Praying for a Full Court Press
By John Freeman
Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the PublicHelen Thomas
Scribner, hardcover, $23
Although the American people did not know it, the entire Washington press corps understood that President Bush wanted to go to war in Iraq from the moment he took office. In fact, in a pre-election interview with the Houston Chronicle, Bush admitted he wanted "to be known as a war president."
So it was odd that coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other newspapers during the lead-up to the Iraq war portrayed the president as an agonized leader who was being goaded into battle with a brutal dictator who "intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction," as David Remnick wrote in 2003, "but also to use them."
The story of how the Bush administration cooked up this marketing canard has been told and retold, but a complete picture of how the mainstream media ate it up has finally hit bookshelves. In Lapdogs, Salon journalist Eric Boehlert details the media context in which it happened, while veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas puts the nature of this rollover in light of history.
Thomas has been working in Washington since the ’40s, when reporters had to run to pay phones to file, so she is no naif when it comes to government spin. A finer term for this art, she says is "managed news," the earliest (and most brutal) example of which was the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made it illegal to print anything critical of the president or Congress.
Since then, presidents have used a variety of tools to control the press. Thomas describes how they can deny reporters access (they can be kicked off Air Force One) or bully them (by placing calls to powerful publishers). Administrations also tell white lies, manage government leaks (such as outing CIA agent Valerie Plame) and control the flow of information (by releasing the worst of it on Friday evenings).
Thomas worked as a correspondent and was also married to one (Douglas Cornell) so she has a chestful of anecdotes, which she delivers with a veteran reporter's offhanded flair. She describes how John F. Kennedy charmed reporters by allowing his press conferences to be broadcast live, while Lyndon Johnson moved to have the press pool abolished when its members didn't write nice things about him. Richard Nixon bugged reporters' telephones.
In light of such measures, the Bush administration's maneuvers are hardly unprecedented. What is new, Thomas argues, is the mainstream media's willingness to let them get away with it. And here is where today's crisis in anonymous sourcing is relevant. In one key instance, Thomas writes, New York Times reporter Judith Miller took information about weapons of mass destruction fed to her by Ahmad Chalabi, who was on the Pentagon payroll, then corroborated these claims with anonymous government officials.
As Eric Boehlert describes in Lapdogs, the truly despicable thing about this cycle is that the day these stories broke, administration figures like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who was Bush's national security adviser at the time and "likely leaked the story in the first place"—hit the Sunday talk shows to talk about them. Questions about credibility were moot, because administration officials could simply point to that morning's article in the New York Times, which they had all but written themselves. If the paper of record, and a liberal one at that, had printed it, then of course it was true.
While Thomas sees a simple case of bad reporting at work here, Boehlert argues something more sinister was and is occurring. As Eric Alterman did with What Liberal Media?, he paints a media landscape that has been at once flattened by deregulation—the seven largest media companies control 80 percent of our access to information—and intimidated by conservative loudmouths into overcorrecting for a nonexistent liberal bias.
Boehlert's thesis would seem like a screed if his evidence were not so damning. Combing through the last five years of news coverage, he shows how one story after another that could have damaged Bush was ignored, delayed or downplayed, while those helpful to him were played to death.
During the 2004 campaign, for instance, attacks against Democrat John Kerry by the Republican-backed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign received enormous media play, while Bush's incomplete service in the Air National Guard didn't get a fraction of the same attention. (Questions about the president's Guard service actually cut in his favor after CBS mishandled the story, accepting forged documents as authentic records.)
After the election, the press attempted to whip the Terry Schiavo story into a debate when in fact polls showed 80 percent of Americans sympathized with the position of Schiavo's husband. Boehlert says this bias is not just about power—Clinton, obviously, did not get the same deferential treatment—it's institutional now. Even after the mainstream media printed mea culpas about their prewar coverage of Iraq, they ignored the Downing Street Memo, a paper written by England's top spy and leaked to the press, which showed that Bush had made up his mind to go to war in Iraq by July 2002, and that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
You would think after missing the boat on Iraq, WMDs and any number of other stories, lapdogs would have become pit bulls. Not a chance. In the five-week period after the Downing Street Memo was leaked, Boehlert notes, former White House spokesman Scott McClellan took 940 questions from reporters in 19 different press conferences. Only two questions concerned the memo. Makes you wonder what the other 938 were about.
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