Carleton grad, Politico chief brings the freak show


Grayson: Cheney is a vampire.” So read the headline of an article posted on about an hour after the site’s editor-in-chief, John Harris, finished his convocation address at Carleton College’s Skinner Memorial Chapel on Friday.

Welcome to what Harris calls “the freak show.” is a journalism web site covering stories about Northfield and Rice County, Minnesota — and the ways that this region connects to the state, country and world. It is created by students at Carleton College.

A Carleton graduate (class of 1985) and a former Washington Post reporter and editor with 20 years of experience, Harris co-founded the insider political newspaper The Politico, and the accompanying web site in January 2006.

His extensive experience in political reporting helped him to identify the rise of a new form of politics: what he calls “the freak show.”

The freak show is a “marketing strategy” of sensationalized, incendiary politics which Harris believes perpetuates a “nonstop ideological war” between political parties that has rapidly become “a menace to our public life.”

Political Specter

In a talk entitled “Barack Obama vs. The Freak Show: Politics and Media on the Wild Frontier,” Harris warned Carleton students, faculty and community members about the dangers awaiting the new president-and America-in contending with this new political specter.

It was “the triumph of his 2008 campaign that he was able to keep control of his public image,” Harris said, speaking of President Obama, who he added was “determined to avoid the fate of Kerry and Gore.”

Obama, Harris believes, is “singularly well-positioned to drain American politics of its toxicity.” But Harris also noted that “it is not at all clear Obama has tamed these forces” or slain “the freak show dragon.”

Indeed, Harris reminded the audience, “we have seen him lose control of his image and his agenda several times” since he took office in January.

The President’s supporters, Harris suggested, view him as “a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Wellstone.”

Rhetorical Combat

Harris’s own views of Obama are not so straightforward.

“Even within Obama,” Harris said, “there is a contradiction” between his desire to unify the country and his ambition to be a “transformative” president. He is pushing what Harris characterized as “the biggest Democratic agenda since Lyndon Johnson” and, Harris said, if “you do big things like that, you’re going to divide the country.”

Of Obama’s advisors, Harris remarked that “his people are most comfortable in campaign mode, on the attack,” pointing to the White House’s recent efforts to undermine Fox News. “They don’t want to unify Americans so much as divide Americans” to their own advantage, Harris said.

The new “freak show” politics according to Harris rewards “rhetorical combat” and “inflammatory attacks,” and “puts a premium on conspiracy theories” to discredit opponents. Freak show players understand the opposition as “not merely wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted.”

Freak show notables Harris said included Rush Limbaugh on the right, and Michael Moore on the left. The freak show “is not the exclusive domain of the right,” Harris reminded Carleton’s famously liberal student body. “There is just as much anger and suspicion on the left as there is on the right.”

This anger and suspicion, Harris believes, is poisoning American politics.

What has lead to this state of affairs?

Harris pointed to several sources including the end of the Cold War (which “seemed to lower the stakes in politics”), and the baby boomers (“they began fighting in their teens in the 1960s, and they are going to keep fighting” until they die off).

Incendiary Combat

But the biggest reason for the rise of the freak show,  Harris said, was the collapse of “the old order” of news media, in which major news organizations “had similar values as to what was newsworthy or not.”

Editors in the old order news media served as “filters” to keep outrageous and incendiary content out of the public view.

Those filters are history now, Harris said.

“As any blogger knows, calm, careful, reasoned analysis is not the way to build traffic online,” he said.

The dissolution of journalism, Harris added, has led to the rise of ideological news organizations, especially the conservative Fox News Network and the liberal MSNBC.

The slanting of the news has also led to the loss of what Harris calls “common” or “neutral facts.”

Harris said this loss has caused millions of Americans to believe, among other things, that Iraq was behind 9/11, that Obama is not actually a citizen of the United States, and that his health care plan will lead to the creation of death panels.

$300 Haircut

Carleton students were quick to pick up on the similarities between Harris’s own organization and the freak show he lambasted. One student stood up during the question-and-answer session following the speech bluntly asked, “Aren’t you guilty of what you yourself are speaking out against?”

“There’s a critical difference between the blogosphere and what we do,” he said. “A lot of people in the blogosphere are writing in their basement, or at places that have no conception or standard by which to measure their work against, as responsible. At Politico there is somebody who is responsible and accountable. It is me and the other editors.

“A post at Politico represents a commitment by responsible people to stand by it,” Harris said.

Despite Harris’s insistence that “the freak show offends my values,” however, he also readily acknowledged that “the same trends that help to facilitate the freak show helped to facilitate Politico.”

To illustrate the point, he listed three of’s biggest “breaking” stories during the 2008 elections, all of them sensational: the infamous interview in which John McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he owned; a report on Sarah Palin’s massive wardrobe allowance; and a piece on John Edwards getting a $300 haircut.