Can The Note save itself?

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The unexpected personnel notice posted by ABC News on March 21 no doubt raised eyebrows among the Beltway's political and media elite. The network announced that Mark Halperin, the high-profile and plugged-in director of ABC's political unit and author of the influential daily tip sheet The Note, was leaving his coveted position to become an ABC News analyst.

The unexpected personnel notice posted by ABC News on March 21 no doubt raised eyebrows among the Beltway's political and media elite. The network announced that Mark Halperin, the high-profile and plugged-in director of ABC's political unit and author of the influential daily tip sheet The Note, was leaving his coveted position to become an ABC News analyst.

According to a statement issued by ABC News chief David Westin, Halperin requested the move, which itself prompted head-scratching on many levels. According to Westin, Halperin sought the job change to free up time to write another book. Yet, last year, Halperin co-authored The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 while serving as ABC's political unit director, so obviously the two simultaneous tasks are possible.

In his new job, Halperin will serve as an ABC analyst and pontificate on television. But Halperin was already doing that in his old job at The Note, routinely showing up on ABC News programs -- not to mention as a regular on PBS' Charlie Rose -- giving the insider spin on developing political stories. Viewed from outside ABC News, it appears as though Halperin just walked away from The Note in order to accept a job he already had: that of an ABC News pundit.

Halperin defines the term "political junkie." His book obsessed for more than 400 pages on the best strategy for candidates to employ during the 2008 White House race. The idea that Halperin would voluntarily walk away from his powerful position at the closely watched Note before the all-important presidential campaign kicked into high gear seems odd. For The Note, including the people who write it and those who read it, a wide-open race for the White House with no incumbent or even a sitting vice president in the field represents a coveted, once-in-a-generation political event. And as the author of the five-times-a-week Note, Halperin enjoyed what was arguably the most influential position in Beltway journalism -- somebody who truly helped set the news-cycle agenda day in and day out.

An inside-baseball daily for a readership dubbed the "Gang of 500" (politicians, lobbyists, consultants, and journalists who help shape the Beltway's public agenda), The Note was labeled in a lengthy, laudatory 2004 New Yorker feature "the most influential tip sheet in Washington." Few disagreed. The Note, committed to obediently reflecting the Beltway's chattering class, remains a central engine that drives conventional wisdom, which The Note clearly idolizes.

Meanwhile, right after Halperin announced his resignation as director of ABC's political unit and handed over stewardship of The Note, it went on hiatus, with a stripped-down "Mini-Note" taking its place online. "The Note is undergoing some changes," read the vague ABC notice posted last week, which promised the return of a full-length Note. Gone for now are Halperin's trademark long doses of daily spin wrapped around the day's must-read articles and essays. Instead, The Mini-Note simply links to a laundry list of articles. Officials at ABC say the timing of the two events -- The Note's retooling and Halperin's departure -- is coincidental, while Halperin himself isn't saying much. He declined comment to The New York Sun last week for an article it published regarding changes at The Note. (Beltway insiders were suffering from "Note withdrawal," the Sun reported.)

Whether intentional or not, the turn of events at The Note provides ABC News executives the perfect opportunity to save The Note from itself. If they are smart, ABC bosses will keep Halperin's original model of a one-stop, must-read daily catalog of political articles, while stripping away the increasingly corrosive and damaging baggage that the former director had accumulated and tied around The Note like an anchor.

The simple truth is that with Halperin at the helm, The Note went all-in on the Bush White House. In January 2006, Halperin was so bowled over by President Bush's rhetorical flourish that he announced, "That is the kind of answer and vision that will get a man's approval rating back over 53% any day now." At the same time, The Note has often treated Democrats with open contempt, for instance, labeling former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe a "Cliché-Meister." By falling so madly for Karl Rove, the smartest man in politics ("SMIP") who is "beloved and respected," Halperin and The Note became perfectly aligned with the Bush White House. It was an all-consuming crush that badly skewed The Note's ability to analyze the day's news events. (Halperin leaves behind a string of pro-Bush howlers that raise serious doubts about his much-hyped ability to expertly analyze American politics. More on those later.) And now that the Bush administration has fallen into complete disrepair, a state that's unlikely to be dramatically altered during the next 20 months, The Note would be wise, during this time of transition, to set a new course.

Indeed, if The Note wants to maintain its relevance, and if it wants to erase its already-established reputation as a laughingstock among increasingly influential progressives and Democrats, The Note will throttle back on its rampant, worshipful coverage of Republicans before it's too late.

Here's hoping that a new generation of ABC News political junkies takes The Note in a more transparent, honest, and substantive direction. And please, can The Note finally walk away from the creepy and incessant public stroking of media egos that Halperin promoted? For instance, The Note announced that The New York Times' Adam Nagourney was a "poet/historian," that former U.S. News & World Report writer Roger Simon flashed "brilliance, elan, and grace," and that the work of Mike Allen (then with Time) was "indescribably delicious."

In The Note's world, the media players themselves, their promotions and their preening, rank right up with the policymakers they're covering. Journalists are part of the show, and their savvy fabulousness should not -- cannot! -- be overlooked or ignored. The Note is this close to printing birth announcements among the Gang of 500.

Also, the unseemly and egregious brand of self-promotion that Halperin engaged in should also be pulled way back. As Eric Alterman noted last year:

ABC News political director Mark Halperin has embarked on the most shameless self-publicity campaign I've ever seen to sell his co-authored love letter to Karl Rove titled The Way to Win. Part of the campaign involves plugging the book every day for three weeks straight on ABC's The Note -- to a degree, I'm guessing, no ABC employee (or employee for any genuine news organization for that matter) has ever exploited the company before for personal gain.

That wasn't Halperin's only tasteless misstep last fall. He became something of a right-wing folk hero when he paraded around on conservative talk shows announcing that the media did, in fact, suffer from a liberal bias. Halperin, an avowed Rush Limbaugh fan, insisted that reporters are "overwhelmingly liberal," confirmed that they "hate the military," are "blind" to their bias, and should use the closing weeks of the campaign season to "prove" their worth to right-wingers. "The reality of how [liberal bias] affects media coverage is outrageous," Halperin announced. (Of course, Halperin insisted that under his watch, ABC News was mostly innocent of those newsroom bias crimes.)

Sean Hannity quickly added Halperin's title to his online book club, alongside titles from Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett. A right-wing blogger at Power Line cheered that he "found Halperin likable and intend[ed] to buy his book." And Fox News' Bill O'Reilly gushed over Halperin's courage to tell it like it really was.

Offering some insight behind his dash to the right, Halperin announced during a friendly interview with O'Reilly that, "[a]s an economic model, if you want to thrive like Fox News Channel -- [if] you want to have a future -- you better make sure conservatives find your product appealing." [Emphasis added.]

Lord knows conservatives have found The Note's product appealing. The Note, October 6, 2005: "From one clear-eyed and whip smart conservative to The Note, regarding our work from yesterday: 'Bingo as usual for The Note.' " And from July 15, 2005: "Who wrote (and edited) the latest very awesome Republican talking points defending Rove that address the Novak situation and much more?"

Halperin was well aware of the chorus of complaints voiced by liberals about The Note. But by all outward appearances, Halperin couldn't have cared less what they thought because he was so committed to appealing to conservatives, making sure they found The Note pleasing. And that worked just fine right up to the midterm elections when Republicans and conservatives ruled Washington and media storylines. (The Note debuted in 2002 and early on provided readers with an invaluable service. By 2005, though, The Note had lurched completely, and unapologetically, into Bush lapdog land.)

But now the game has changed, and The Note needs, for its own sake, to reflect that change. Obviously, it would be best if The Note, as well as all mainstream news outlets, simply performed the same news-gathering task in the same manner regardless of which party was in power. (Journalists aren't supposed to rise and fall, like K Street lobbyists, depending on which political party's in power.) But Halperin made a public choice, for either political or economic reasons, to publicly align The Note with one party over the other, and now ABC needs to clear up the mess Halperin created.

If ABC bosses don't, The Note's going to find itself, in some key ways, on the outside looking in, which would be awkward since The Note's central cachet is that it's supposed to provide readers with the ultimate insider perspective.

Although a creation of the Internet, The Note has always worshipped at the altar of traditional media, bonding effortlessly with print reporters and editors as well as television producers who are content to let Matt Drudge dictate the daily news agenda. And while The Note will always find allies among their ranks, The Note ignores the burgeoning progressive push at its own peril.

Indeed, if it refuses to adapt (i.e. cultivate some actual Democratic sources on the Hill), The Note will simply become an artifact, a journalistic curiosity that will prompt recollections of a peculiar time when the Beltway press inexplicably, and voluntarily, went into the tank for a failed president.

For now, David Chalian, the Halperin deputy who's been promoted to fill his political director position, insists that despite any changes that are being prepared for The Note's return, "The Note is Mark Halperin's brainchild and his baby" and that Halperin's DNA "will still be in the product."

Before deciding whether to retain Halperin's DNA, ABC executives might want to review Halperin's trademark Republicans-up/Democrats-down analysis and prognostication to see if that's the type of bold losing streak The Note wants to continue.

For instance, The Note actually thought the Terri Schiavo right-to-die debacle was going to be a home run for Republicans. "[T]he Republican leadership seems to have succeeded in framing the discourse around a moral question," wrote The Note at the time, faithfully regurgitating GOP spin.

The Note thought Republicans were winning the post-Katrina spin war: "Mr. Bush still hasn't found his footing or his voice on this story, but his side clearly won the last news cycle in raw political terms."

During the 2006 congressional debate about withdrawing troops from Iraq, The Note thought the Democrats' anti-war agenda -- the same agenda that won them control of the House and Senate in November -- was a huge loser. In other words, they were "on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party," in part because "Democrats remain united in their disunity, defensiveness, and distraction." That's right, The Note, deftly reading off Karl Rove's notes, announced Iraq was an electoral problem for the Democrats. ("If I were them," Halperin said of Democrats during a June 22, 2006, interview, "I'd be scared to death about November's elections.")

In June of last year, The Note was confident that "[t]he Democrats still don't actually have enough Senate seats in play to take control of the Senate (or a national message)." Around the same time, The Note accused the Democrats of rooting for more U.S. casualties in Iraq to help the party's political fortunes at home.

Later, The Note published a mock letter from Bush aide Dan Bartlett highlighting the administration's achievements, which seemed less like a satire and more like a job application to the White House communications department. On October 17, 2006, Halperin penned a separate analytical piece for ABCNews.com ("Down but Not Out, GOP Still Has a Chance") in which he insisted that despite an avalanche of polls indicating otherwise, Republicans might not do so badly in the midterm elections.

Days later, The Note lost it completely and spewed the same kind of pent-up frustration that was no doubt felt inside the RNC headquarters. Halperin's Note announced that the press had essentially picked sides in the campaign and was working overtime to defeat Republicans. Sounding more like an unhinged Brent Bozell than the director of a network news unit, Halperin's list of accusations ran under the heading "How the (liberal) Old Media plans to cover the last two weeks of the election." (No. 8: "Drop any pretense of covering good news from Iraq ... or good news about the economy.")

More recently, when Bush's forgettable appearance on 60 Minutes generated shrugs among media commentators, The Note, wildly impressed, cheered: "On Iraq, the President had his best TV performance in years, minueting with Scott Pelley on '60 Minutes.' "

You get the idea. The Note's been cribbing off Karl Rove's talking points for way too long. Let's hope the new Note tosses those tattered notes, drops the phony Beltway-reporters-are-celebrities shtick, and gets back to its journalistic roots.

Network/Outlet
ABC
Show/Publication
The Note
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