Plott’s piece is a defense of access journalism by way of praising Richard Ben Cramer’s book What it Takes. Cramer’s book, she says, showed “Bush not as someone above us—someone who considers our nation’s most explosive secrets, who connects with foreign leaders via direct line—but as one of us.”
One of us.
Here are some facts about George H. W. Bush: His father was Prescott Bush, a senator from Connecticut and an investment banker, just like everyone else. Like his dad, he went to Yale (as did Plott) and was literally in Skull and Bones, just like everyone else. After the war, he was hired by a “firm whose board members included his father,” just like everyone else. By age 40, he was a millionaire—a million dollars in 1964 would be worth more than $8 million today—just like everyone else.
Let’s charitably put aside the utter ridiculousness of using “us” to mean “the elites” (boy, there’s been a lot of that this week!) and focus on what she meant: That revealing personal, day-to-day aspects of a politician’s life makes them “one of us” in the sense that they’re just a regular human being. For Plott, finding out what a person is like behind the curtain of the political stage is a dying art:
In the days since Bush’s death on November 30, his family, friends, and the reporters who covered him have told their own stories about the times they saw Bush do what any man might do—write thank-you notes, remember birthdays, bond with grandkids. Each story is a way for its teller to reflect, in ways people don’t typically do now with respect to politicians, on Bush’s humanity—and on how fortunate they felt for that bit of privilege: I glimpsed what lay behind the veneer.
Garsh. He wrote a thank-you note. He had human grandchildren. Who could imagine?
She takes the anecdote of Bush failing to throw a decent first pitch at the National League Championship Series—I get it, that happened to me just last week—as an example of a humanizing and revealing anecdote only made possible through “access journalism.” That kind of journalism, she says, is “often the best—sometimes even the only—way to dimensionalize a subject, to gain intimate knowledge of the ordinary habits and hurts and hangups that inform their behavior in extraordinary circumstances.”
Plott goes on to say that critics of access journalism don’t realize what we’d miss out on without it:
A lot of folks like to sneer at so-called “access journalism,” as though the only way to convince a subject to talk is by promising them a puff piece (how ridiculous this is should go, I hope, without saying) [...] And in politics, it is an avenue through which readers can decide whether the person behind the policies is worthy of empathy or respect.
Access journalism isn’t just promising a subject a puff piece in return for access. It can be much more subtle than that. If you’re really good at it, your subjects won’t even have to ask if your piece will be gentle with them because they know it will. Access journalism, as Leah Finnegan wrote in the Outline, is also “not only believing people in power, but protecting their identities even when they are wrong or lying”; it’s not even asking the question because you know it might disrupt future coverage; it’s going to off-the-record parties with sources, chumming it up, and posting your selfies with them on Instagram.
If Plott wanted a good example of how access journalism works in practice, she might have turned to one of her employer’s former contributing editors, Marc Ambinder. Ambinder infamously negotiated with Hillary Clinton hack Philippe Reines in order to get advance access to a copy of a speech she would give, taking orders from Reines to use the word “muscular” to describe her foreign policy. What a loser.
In the piece, Plott also reveals how little she understands of the politicians’ side of this bargain—a bargain that only ever suits those in power. She praises Bush for allowing himself to be accessed, writing that he “didn’t shield the stuff that made him human from the people who covered him.”
Why would he shield that stuff? Very few politicians fail to recognize the advantages of them allowing credulous journalists to see the stuff that “makes them human”—being unable to throw a ball, enjoying hot sauce, vomiting on the Japanese prime minister, that sort of thing. Politicians actively provide these kind of humanizing tidbits, like Ted Cruz pretending to be a Simpsons fan or George H.W. Bush and his fucking socks. Not only does that stuff take up column inches that could otherwise be dedicated to actually covering their atrocious policies, but it softens the journalist’s resolve to fillet them as coldly as they should. The target for these humanizing anecdotes isn’t the reader—it’s the journalist.
In this piece, Plott reveals herself as an easy mark. She is telegraphing—possibly on purpose, but more likely by accident of her genuinely felt support of insider journalism—her willingness to let powerful people walk all over her. She’s fallen victim to this before.
This isn’t to say that journalists can’t say anything at all about politicians as people, or that it’s not ever of interest to know what they’re like behind the curtain. I’m happy for a piece to include a charming anecdote about Barack Obama’s Spotify playlists if the journalist also asks him tough questions about drone strikes and climate change; funny how that so rarely happens in the same piece, isn’t it? But Plott goes so far as to argue that more of this sort of coverage would somehow improve “partisanship” in America:
In the Trump era, where cries of “fake news” abound and the president views the media as the enemy, it’s hard to imagine a resurgence of such access to politicians as people. But it’s worth considering how partisanship might change in this country if our leaders were more open about the things they do that any man might do—if, after messing up, they chose to bury their head in their hands, rather than run to the spin room.
Again, Plott is demonstrating her completely superficial understanding of politics and politicians. Partisanship is not a result of us not hearing enough about George H.W. Bush talking to his grandkids. It’s largely a result of one party devoting itself to racist, reactionary politics in the service of global corporate interests, but that’s another conversation for another time. More importantly, if you’re an immigrant who is now too terrified to get free baby formula for your child because you heard it might mean you can’t get a green card, you probably don’t care very much whether John Bolton’s guilty pleasure is watching Real Housewives; if you’re a poor person in Arkansas and you just found out you got dropped from Medicaid because of work requirements you didn’t know existed, it’s not all that relevant to you if John Kelly stubbed his toe and said the F-word.
For comfortable D.C. journalists—the sort who might go from the Ivy League to a Buckley Fellowship at the National Review and then to a more prestigious magazine and a CNN gig—the material effects of politics are much less likely to reach you. Politics is, as Chris Hooks wrote in 2016, “the way we distribute pain”—it’s “how we determine who gets medication and who dies young, who learns in a class of twenty kids and who learns in a class of thirty.” But what is politics if you’re privileged enough to insulate yourself from that pain? How do you view politics if you can pay for private schools? If you have good, employer-sponsored healthcare? It’s unlikely you’ll ever have to deal with Medicaid work requirements or skip taking the meds you need to make rent. You don’t have to choose between feeding your kids and buying their birthday gifts. So the import of politics isn’t “will I be able to eat” or “will I be deported,” it’s “are they nice chaps?”
For most people, the vast majority of politicians are not “one of us,” nor do they act like it. An AIDS victim in the ‘90s wouldn’t feel much warmer about Bush knowing the former president felt bad about not being able to throw a damn baseball. A Honduran mother fleeing violence and arriving to tear gas at our border would likely give you a blank stare if you related a charming anecdote about Stephen Miller getting locked in the bathroom at Jonathan Swan’s last soiree.
If you think the personal aspect of politicians is so charming, or has any import in this day and age, you should probably quit journalism and go and work for one of them. I think they’d be happy to have such a team player.