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The Traveling Press Courtiers
Adversarial journalism has been replaced by secretarial journalism.

Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing

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Matthew Continetti

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.

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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 HealthCare.gov, by the tens of millions of other people whose health-care arrangements will be inconvenienced by the Affordable Care Act.



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