In Defense of Mark Halperin

I’ve been metaphorically bashing my skull into a brick wall as I’ve read all the commentary surrounding Mark Halperin’s “dick” comment this morning. The reaction to this has been absurd on so many levels, and as someone who once worked under his supervision, I very much want to say a few things about this — which of course will only put me more firmly in the doghouse with my liberal brethren.

First off, on the incident itself: It was a snicker-snicker comment on Morning Joe, for christs’s sake. Morning Joe! This is a show in which three painful hours must be filled with “analysis” and other banter in an informal, “hey we’re all just shooting the shit here” format. This is not The News Hour. Yeah, saying the president is being kind of dickish is probably a little too locker-roomy even for this show, but it’s hardly a bridge too far.

In other words, this is the furthest thing from anything resembling an actual big deal. For MSNBC to suspend Halperin — indefinitely, no less — is moronic. Let me quote one of my own earlier tweets from today: “Jesus, @MSNBC, get your Puritan head out of your corporate ass.” The network doesn’t care so much whether people tell the truth or put out a quality product (it did employ Tucker Carlson for an awfully long time, after all), but if they utter the mildest of all explicatives, they must be stomped. Halperin didn’t assault the president, he didn’t threaten him, he didn’t even say the president was, himself, as a person, a dick. He characterized the president’s demeanor during one event in a slightly — slightly! — off-color way. Come on.

And Halperin couldn’t have handled it with more class. Right away, he said, “I want to offer a heartfelt and profound apology to the President, to my TIME and MSNBC colleagues, and to the viewers. My remark was unacceptable, and I deeply regret it.” And on his suspension, he called the punishment “totally appropriate.”

But the part that really has me steamed is how folks in the mainly-web-based political class have taken this opportunity to pile on Halperin, claiming that while this remark was not itself suspension-worthy, that somehow Halperin is himself unworthy of his position in the punditocracy. He is written about even by those I greatly respect as though he is some kind of cancer on political journalism. Spare me. What exactly is the rap against Halperin? Based on what I’ve been exposed to over the past 12 hours or so, let’s look at the charges:

His predictions and analysis sometimes turn out to be wrong: Well, stop the fucking presses, folks! Lord knows that Mark Halperin is the only human being who ever misreads political tea leaves.

He worships Matt Drudge: Anyone who really thinks this is deluded. What Halperin actually does is recognize Drudge’s profound influence on politics and journalism, like it or not. He’s obviously also learned some lessons from Drudge in terms of having an Internet presence, and the format of The Page shows that. But this is not the same as ideological sympathy or the sharing or journalistic ethics.

He’s overly concerned with inside-the-beltway meta-stories, not enough about policy: That’s his beat, everybody. Some folks cover wars in the Middle East. Some folks cover environmental policy. Mark Halperin covers the zeitgeist of the “Gang of 500.” (Oddly, and coincidentally, last week even my favorite radio show, On the Mediasneered a little at Halperin’s tenure producing ABC’s old daily email political digest The Note, in a piece on “conventional wisdom.”) If you don’t give a shit about that subject, don’t read Mark Halperin. Halperin isn’t a champion for beltway conventional wisdom, he reports on it, analyses it, and tries to discern its impact.

And what’s hilarious about that last rap against Halperin is that it’s made or implied by the very same publications, bloggers, and websites that have been splashing Halperin’s gaffe all over their pages. And could there be a more meta, process-centric, insidery story than one about a political reporter getting suspended from a cable morning show?

I worked under Mark as an intern at ABC News’ Political Unit back in 2007 when he was political director for the network. He worked out of New York, and we were in DC, so I only saw him in person once or twice, but I was in regular correspondence with him as I helped put The Note together every morning and did other tasks. Before I’d even started there, I already saw Mark as something of a sage, and after working under him and his team, and seeing how The Note was constructed, I only grew to respect him more. He is a serious journalist, whip-smart, and able to formulate an understandable narrative in the midst of beltway noise. Of course he’s not always right, and of course I will not always like what he has to say, and neither will anyone else. But he knows his beat — I don’t think anyone knows it better. I’m proud to have worked for him, and I think that in terms of this morning show gaffe, people need to get a little perspective, ease up a little, and realize that whoever their enemy is, it’s not Mark. In fact, maybe if these folks listened to him a little more, they’d learn something.

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