Posted Wednesday morning, March 7, 2018.
P.G. Wodehouse said drama critics only come out after dark, up to no good. The New York Times’ new politics editor is a drama critic at heart...
Judi Dench as Paulina and Kenneth Branagh as one of Shakepeare's most dunderheaded leading men in a 2015 production of "The Winter’s Tale,” a play Shakespeare did not write as a lesson in political philosophy for 21st Century American candidates for President. Photo by Johan Persson via The New York Times.
The New York Times has named Patrick Healy to head the Times’ coverage of the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election and when I heard this my first thought was “Oh good, just what political journalism needs---more theater criticism.”
It’s a longstanding complaint of mainstream political reporting that it values performance over policy, “character” over record, and dramatics over governance or rather covering governance as if it’s important because it’s dramatic and interesting only when it’s dramatic----basically covering politics as theater. But Healy is literally a theater critic. On and off over the course of his career at the Boston Globe and the Times he’s covered politics. Local and national. He did a stint as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq. Back when he was with the Globe, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer for his reporting on a grading scandal at Harvard. He’s earned his chops. But he was also the deputy editor of the Times’ Culture section and as the Times’ post announcing his appointment as politics editor notes with apparent and not unjustified pride, “In between Patrick covered Broadway for Culture…”
Or…a theater critic.
Reminds me of something P.G. Wodehouse said.
“Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime? Of course not! They only come out after dark, up to no good.”
By the way, I was a drama critic myself once. I was always up to no good, but I had fun and I took the work seriously because the people whose work I got paid to criticize took that work seriously and readers of the newspaper I wrote for had to pay serious money to see that work and read my reviews in order to get an idea if that work was worth the money to see and art and culture are serious matters even when they’re fun. So it’s no disparagement in my eyes to call Healy a theater critic---except when he’s covering politics, something he doesn’t really like to do, judging by a column he wrote in December of 2015. In that column he complained that it bored him. He also barely bothered to conceal his dislike for Hillary Clinton and advised her to start modeling herself on a character in a play---basically, he thought she should turn herself into a character he could review as opposed to a potential President whose policies and positions on the issues he had to analyze. Not that he didn’t review her as a character anyway, it just wasn’t as much fun for him as writing about Judi Dench playing the character Healy thought Clinton should be like.
Disliking the Clintons seems to be the first job requirement for anyone who covers national politics for the Times. Healy, as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters points out, was the one who called Hillary’s laugh “the Clinton Cackle” ---and then reviewed it---but the rest of the Times’ political desk and much of the national political press corps cackled along. They’re still cackling at her. The Times has yet to face up to how its relentlessly negative coverage of Clinton helped make Donald Trump President. They haven’t faced up to fact that their coverage was relentlessly negative. They certainly haven’t owned up to the damage they wrought with their hysterical reporting on the Comey Letter. But then the Times has never apologized for their Whitewater obsession and all that brought about. And now, as Gertz says:
The Times' top editors think the best option to lead their political coverage is the guy who wrote 900 words on how Clinton's laugh is a "Cackle." They are happy with how their 2016 coverage went. That should make everyone nervous about how the paper covers 2018 and 2020 .
Here’s the link to that column of Healy’s: Lost in the Magic of London’s Theatres. The one-sentence lede tells it all.
Imagine a political journalist having the presumption to give Hillary Clinton a lesson in backbone.
And below is the post I wrote in response. Interesting to note---interesting to me, at any rate---is that I was taking Trump seriously as the front Republican front runner for the nomination at a time when a lot of pundits and journalists were still expecting the Republican “establishment” to put the kibosh on his campaign and nominate one of their own in his place. If I saw him as the credible threat he was, then many much smarter and more influential people were seeing it too and were sounding the alarm. But, then, none of us were seeing him as a “character” in a “drama” staged for our entertainment…
December 5, 2015. Don’t know how it is with you, but one thing that really burns my brisket is reading a smug, privileged journalist who has what I’d regard as a dream job feeling sorry for himself because said dream job isn’t as dreamy as it could be. My brisket chars on both sides when that journalist’s way of solacing himself is to take what I regard as a dream vacation.
New York Times political correspondent Patrick Healy, in desperate need of a break from covering the presidential campaign, fled the cornfields of Iowa and the deep woods of New Hampshire for the theaters of London’s West End.
I had the theater of politics on my brain as I took a break from covering the 2016 presidential race to indulge in my favorite form of escapism: plays and musicals in London. Instead of listening to the same speech at three campaign events a day — candidates are just bad actors with flag pins — I wanted to lose myself to the heady dreams, hilarious squabbles and heartbreaking fates of a strong-willed scientist, a raging drug addict, a one-legged transvestite, a junkyard full of cats and other unforgettable souls. But I also came to the West End to feel a world apart — not just from the crude, improvised drama of the televised presidential debates, but also from the familiar haunts and customs of American theater.
All right. I’m in a bad mood. I’m resentful and full of envy. I’ve got a month-long break from my own dream job coming up but there are no great theater going experiences ahead for us Mannions coming up. If I’m lucky I’ll get to see The Big Short and The Force Awakens and lose myself to the heady dreams, hilarious squabbles, and heartbreaking fates of fallen Jedi and rising hedge fund managers. The most romantic destination on our travel itinerary is my in-laws’ house. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying Healy’s appealing for sympathy from the wrong guy. And there’s something in the tone of that paragraph that grates and it’s not the theater snobbery.
It’s the bit about his having to listen to the same campaign speech three times in a day and candidates being bad actors with flag pins.
The political press corps is lousy with prima donnas who think the whole process of electing the President is an amateur theatrical staged just for them.
If they’re going to be forced to sit through the bad acting and banal writing the candidates stumping should at least say something new, provocative, stupid, or outrageous or, best of all, make a “gaffe” to entertain them and give them something fun and sexy to write about so they don’t fall asleep at their keyboards when they go to file their copy or if they do cause them to have pleasant dreams full of whimsy.
Healy knows those repetitive speeches aren’t being delivered for his benefit. The candidates are speaking to voters and to three different sets of voters. They give the same speech three times a day because people in the crowds weren’t in the previous crowds to hear it before. For many people in the crowds, campaign rallies are entertainment. It’s what they have in place of lots of frequent flyer miles to cash in and tickets to opening night. He knows all this. And he understands. But it wears on an elite journalist of a sensitive nature and refined intelligence and he must seek replenishment.
Like I said. A bad mood.
Or maybe I was just put off from the start by Healy’s lede.
In the perfect stillness of a London theater, where audience members are savvy enough to stop eating candy during a big scene, Ms. Dench is delivering a master class in political gutsiness in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” As Paulina, the ally of a wronged queen, she is unflinching as she faces the jealous king Leontes, played by Kenneth Branagh. He hurls insults — “audacious lady,” “mankind witch,” “gross hag” — not unlike Donald J. Trump’s attacks on Mrs. Clinton and Carly Fiorina. But Ms. Dench doesn’t blink, which you can actually notice because of the intimacy of London playhouses.
Is there a candidate in this race less in need in a lesson in backbone than Hillary Clinton, let alone one from an actress playing a fictional character dealing from a stacked deck as she takes the audience’s side against one of Shakespeare’s least appealing and most dunderheaded leading men? I’d be inclined to think that was the basis of Healy’s point, that even someone with the iron spine of Hillary Clinton could learn a thing or two from Dench’s performance, if he hadn’t gone and paired her with Carly Fiorina. Clinton has yet to face Trump and hasn’t had to stand up to his bullying. Fiorina has and, although she maintained some dignity, I don’t think it’s generally agreed she got the better of him. So maybe Healy does think he’s giving Clinton needed advice.
But here’s the thing.
There’s more of a point to this post than me being a grump.
I have a bias.
The political press corps is notorious for writing drama criticism in place of analysis of policies and platforms. When they’re not covering politics as a game, they’re reviewing it as performance art. And Healy a star practitioner. And he works for the Times which is not exactly friendly to Hillary Clinton. My first inclination when I read this piece was to think that if Hillary showed the backbone Healy recommends, he’d find a way to give it a negative review.
The Clinton Rules would dictate it. One of those rules is that any quality journalists and pundits admire in all other politicians is suspicious, ersatz, or outright vicious when exhibited by a Clinton.
Peter Daou, co-editor of the blog #HillaryMen with Tom Watson, laid out the conventions of how those rules are applied with a distinctly sexist spin to Hillary in this post, HILLARY DECODER: THE MASTER GUIDE TO ANTI-CLINTON MEMES.
And it happens that back in 2008, Healy wrote one of the most egregious and salacious stories about the Clintons since the impeachment crisis.
Healy has seen Hillary show his idealized backbone and he has reviewed it positively.
Back in May. Here: Hillary Clinton Shows New Willingness to Tackle Risky Issues.
I try to get as much of my news from reading the newspaper. The world looks a lot different in print than it does in pixels. It makes more sense. But I still spend too much time online and way too much of that time on Twitter and things seep in. I generally like Twitter but it is a minute by minute demonstration of selection bias. And Liberal Twitter is often a closed loop, an echo chamber, and an ongoing experiment in confirmation bias and group think. Get your news and sense of how the world is spinning exclusively from Twitter and all you know isn’t what’s actually going on but what a bunch of people with your biases and prejudices are telling each other is going on. People don’t know things. They know what the people they follow know. And those people know what they people they follow know.
I know the Clinton Rules are real and in force. But I mostly see them in force through outraged tweets from people passing along what they learned from somebody else’s outraged tweets.
This is something to keep in mind when you go read Healy’s report from London for yourself, which you should do. It’s a fun piece, full of vicarious pleasures.
Just don’t let it fill you with resentment and envy like me.
And, by the way, Donald Trump is a lot shrewder, smarter, more conniving, wittier, more verbally dextrous, more conscienceless, and far meaner than Leontes.
Leontes is a jealous dolt and he’s outwitted and out-talked by just about every other character in the play. But he has a heart and deep down he’s basically a good man capable of admitting he’s wrong and asking for forgiveness.
But, as Hamlet says in his play of an antagonist much more formidable than Paulina faces down, Trump is a smiling, damnèd villain!
It’s going to take a lot more than well-acted backbone to get the better of him.
Back to the present: Just to be clear, Healy wrote that column about a month and a half after Clinton did not blink during her eleven hours of testimony before the kangaroo court that went by the name of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. I haven’t checked to see if Healy reviewed that performance or if he reviewed her debates with Trump a year later in which not only did she not blink but wiped the stage with him so I don’t know if he thought she showed sufficient backbone on any of those performances.
Gertz’s post at Media Matters on Healy’s appointment, NY Times election coverage in 2018 and 2020 will be as bad as it was in 2016.
James Fallows writing last fall in the Atlantic about Why The New York Times Should Grapple With Its Coverage of Hillary's Emails. Fallows:
Times editors now seem to resist the very idea that they have anything to re-examine in their approach to the 2016 campaign.
The news about Healy suggests the Times editors are still resisting.