Haley Barbour's Close Shave
If I were a professor of journalism—anyone? anyone?—and I wanted my eager young scholars to ponder a case study in the rhythms of modern newsmaking, I’d have them pick over the rough patch Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi went through in mid-December. It lasted 72 hours or so, during which he went from plausible and respected presidential prospect to the subject of an Economist story with the death-rattle headline “Is Haley Barbour Racist?” I had a good vantage on Barbour’s descent because I wrote the article that got him into so much trouble. No, that’s not quite right: better to say, I wrote the article that was read by the people who used it to get him into so much trouble. That’s the way trouble gets made in our wired-up, blogged-over, twittering world of never-ending media. It doesn’t take much.
Indeed, in Barbour’s case, all it took was saying this: “I don’t remember it being that bad.” I had asked him about growing up in the segregated South, just as the civil rights movement and the spirit of racial equality had been seeping into places like his hometown of Yazoo City. He told me integration came to the town without violence—and without the interference of the Ku Klux Klan—because civic and business leaders had organized a Citizens Council to keep the Klan at bay. In the end, as I noticed wandering around Yazoo City, the era of integration didn’t last long. Today the public schools are nearly all black and the private schools all white. The residential neighborhoods are divided, too, with a faded downtown slowly collapsing in between. Barbour enrolled his own boys in one of the private schools, an “academy” built explicitly as a refuge for whites fleeing integrated public schools.
The Weekly Standard published the Barbour profile online on a Saturday. The story was first noticed by an obviously overworked writer for Politico, a gossip ’n’ policy publication and an engine of the news cycle that endlessly spins in Washington. The Politico writer zoomed in on Barbour’s comments on race, and the inaccuracies and conjecture so indispensable to Internet news and commentary began at once. He wrote that the Standard’s writer—me—was “sympathetic” to Barbour, which I wasn’t, particularly; and he said the article offered a “preemptive defense” of Barbour’s complacency, which it didn’t. I did note the irony of white political reporters waxing moralistic about race and schools when they send their own children to private schools with a tiny and carefully calibrated minority quota. But that wasn’t meant as a defense of Barbour. It was meant as an insult to moralizing white political reporters.
By Monday morning, the political class was furiously obsessed with Barbour. Left-wing blogs roared in outrage: “Barbour Says Segregation ‘Not that Bad’?” was a typical headline, carefully disguising misinterpretation as breaking news. Right-wing blogs linked to the left-wing blogs, which linked back to the right-wingers, who tweeted their dismay. Through the evening and into the next morning, Barbour’s “comments on race” were the top story on Yahoo News, the most visited news site on the Web. The Democratic National Committee issued a statement—via Twitter, of course—declaring that Barbour had “disqualified” himself as a presidential candidate. On Tuesday, most newspapers carried a story about “Governor Barbour’s Dream World,” as a New York Times editorial put it. Everywhere, the theme was the same. Googling “Haley Barbour” and “Weekly Standard,” I came up with 41,000 hits. Googling “Haley Barbour” and “Weekly Standard” and “racist,” I got more than 37,000.
Shell-shocked, Barbour’s office released a “clarification,” calling the Citizens Council “indefensible.” No one was appeased. Pat Buchanan denounced him for “throwing the town fathers . . . under the bus.” Some weeks you just can’t win.
I admit I didn’t see it coming. The article is 7,500 words long. Roughly a third of those deal with Barbour’s childhood and black-white relations in Yazoo City. I used the other two-thirds to acquaint readers with matters that might make Barbour a problematic candidate for Republicans and a problematic president for the rest of us. His career as a Washington lobbyist is a civics-textbook example of the insular, self-dealing political culture that roused the slumbering masses to revolt in last November’s election. Only a handful of outlets followed the lead on Barbour’s lobbying, however—a painful and unnecessary reminder that the influence a writer has over his readers is vastly overrated. It turns out that I have the same luck with bloggers that I have with my dog. I point at a cat prowling the yard and he stares at my finger.
It was the issue of race, of course, that offered columnists and bloggers an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate their own virtue in contrast with Barbour’s lack of it. Some strutting carried added benefits. The English newspaperman Harold Evans—who, being married to Tina Brown, the editor of the Daily Beast website, is a columnist for the Daily Beast website—produced a long column under the headline “Don’t Buy Haley Barbour’s Myth.” Evans has a book to sell, a memoir that more closely resembles what journalists call a “notebook dump,” a collection of his old clippings unearthed and strung together to simulate retrospective contemplation. When Sir Harold heard about the Barbour comments, he instantly recalled his own experience in the 1950s covering white Citizens Councils in the Deep South. He leapt to the manuscript of his own book, carved out several thousand already recycled words, and offered them up as a fresh column. It was a wonder of our age, a notebook dump from a notebook dump.
Evans wasn’t alone in showing no sign of having read the article that inspired his indignation. As a TV host, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC shouldn’t be expected to read anything, but her sly misrepresentation of Barbour proved that even her staff has sworn off the printed stuff. The Standard’s “glowing article,” Maddow told her audience, was “clearly designed to elevate Barbour as the future of the GOP.” There’s no reason why anybody should care about my private opinion of Haley Barbour, but I will disclose that it doesn’t entail elevating him as the Republican future. As the story traveled further from its original source, the inaccuracies ramified, like a game of Telephone. Paraphrase begat paraphrase, ending in sheer fantasy. When one blog reported, erroneously, that Barbour had praised segregation itself, liberal opinion split in two: one school said that Barbour merely had been caught making racist comments, the other that Barbour had intentionally made the racist comments in a bid to win Republican, which is to say racist, votes. Al Sharpton counted himself a member of the latter school. Barbour, he said, was executing “a strategy of throw it out there, then pull it back and wink after you’ve sent a signal.” He would know.
The earliest consensus—at mid-Monday, roughly—was that Barbour had ruined his chance to run for president. By Tuesday afternoon, blogging revisionists were debunking this “conventional wisdom”: the controversy was in fact merely a “kerfuffle.” I was eagerly awaiting the next wave refuting the “new conventional wisdom” when . . . all of a sudden . . . it was over.
I felt as if I’d been in the path of a tornado. And so, when I convene my fictional class of budding journalists in my nonexistent J-school, I will teach them about the new media’s principle of immediate obsolescence: the Internet furor provoked by a news item rises in inverse relation to the news item’s triviality, even as its very triviality guarantees that the furor will quickly die. So it was with Haley Barbour and his unforgivably happy childhood. As I write, the blogosphere is still on fire, but Barbour is spent fuel. The former New York Times reporter Judith Miller has called Julian Assange a “bad journalist.” The journalist Tucker Carlson has said that Michael Vick should be executed. Sarah Palin retweeted another tweet critical of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. What was she trying to say? What does it mean? And quickly, quickly: What comes next?