By definition, they are self-interested, and therefore not entirely to be trusted.
So, politicians always try to exercise some control over the media. Barack Obama has excelled at this game. He has induced major portions of the media to abandon objective reporting standards in favor of stories that make him look good. Give him some credit; it was no small confidence trick.
A good politician also needs to have important pundits on his side. Respected arbiters of taste and opinion can help people to think the right thoughts about passing events.
Admittedly, it is frightening to think that major segments of the New York population open the paper on Sunday mornings to learn from Frank Rich what they are supposed to think about the week's events, but that does not make it untrue.
Of course, Obama did not have to make a special effort to have Frank Rich on his side. It would have been like shooting fish in a barrel. No, he aimed higher, not only in terms of raw intelligence but in terms of respectability.
Obama has wanted to have Tom Friedman presenting his message as thought it were enlightened opinion.
Today, Friedman offered a column from Davos about the growing international distress over the state of the American union. He has been hanging out in Davos and hearing talk about political paralysis and political instability in America. He hears people doubting the effectiveness of the American government. Link here.
He is concerned. And he is right to be. Were such doubts translate into doubts about the dollar or our debt we would be in a sorry state indeed.
How did the American union arrive at this level of disunity? Friedman does not blame his golfing buddy, President Obama. He can hardly be expected to affix any responsibility on a president who has hawked his books, brought him into policy deliberations, and given him an enormous amount of face time.
What is a golf outing with the president but five hours of the world's most valuable face time?
Friedman cannot bring himself to examine Obama's role in producing this manifest decline in America's international reputation. He does not even consider it.
Instead, he echoes the the Obama line and declares that the trouble lies with the special interests, the lobbyists, the Republicans, and institutional inertia.
If Obama were a ventriloquist he could not have controlled the commentary any better.
We have a Democratic president, a Democratic Congress, a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, and nothing gets done. To some people that means: let's go out and find a scapegoat. Who did Obama find: the special interests, like the bankers at Goldman Sachs.
You cannot read Friedman's column today without thinking that Obama's courtship of Tom Friedman has been time and energy well spent.
Courtship and seduction are the right terms here, as long as you understand that they are not being used in the Clintonian sense. Seducing minds is far more difficult than seducing bodies. It is like scamming people, involving them in a confidence game, and then relieving them of something of value-- their independent judgment.
Whatever you would like to call it, it begins with choosing the right mark. Then you need to know the mark's weakness. Then you need to exploit the weakness by making it feel like a strength.
The first and still greatest master of mental seduction was Socrates. To him the best marks were callow youth, those who were young and inexperienced. It is much easier to manipulate an unformed and inexperienced mind.
But Tom Friedman is not a youth; he is sophisticated and highly intelligent. Still, his writing retains a boyish enthusiasm that would be charming if it were age appropriate. As it is, after a while his golly-gee flourishes become cloying.
What is a newspaper columnist's vulnerability? That one is easy. When you are a commentator, sitting in the stands describing the way others are playing the game, your heart's desire may very well be to be down there in the arena.
Columnists are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the people they write about. If they are not sufficiently aware of their own weaknesses they will desire, above and beyond all else, to be players. What could be better than reporting the news? Why, being the news.
How did Obama discover that Tom Friedman would be the perfect mark? Easy. He probably read, and probably remembers, a column Friedman wrote in 2002, one that you probably also remember. Link here.
We all remember this column because we all experienced a collective cringe of embarrassment watching the naive Tom Friedman being played by the Saudi Crown Prince.
If you do not remember, Friedman was in Saudi Arabia interviewing Crown Prince, now King, Abdullah. Friedman was discussing his own proposal for Arab-Israeli peace when the crown prince interrupted him by exclaiming that Friedman must have been reading his mind.
In fact, he told Friedman Abdullah had in his desk a copy of a speech outlining his proposals for peace in the Middle East. Better yet, they were exactly the same as Friedman's ideas.
Obviously, it was a transparent ploy, an effort to enlist Friedman's support by making him part of the story.
Friedman's joy at being elevated to the role of player in the process, induced him to offer his readers a dramatic portrayal of his seduction by Crown Prince Abdullah.
Keep in mind that one of the basic principles in any seducer's manual is the assertion that he and his mark are thinking the same thoughts, or that they have achieved a level of intimacy, soulmate-dom where they can complete each other's sentences. Anyone who suggests that he can read your mind or who exclaims his amazement at your ability read his is probably involved in a confidence game.
We are obliged to notice that that Friedman's colloquy with Abdullah did not lead to peace in the Middle East. And we should also note that his proposal and Friedman's were not the same. Abdullah's insistence on a right of return for Palestinians made his proposal markedly different from Friedman's.
Besides, if you think that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the leader of one of the most oppressive and anti-semitic regimes on the planet, is going to take an American Jewish columnist into his confidence... then you do not understand the way politicians seduce the minds of unsuspecting journalists.
Sometimes you can overcome confidence tricks if you remember who you are and where your are.