‘President Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law on Monday afternoon, a bipartisan victory that will pour billions into the nation’s roads, ports and power lines.”
That was the first sentence of a Nov. 15 New York Times article on Biden’s infrastructure bill and a great illustration of why neither elite journalism nor elite politics will save us in our current moment of overlapping existential crises — from authoritarianism to climate change.
As with the rest of the article and virtually all of the elite press attention given the political machinations that made the bill signing possible, that opening sentence is in the mold of what media critic Jay Rosen calls “the savvy style in political journalism.”
Last year, Rosen wrote a perceptive essay for PressThink on why “the savvy style” was so inept at confronting the existential dangers of a Trump presidency.
Media savvy, Rosen writes (quoting a description he’d formulated nine years prior) isn’t about being “honest or correct on the facts,” it’s not about being “just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.”
Savviness, rather, is “that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.
“Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you.”
Savvy-style journalism, Rosen points out, may have worked in a two-party political system in which both parties operate based on shared principles, such as that political power in American democracy should only be secured through free and fair elections.
Savvy-style journalism, however, is not sufficient in a system in which, say, one party is determined to win at whatever cost — free and fair elections be damned. This is what the political analysts Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein call an asymmetric advantage.
Right now, the Republican Party, the rough American equivalent of Russia’s 20th-century Bolsheviks, have benefitted from asymmetric polarization since they were radicalized under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. By this point, as Mann and Ornstein (and a host of others) have demonstrated, the party has stopped even pretending to care about governing.
To make “bipartisanship” a constitutive element of so-called “objectivity” in journalism when one half of the country’s governing apparatus outright rejects government is malfeasant.
Again, take the New York Times article as an example. The bill is framed as a “win” for a sitting president and a “win” for “bipartisanship.”
The Times reporter, Jim Tankersley, describes the bill as a “bipartisan victory” simply because members of both parties signed onto it and because of its monumental price tag.
The Republicans know this is how the bill’s passage will be reported and are demonstrating their own savviness by giving the legislation just enough support by putting a few of their cult members in front of the cameras when Biden signs it and attending the ribbon-cuttings for the infrastructure projects the bill will make possible, largely despite their symbolic and theatrical opposition.
This is precisely how Republicans played the rollout of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (which spent about $50 billion on transportation infrastructure). Most Republicans fought against it, but nonetheless showed up smiling at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies (as Obama rightly pointed out during his famous appearance at the GOP’s House Republican retreat in 2010). Obama’s C-SPAN’ed criticism notwithstanding, the GOP knows the “savvy,” Politico- and ESPN-like political press is feckless at holding them accountable for their mendacity.
The other reason the “savvy style” fails in our current moment is because its emphasis on merely describing how the winners won and being hip to this political cynicism very quickly slips into aiding and abetting when confronted with political players who believe that the truth is whatever they make it.
Take, for instance, Karl Rove, who prefigured the fascism of Donald Trump and the current Republican Party by a few decades.
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” Rove told reporter Ron Suskind in 2004. “And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
And that’s how things have, in fact, sorted out since then, with a lot of help from the media. Because while elite journalists are describing whatever reality those in power make, they’re ignoring the reality of most people in the country, which is partly how we ended up with Trump in the first place.
It’s one thing to describe how decisions are made, which elite media does pretty well. It’s another thing to describe, preferably before they’re made, how those decisions will affect the lives of most Americans, which the “savvy style” rarely does.
“The victory comes at a precarious political moment for Mr. Biden,” Tankersley writes, saying nothing of the precariousness of the people in this country who are most materially precarious.
The president’s “poll numbers have dropped amid rising inflation, which has sent prices for food, gas and household items soaring” and Biden is “struggling to complete the next part of his domestic policy agenda,” which are tax cuts and spending programs focused on issues that don’t really get much detailed attention from the Times.
Again, note that the “struggling” subject, in a sentence that mentions inflated food and gas prices, is the most powerful person in the world not named Zuckerberg or Xi.
Consistent with this “savvy style” reportage, Tankersley’s article almost considers
it a given that the money will actually be spent in the ways that political elites describe, even though the reality most of us inhabit here in our merely middle-class existence tells us that’s rarely the case.
For a more sobering assessment of Biden’s infrastructure bill, I leaned on the coverage at StreetsBlog USA, an online publication that makes its advocacy for human-oriented movement (i.e., walking, bikes, public transit, etc.) very clear.
According to a 2015 article in StreetsBlog, the majority of federal infrastructure spending is funneled through “state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.”
This kind of news coverage puts Biden’s bill in the context of how American urban planning has actually operated since World War II. Reading the Times, you’d think the bill simply sprang from Joe’s head, fully formed.
Philip Harrington, then the acting commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Superhighways, wrote in 1939 that the “direct benefit to motorists” of his proposed system of local superhighways would be “more time savings, more direct routes and accident reduction.” He said neighborhoods would also benefit.
A decade later, construction started on the Eisenhower Expressway. We know how things have turned out since then. They’ve gone just as William Barclay Parson, New York City’s subway system chief, predicted back in 1900, when he lamented about the city’s rapid transit problem.
“The instant this [railway] line is finished there will arise a demand for other lines,” he said. And that’s also been sort of an iron law of roadway construction. More roadway spending begets more roadways which beget more demand which begets more spending.
Meanwhile, our collective quality of life has consistently deteriorated since the proliferation of post-WWII city planning models, centered as they have been on cars and the concept of infinite economic growth over people.
“We now regard the promotion of robust health of body and mind as necessary public duties, in order that the individual may be benefitted, and that the community at large may possess a higher average degree of good citizenship. And after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning,” wrote Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in their famous 1909 Plan of Chicago.
Can you imagine a zoning officer or city planner talking like this today? Of course not and that’s partly because post-WWII urban planning — particularly the emphasis on single-use zoning and highway construction — has been centered on “the twin acts of classifying and counting,” techniques that were “successful in building munitions and allocating troops,” Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck write in Suburban Nation.
The most salient way to gauge Biden’s infrastructure bill is by how it affects most people and our quality of life, not the legacies or electoral prospects of political insiders; how far it goes toward mitigating climate change; and to what extent it returns us to the principles expressed by Burnham and Bennett, which was basically the conventional wisdom among planners before the Second World War.
This kind of analysis isn’t Beltway savvy, it’s just solid wisdom that’s lacking in most mainstream political reporting. Rosen calls this kind of framing “the citizen’s agenda model” of journalism, which he believes is an antidote to the “savvy style” model of elite national journalism.
The more I reflect on this bill within a “citizen’s agenda” framework, the more middling the major “bipartisan victory” described by the Times becomes, and the more the politics that produced the bill and the national journalism that covered its creation look to be productions of what sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1958 called “crackpot realism.”
That’s the frame of mind of the professional managerial class that brought us a slew of other post-WWII “bipartisan victories,” at least so-described by the mainstream press before reality, actual reality, not the kind abstracted from the head of arrogant politicians, settled in like old age on a gangster.
The Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the 1986 Tax Reform Act, the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, you name it. These were all “wins” in their time, before unintended consequences required new “bipartisan victories,” which the mainstream media is always eager to entertain.
“For they still believe that ‘winning’ means something,” Mills wrote of these crackpot realists, “although they never tell us what.”