Bozo.

Even accessible politicians have had the media crowd brand them with clownish labels. "I'm guilty of it," Mason says. "Look at the way we write about Joe Biden: the backslapping, glad-handing, gaffe-prone goofball. That doesn't define him at all."

Meanwhile, the White House press corps is left with someone who is hard to caricature as anything other than colorless. There are few anecdotes about interim Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, a behind-the-scenes guy so averse to publicity that he didn't speak at his own announcement ceremony. Some reporters will be tempted to fly to Chicago and cover Rahm's race for mayor, hoping for some fireworks. If he wins, though, he may fade from the national radar, much as Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he completed the transition from celebrity candidate to workaday governor. This label for the press, at least, is accurate: far better at covering campaigning than covering governing.

Leaning which way?

MSNBC has a new slogan -- "Lean Forward" -- that has skeptics wondering what the network of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is trying to say.

"A rather halfhearted attempt by MSNBC to gloss its same-old lefty line with a coat of empty post-ideological babble," Daniel Foster writes on National Review Online.

Nonsense, says MSNBC President Phil Griffin, recalling that he got the idea watching Bryant Gumbel lean forward in his chair. "Lean forward has so many meanings," he says. "One is, be engaged. Don't be scared. Don't lean back and be dismissive. Be passionate. Don't lean right, don't lean left. It's a sensibility."

But the extent to which the cable channel's reputation poses a marketing challenge is reflected on its Web site. As the New York Times reported, MSNBC.com is considering changing its name to distance itself from the liberal network. The problem: A different moniker might reduce traffic for one of the most popular online portals.

Follow the money

This is one way to underwrite journalism: ABC News will launch a year-long examination of health crises around the world with a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The network will kick in $4.5 million and retain editorial control.

Editor ousted

Bill Marimow was canned as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, a casualty of the infighting over the bankrupt paper's future.

The new owner of the paper concluded that Marimow -- a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner -- did not have the necessary background in digital media, the Inquirer reported. Philadelphia Media Networks, owned by 32 financial institutions, bought the Inquirer at a bankruptcy sale. Stan Wischnowski, the deputy managing editor for operations, was named acting editor.

Marimow had been editor of the Baltimore Sun, but was replaced in 2004 after battling budget cuts at the paper. He became a top executive at National Public Radio before being tapped for the Inquirer job in 2006 by the man who bought it from McClatchy Newspapers.

The latest owners, of course, get to install whomever they want. But dumping a proven journalistic commodity such as Marimow, who will stay on as a reporter, speaks volumes about what the new company values.

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