No, Not Ray Carney…


Veep-elect Joe Biden has picked Jay Carney, Time's Washington bureau chief, to be his communications director. This inspired the historian-pundit Rick Perlstein to dust off a New Republic piece he wrote last year about Carney's conflicts with blog commenters:


On Time's new blog, "Swampland," D.C. Bureau Chief Jay Carney posted a pre-assessment to the State of the Union Address comparing President Bush's political position to Bill Clinton in January of 1995. Like Bush, "President Clinton was in free fall….His approval ratings were mired in the 30's and seemed unlikely to rise."

Moments later, a writer identfiying himself as "Tom T" pointed out an error in Carney's "nut graf" that would have earned a failing grade for a first-year journalism major: "Clinton's approval rating in January of 2005 was 47 percent. It was not mired in the 30s." At 9:12, the blogger Atrios, also known as Duncan Black, alerted his readers to the gaffe, and they descended on the Time blog like locusts–and, to mix the Biblical metaphor, served Jay Carney's head up on a charger. They tabulated several more boneheaded errors: Carney wrote that 1995 was Clinton's first State of the Union "with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole seated behind him as Speaker and Senate Majority Leader"; but, of course, it is the Vice President, not the Senate Majority leader, who sits behind the president. He also wrote of Clinton's "recovery…during Monica, in 1999"–but, as a commenter reminded him, "Clinton never had to 'recover' from Monica, unless polls in the high 50s and 60s are something you have to recover from."

Then the commenters unraveled the entire foundation of Carney's argument. He had said that, because "Americans reward presidents who, even in the face of enormous distractions, focus on issues that matter to them…Bush won't spend much time tonight talking about surging troops in Iraq or the Global War on Terror." But, as writers identifying themselves as "jjcomet," "dmbeaster," and "Newton Minnow" pointed out, the issue of greatest concern to the nation "is far and away the war in Iraq, at 48% the only issue in double digits." Another made a similar point, shall we say, more qualitatively: "The Iraq War is a DISTRACTION?? Are you serious? Am I wrong or did he compare the Lewinski scandal to Iraq??? What is the matter with you!?!?"

At which Carney snapped back so churlishly ("the left is as full of unthinking Ditto-heads as Limbaugh-land") that, for a moment, it was hard even to remember–why was it, again, that we were supposed to defer to the authority of newsweeklies (and the mainstream press) in the first place? Carney was rude and wrong. The barbaric yawpers of the netroots were rude and right.

On one point, I think Carney's controversial comments were defensible: Given the strain that Monicagate put on his presidency, I don't think it a stretch to say that Clinton had to "recover" from it, whatever his poll numbers might have been. Otherwise, though, the netrootsers ate him for lunch. For Perlstein, the event "inaugurated a rough week for those who still wish to uphold a model of cultural authority in which the fact that someone is a professional with a famous name–credentialed by other professionals with famous names–can serve as a reasonable proxy for trustworthiness. It marked one more step in the arrival of our new, more uncomfortable media world–one in which, to judge a piece of writing, we must gauge not the status of the writer, but his or her words themselves, unattached to the author's worldly rank."

Which means, I suppose, that Carney has made a smart career move. If you like to confuse rank with trustworthiness, there's no better job than political flak.

Elsewhere in Reason: Our editors praised Perlstein's books here and here, while attacking his views on firefighting here.