The Rise of the Boo-yaa's

Jane Sherman

Star Tribune, are you ready to rumble? The Belligerent Clown Posse is coming to your town for a very special edition of World Blogging Federation Smackdown! See Preacher Hewitt lead a tag team of conservatism's finest against the legions of liberal media! Can the Star Tribune scrape Nick Coleman off the mat in time to avoid total annihilation? Tune in and find out!

When the Bush era is done, one of the puzzles left to history will be the seeming ease with which the recklessness and radicalism of Bush's fiscal and military endeavors, not to mention his gang's open contempt for democratic forms, gained the assent of tens of millions of people. The news apparatus and the putative opposition party will come in for a very large dollop of blame, along with the precipitous decline of public schools over the past generation-plus (a thoroughly bipartisan effort: under Clinton, federal education spending as a share of GDP fell 24 percent). More abiding factors such as militarism, racism, and clericalism belong in the equation too. But there is something less obvious afoot in the style and attitude of the Bush brigade's apologists, and right now we're seeing it in our backyards.

As Paul Demko reports this week, a California radio host and capo of right-wing bloggery named Hugh Hewitt has declared war on the Star Tribune, pledging his minions to the task of parsing the paper's contents line by subversive line until they've stripped it to its bright red carapace and put the remains on public display. Hewitt's fatwa seeks to rehearse the good fun his pals at the Power Line blog had a couple of months ago in lobbing invective at Strib columnist Nick Coleman. Because this battle was waged on the heels of their receiving Time's blog of the year award, the spat got more than its share of attention and wound up drawing blood when TCF pulled its ads from the paper. Hardly surprising, then, that it occurred to a compatriot of the Power Line boys to have another go at the paper.

It doesn't really matter, to Hewitt anyway, that it's not so. It's true that the Star Tribune's editorialists have been among the most openly anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War in the entire country, and that the paper still has the effrontery to employ not one but two old-school liberal columnists. But neither of those elements has any bearing on the paper's news pages, which Hewitt expressly targets as well. Complaints about the bias of the paper once known as the Red Star go back decades. But in the 20 years I've lived and worked here, it's never been a particularly liberal paper. During the Roger Parkinson-Tim McGuire era, the paper richly deserved its status as a national laughingstock, but that's not because it tilted liberal; that's because it was lousy.

Since McClatchy purchased the paper, it's become more professional and more coherent in its coverage, and published some of the best investigative and special feature work it's ever done. But for all that, the paper is seldom a rocker of important boats. The main bias in its news pages is the same official-source-ism that colors most dailies' beat coverage and causes it to tilt sympathetic to whoever the official sources of the hour happen to be. Right now in Minnesota, those official sources are mostly conservative. The paper is further inoculated against liberalism by the presence of political editor D.J. Tice, who was a let-them-eat-cake conservative as editor of the Twin Cities Reader in the 1980s and remained one throughout his days at the Pioneer Press. A pretty good case could be made that if there's a slant in the placement and packaging of the paper's politics coverage, it's already a conservative slant.

David Strom of the Taxpayers League, rarely a voice of moderation in anything, got it exactly right in declining to enlist in Hewitt's army: While the Strib's editorial writers and its in-house poll may be repugnant to their crowd, there's scant reason to complain about the way Strib reporters treat conservative sources. (Indeed, Strom assures readers of his personal blog that two of the paper's front-line politics reporters, Pat Lopez and Dane Smith, "are friends of mine." Do tell.)

The internet demimonde of right-wing bloggers and chat boards is the purest expression of what has happened to political "dialogue" in the 15-year period bracketed by the rise of Rush Limbaugh and that of the Bush gang. Together the forces of radical conservatism have contrived an extreme makeover in the language of politics: They've turned it into the idiot stepchild of sports programming.

What I'm talking about is evident in matters of idiom--the countless times, for example, that "liberal" is invoked as a taunting slur, roughly akin to the way "cheesehead" or "the fucking Yankees" might be tossed off on a sports-chat board. It's more than a matter of style; there's a worldview lurking beneath it, and what the worldview entails is summed up in the old Vince Lombardi maxim that winning isn't everything--it's the only thing. Now of course electoral politics has always been about winners and losers in a very important sense. But has there ever been a political moment so openly defined by swagger and triumphalism for their own sake--the will to humiliate the vanquished, grind them underfoot for the sheer pleasure of showing them who's boss? As a popular post-election sweatshirt hawked at the Drudge Report exulted, W is for Winner. Enough said.

What's at stake here in one sense is the difference between the moral universe of the citizen and that of the fan. For the fan, the only crucible that finally matters is being on the winning side. To ask whether what's being won is worth having, or in the public interest, or whether these victories may set the stage for future calamity, is about as interesting and sensible from the fan's point of view as suggesting that the Vikings really ought to think twice about playing the Packers this year (or, more nonsensically still, that bad things may befall them if they beat the Packers). As for the current censorial tenor of politics chat, the most rudimentary piece of fan etiquette is that the spoils and the bragging rights accrue to winners. Trash talk from losers is not endured in good humor. Failing to shut up after your side has been vanquished is an outrageous bit of bad manners--or, when it's politics we're talking about, an un-American activity.

The mindset expresses itself in a variety of ways. There's the reader who wrote to me shortly after the invasion of Iraq to ask, So what if Bush lied his way into war? It worked. The gleeful contempt with which the epithet "losers" was thrown around after the last election, as if it were the only word they could think of that was worse than "liberal." And the party the Power Line crew is throwing itself tonight at the Center of the American Experiment to mark Dan Rather's forced retirement. Will they rent Stuart Scott from ESPN to lead the room in his trademark winner's jeer, "BOO-Yaa!"? Whatever else you may say about Bush/Rove, they certainly didn't conjure this impulse into being.

You see this streak of end-over-means, in-your-face triumphalism playing itself out in the political alliances now coalescing on the right, where anti-tax, government-off-our-backs libertarians are seen to lie down with religious conservatives who want a government at least expansive enough to make sure no one out there is doing anything of which Jesus might disapprove. Or consider the right-wing blogs' dueling weapon of choice, a practice known as "fisking" that consists of reproducing whole stories from other media and yelling at them in hectoring, frequently disjointed asides until the fisk-er either reaches the end of the text or passes out from hyperventilating. It's a performance whose outcome is fixed with a wink from the start, like professional wrestling or, more exactly, like the version of pro wrestling Rush Limbaugh brought to the radio so long ago now: heroes-and-villains political entertainment made in a controlled setting, with lots of ranting rhetorical takedowns and no fretting over questions of equal time or accuracy. It's a show, folks.

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