Dirty Pool

Column: The rise of secretarial journalism

Vice President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao
Vice President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Li Yuanchao / AP
December 6, 2013

It was a sunny day in Beijing on Thursday—refreshingly sunny, to be more precise—when Vice President Joe Biden met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. I know this because I have read the pool report of the occasion, a pithy and practically content-free piece of journalism that is nevertheless one of the more entertaining things to enter my inbox in recent days. The pool report confirms the lingering suspicion—if it hasn’t been confirmed a million times already—that the line between journalism and Democratic Party cheerleading has more than faded. It has become invisible.

Pool reports are summaries of official events distributed to reporters, who then use the information to write articles or produce news packages. The building blocks of journalism, involving basic details such as names, places, and local color, pool reports are typically written by members of the periodical press. But the Internet has thrown open the question of what the periodical press is. And in the case of Vice President Biden’s visit with the Chinese collective oligarchy at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound, the pool report was composed and issued by someone who is not a member of the periodical press, someone who is not really "a journalist," as the term is broadly understood, at all. His name is Steve Clemons.

Clemons is a Washington hand and bon vivant who has spent a long career working for a Democratic senator, working for think tanks, and working in the interstices of online journalism, event programming, and D.C. social climbing. For some time he has been parked at the New American Foundation—a center-left think tank that recently hosted an event for an anti-Israel screed written by the son of a top Clinton confidante—and at the Atlantic Monthly, where he is "Washington editor at large." Politico has described him as a "foreign policy ‘super-agent,’" and the foreign policy for which he flacks lines up remarkably closely with the "realist" policy of the Obama administration: eager to negotiate with traditional adversaries, convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of Middle East turmoil, and determined to prevent neoconservatives and the dastardly Israel Lobby from committing America to foreign entanglements. Clemons was a key player in the campaign to install as America’s secretary of defense the embarrassingly stupid Chuck Hagel. He is not, let us be clear, a "disinterested observer." I look forward to Sean Hannity's pool reports from President Ted Cruz's state visit to France.

Clemons's prose is clichéd. "Good morning from refreshingly sunny Beijing where the skies are robin egg blue," began his first report. Biden did not just greet his Chinese counterpart, Clemons said. Biden "warmly greeted" him. After an exchange of pleasantries, "your pool was then escorted out to brisk air, sunny skies, and a momentary look at the gardens and other pavilions of the exclusive Zhongnanhao Compound." I hope your pool made the moment count, since he got closer to the center of Chinese authoritarian decision-making than most Chinese ever will. Dan Balz can rest easy: Clemons is not coming for his job anytime soon. Biden Deputy Chief of Staff Shailagh Murray, on the other hand, who used to be a "journalist" herself—well, Shailagh, you better watch out.

"An awkward thing happened in which your pool inadvertently became part of the story," Clemons reported. The awkward thing was this: The vice president, in conversation with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, began gesturing at Clemons and saying, "He is a very important man. Seriously he is important."

"Your pool demurred as best he could"—I’m sure he did—but Biden continued, telling Li that he should bypass the diplomatic niceties and talk directly with Clemons. "He is the one you really want to speak to. Seriously." Later Biden bought Clemons a Magnum ice cream bar. But do not assume that the gift of delicious ice cream from a powerful admirer would affect our correspondent’s reportage. "Your pool decided to find out how much the Magnum bar cost and return that amount of yuan to Vice President Biden." And the First Amendment endured.

Remarkably, no one in the traveling press corps seems to have thought it weird, much less wrong, to assign pool reports to a Beltway player so in sync with the administration’s foreign policy, so beloved by the vice president. "Thanks again to @SCClemons of @The Atlantic for a colorful pool report from the Biden trip," tweeted CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. "Colorful" is one word for it. "Useless" and "self-indulgent" are others. The vice president himself, by continually referring to "your pool," seems to have understood better than the traveling press the conflict of interest presented by Clemons. Or perhaps the press, in giving Clemons the pool assignment, sought to show to the world, in a passive-aggressive way, just how phony and strained the coverage of this White House is. Whatever their reasons, neither Clemons nor anyone else in the press corps traveling with Biden seems to have asked what the vice president’s son Hunter, a former lobbyist with manifold business interests, was up to while accompanying dad on his East Asian tour. Or would asking that question hurt one’s future job prospects?

Adversarial journalism has been replaced by secretarial journalism. Obamacare’s glitches have not slowed the trend. While Robert Pear of the New York Times has been skeptical and critical of the Obamacare rollout, his colleagues on the paper’s political team are eager to return to boosting the program's namesake. "Democrats’ Latest Campaign for Health Care Law Begins," read the front-page headline on Thursday’s paper. "Seizing on the good news of an improving health care website and rising enrollments," write Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear, President Obama and his allies on Wednesday "highlighted parts of the law that are popular with the public and reminded Americans, and the law’s opponents, of what would be lost if the Affordable Care Act were repealed."

Good news? Improving health care website? Rising enrollments? That picture of the world seems to me rather different than the one experienced by, say, the millions of people in the individual insurance market who have lost their health plans, by the insurance companies whose communications with the feds seem haphazard and error-ridden, by the consumers who do not fall under the "vast majority of users" able to access, by the tens of millions of other people whose health-care arrangements will be inconvenienced by the Affordable Care Act.

But it is a picture of the world that has much in common, that is identical in fact, with the one being painted by the communications gurus and pollsters and political impresarios inside the Obama White House. After the last several weeks, Democrats are in need of a confidence boost, and the editors of the Times are ready to provide one. "Democrats’ Health Law Counteroffensive is Up and Running" ran the jump headline of the Weisman-Shear article. After sighing in relief, a reader of the Times need not go far to read another piece of hard-hitting shoe-leather, "In Obama’s Book List, Glimpses of His Journey." In it Peter Baker tries desperately to find the hidden meaning in the president’s taste for trendy literary fiction that is often reviewed but seldom read.

"A reading list offers a rare window into the presidential mind, a peek at what a commander in chief may be thinking beyond the prosaic and repetitive briefings that dominate his days." What the president’s fondness for titles such as Netherland, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, All That Is, and The Lowland shows, in my opinion, is his familiarity with developments in the publishing world, his writer’s interest in the interior, the marginal, the psychological, the twee. His predecessor was known for consuming histories and biographies of great statesmen. The nonfiction title most associated with President Obama is plagiarist Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World. We can’t say he didn’t warn us.

Americans may be tiring of glimpsing Obama’s journey, but our secretarial media is not. Their fascination and support for modish liberalism is one of the reasons their industry is dying. When Steve Clemons provides content more or less indistinguishable from a reporter’s, why hire the reporter?

Recently, for example, Hillary Clinton has been allowing extremely wealthy people the privilege of paying her $200,000 to ask her questions. Her preferred interlocutor is Democratic heavy lifter David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group. On Wednesday evening he interviewed Clinton before an audience of VIPs—the full spectrum of American life, from Steve Rattner to Christiane Amanpour to Bill Daley—at a memorial event for the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Maggie Haberman of Politico reports that Rubenstein grilled Clinton for 30 minutes on such pressing topics as "her law school days and why she chose Yale over Harvard … how her family reacted when she moved to Arkansas; her rival Rick Lazio walking to the podium to try to get her to sign a soft-money pledge during their 2000 Senate race debate; a moment when she said she knew she’d won the race; and Obama imploring her to become secretary of state after their hard-fought 2008 contest." Rubenstein also asked Clinton if she’s ever thought about joining a private equity firm. "Is that an offer?" Clinton replied. Oh, how the audience laughed.

The accommodation with the Iranian regime did not come up during the conversation. Syria does not seem to have come up. Nor does Chinese saber rattling. The bin Laden raid came up, mainly as an opportunity for Clinton to say that she supported it. When Haberman asked Rubenstein why he had no questions on important diplomatic affairs for the woman who has as good a claim as any to be the next president, Rubenstein said Clinton wouldn’t have given him direct answers to such questions, so why ask them in the first place. "I’m not a journalist," he said. "I’m a businessman." Would the interview really have been any different otherwise? Would we actually be able to tell the difference between a softball interview by David M. Rubenstein and a softball interview by Michael D. Shear?

Denying the obvious truth that her paper has a liberal bias, the Times editor Jill Abramson once told Michael Kinsley that her news pages represent "a sort of cosmopolitan outlook." How right she was. The sort of cosmopolitan outlook shared by the wealthy and well educated is in such great supply that journalists are in danger of becoming unnecessary. Any member of their class is able to  perform their function. Not long from now we will dispense with the middle-man altogether, and the news will come to you directly from the salaried functionaries of the powerful themselves, from their friends and cronies, from the fashionable and righteous and cosmopolitan taking dictation in exclusive gardens and pavilions, enjoying the brisk air under refreshingly sunny, egg-shell blue skies.