The biennial midterm in American politics is almost always a time of turnover in presidential administrations. Appointees may be out of favor, or frustrated, or tired, or just eager to make some money; they leave. Elections that deliver a drubbing to the administration’s party, like our most recent one, make this sort of change even more likely.
All of which means there’s nothing too surprising or tumultuous about White House personnel change on the scale that we’re seeing this week — with the departures of President Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs and political adviser David Axelrod, both of whom will continue to work on behalf of the president but from a greater distance, and the appointment of a new chief of staff and chief economic adviser. As Marc Ambinder wrote at the National Journal, the changes leave the president with “a different — but strangely familiar — cast of advisers, some playing new roles.”
So is this the big White House shake-up the Wall Street Journal promised us two months ago?
On the eve of the election, a Journal story offered dire warnings of just such an event, leaving a distinct impression of drawn knives and imminent bloodletting. Soon after, a MediaBugs error report raised a big red flag over the piece.
Here was the gist of the Journal piece: “Some high-level Democrats are calling for President Barack Obama to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers in response to what many party strategists expect to be a decisive defeat on Tuesday.” A perfectly plausible notion. But, as our bug filer pointed out, the Journal offered not a single actual high-level Democrat — named or otherwise — calling on Obama to fire anyone.
Usually, when an inside-the-Beltway story reports a looming event without any evidence, the explanation is that some political insider has leaked the information on background. It’s then up to reporters and editors to decide whether the leak is a real story that readers deserve to hear about (usually, this means finding confirming sources), or a self-serving maneuver on the part of the leaker. In other words, is the scoop real, or is the press being manipulated?
Unfortunately, all the incentives in our current media environment push the newsroom to publish the rumor either way. Doing so seizes attention and stirs discussion. If it turns out to be a real story, great; if it turns out to be part of some manipulative corridors-of-power kabuki, well, so what? Your news organization will rarely pay a price for donning a mask and assuming a role in that shadow play. The world will forget and move on.
In this case, if Obama, fast on the heels of the election, had announced an administration-insiders’ bloodbath, firing people like Axelrod and confidante Valerie Jarrett, then the Journal could credibly say, “See? We got the story right. Sorry we couldn’t tell you how at the time!” Media critics might still bridle at the story’s technique, but the newspaper could reasonably argue that the public interest was served.
But the shake-up never materialized. There was no chorus of Democratic party establishment types demanding one. Instead, there’s just been some standard-issue midterm turnover — which the Journal, like other news organizations, has covered without reference to its previous story. And we’ll never know who, exactly, was trying to serve what purpose in the days before the election of spreading a portrait of infighting in the West Wing.
After some effort on MediaBugs’ part, we received a response from the Journal’s assistant managing editor to the MediaBugs report. She disputed its premise, maintaining that the story was “solid and complete.” That’s where the issue stands; we’ve closed the bug out (as we do after two months) as “unresolved.”
MediaBugs itself doesn’t offer a ruling on “who’s right.” If you’re interested, you can go read the Journal story, read the bug report, and decide for yourself.
This process may not provide satisfaction to the critics of a media report or vindication for the journalists involved. But it does leave what I think is a useful and valuable public record of the disagreement, more organized and authoritative than a simple blog post. Over time, a repository of such records might restore some accountability for misconceived stories — and even begin to reverse the tide of public distrust in the media.