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Lapdogs: How the Press Lay down for the Bush White Houseby Eric Boehlert
Introduction: Afraid of the Facts
It must have been an awkward encounter when Bob Woodward sat down for two hours at his Washington, D.C., attorney's M Street office on November 14, 2005, to answer questions, under oath, posed by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Woodward, of Watergate and Washington Post fame, was the most famous reporter of his generation, and Fitzpatrick, by the fall of 2005, was the most talked-about investigator in America. Appointed to uncover who inside the Bush administration had leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative married to a prominent war critic, Fitzgerald's media-centric investigation had already put one New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, behind bars. His probe had also issued subpoenas to half a dozen influential Beltway reporters as well as most members of Bush's inner circle. Fitzgerald's pursuit had become the most fevered Beltway whodunit of the Bush presidency.
The sit-down between Woodward and Fitzgerald must have been awkward for a variety of reasons. Awkward because Woodward had made a handsome living starring in the role as the capitol's velvet-gloved inquisitor of people in power. For decades the soft-spoken Woodward had asked the questions. Now he was told to answer them. Awkward because Woodward, through his various television appearances during the previous months, had made it quite clear that he thought little of Fitzgerald's investigation, that it was "disgraceful," that Fitzgerald was a "junkyard prosecutor," and that the Plame leak had caused the CIA no harm. And awkward also because just weeks after Fitzgerald issued indictments in the case, targeting Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for obstructing justice and lying to Fitzgerald's grand jury, a source of Woodward's came forward and told Fitzgerald that he'd actually told the star reporter about Plame's identity long before Libby started chatting up reporters in 2003. In other words, Woodward had been sitting on the scoop for more than two years. Woodward insisted the information he had received about Plame was insignificant; not newsworthy. But if his scoop had been revealed months earlier — let alone years earlier — it would have created enormous political and legal problems for the Bush White House. That Woodward, who in 1972 famously kept digging into a story of White House corruption while much of the mainstream media waved off Watergate as a second-rate burglary, was now serving as the media elite's unofficial ambassador — trying to wave off the Fitzgerald investigation and trying to keep crucial information under wraps — only hinted at the larger ironies in play.
It was ironic that a federal prosecutor was quizzing a journalist, trying to pry out of him sensitive information that was damaging to the Bush White House and information the investigate reporter had refused to share with the public, let alone his editors. The strange truth was that, at least in regards to the Plame investigation, the special prosecutor had supplanted the timid D.C. press corps and become the fact finder of record. It was Fitzgerald and his team of G-men — not journalists — who were running down leads, asking tough questions and, in the end, helping inform the American people about possible criminal activity inside the White House. For two years, the press had shown little interest in that touchy task and if it hadn't been for Fitzgerald's work, the Plame story would have quietly faded away like so many other disturbing suggestions of Bush administration misdeeds. (Lots of frustrated news consumers must have been wondering where was the special prosecutor for Enron, Halliburton, and prewar intelligence?) As conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds noted in the wake of Woodward's embarrassing revelation about his nonaction, "This is Watergate in reverse. The press is engaged in the cover-up here. If everybody in the press simply published everything they knew about this, we would have gotten to the bottom of this in a week instead of dragging it out for two or three years."
Woodward's decision to sit on the Plame scoop seemed to confirm that Beltway access had trumped news reporting. (At the time, Woodward was hard at work on his third Bush book, which required continued entrée to administration sources.) But the puzzling inaction, which could have extended indefinitely had Woodward's source not contacted Fitzgerald himself, highlighted a much more pervasive problem: how the mainstream news media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power. And how, most dramatically, the press came to fear the facts and the consequences of reporting them. Morphing into a status quo-loving group, the mainstream media became trapped in a dysfunctional hate/love relationship; the Republican White House hated the press, but the press loved the White House. Or at least feared it. Yes, there were exceptions, and some within the mainstream media during the Bush years produced shining examples of industrious reporting and refused to adopt the telltale timidity. Many of those examples are cited in this book. But taken as a whole, the mainstream media's political reporting during Bush's first five years in office was infected with unfortunate nervousness. The mainstream media filter favored Bush. (For the sake of brevity, mainstream media will hereafter be referred to as MSM.)
Abandoning their traditional role of public watchdog, the MSM for years meekly adopted a gentlemanly tone more reminiscent of the Eisenhower era than what was to be expected at the dawn of the twenty-first century when the press's investigate zeal, displayed during the Clinton era, appeared unmatched. The forces behind the news media's dramatic mood swing, which conveniently coincided with Bush's first presidential run, were many. Key factors included the consolidated media landscape in which owners were increasingly — almost exclusively — multinational corporations; the same corporations anxious to win approval from the Republican-controlled federal government to allow for even further ownership consolidation. The press timidity was also fueled by the Republicans' tight grip on Congress and the White House, mixed with the GOP's love of hardball, and the MSM's natural tendency to revere Beltway power. Not to mention the deep-pocketed Republican media noise machine, created decades ago in an effort to denounce and distract the MSM. The timidity was also driven by Beltway careerism; by media insiders who understood that despite the cliché about the liberal media, advancement to senior positions was actually made doubly difficult for anyone with a reputation for being too far left, or too caustic toward Republicans. On the flip side, that same Beltway career path rewarded journalists who showed a willingness to be openly contemptuous of Democrats. And there are many eager to do so.
Part of that seemed to be visceral. News gathering is not supposed to be a popularity contest, but it was obvious journalists simply don't like or respect prominent Democrats such as Al Gore, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Nancy Pelosi, and the coverage reflected that. And while the MSM might have respected President Bill Clinton's legendary political skills, much of the D.C. press flashed an odd, personal contempt for him, even before the Monica Lewinsky scandal came to light. The stunning stick-to-itiveness the press displayed in flogging the phony Whitewater real estate scandal, for example, illustrated a deep desire among journalists to try to find wrongdoing — real or imagined — inside the White House. It was a desire that evaporated upon Bush's arrival in Washington, D.C.
And even when the press periodically awoke from its slumber to cover one of the Bush administration's high-profile blunders, reporters inevitably retreated back into their shell, nervous that their questions to the White House had been too rude. A perfect example came in February 2006 when, in one of the most absurd events in recent White House history, Cheney shot a man during a hunting accident and then failed to inform the public or the press for nearly twenty-four hours. Even White House aides privately conceded Cheney and his office had completely mismanaged the situation. The White House's uncommunicative spokesman Scott McClellan came under days' worth of attacks from reporters who were trying to get to the bottom of the strange, inconsistent, and secretive tale. By midweek, Bush loyalists in the conservative press, like Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, right-wing syndicated columnist Robert Novak, and press-hating blogger Michelle Malkin, began their predictable attacks on the MSM, insisting journalists were blowing the story out of proportion and unfairly attacking the White House. Instead of dismissing those barbs as obvious attempts at damage control, journalists by week's end gathered on CNN's Reliable Source to fret about how the news media had been "whining" about the Cheney story, and guilty of "overkill." It was the type of nervous hand wringing that rarely took place within the Beltway press corps during the 1990s.
Fearful of being tagged with the liberal Scarlet L by an army of conservative press activists who, having codified their institutional rage against the MSM, stood determined to strip the press of its long-held influence, Beltway journalists throttled way back, and made a mockery out of the right-wing chestnut about the MSM pushing a progressive agenda. And in November 2005, Bob Woodward, the former star sleuth, came to symbolize the press's stunning U-turn from attack dog to lapdog.
The purpose of "outing" Valerie Plame was to undermine the operative's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat whose public critique of Bush's war rationale had struck a nerve inside the White House. It is a federal crime to intentionally reveal the identity of an undercover intelligence agent. Beyond that, Wilson had been the U.S. ambassador to Iraq under the first Bush presidency, and during the first Gulf War. His wife was a CIA analyst working on weapons of mass destruction. Both, in other words, had devoted their adult lives — at no small risk — to their country's safety. In September 2003 the Washington Post reported there had been a concerted effort by White House officials to spread the word to reporters that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Twenty-five months later Libby was indicted, not for blowing her cover but for obstructing justice and lying to federal investigators. Woodward, who enjoys access to sources at the very highest levels of the administration, received his tip about Plame in mid-June, 2003.
According to Woodward's account, he only sprang into action — his "aggressive reporting mode" — after Fitzgerald held his October 2005 press conference announcing the indictments of Libby. Fitzgerald mentioned Libby was the first known government official to pass along to reporters information about Wilson's CIA wife. That's when Woodward said "whoa" — as he later put it — and decided he had to act because he realized Libby was not the first official to leak the Plame info; Woodward's source was. Woodward contacted the source who decided to tell all to the prosecutor. The prosecutor then called Woodward in to testify. That it took Woodward more than two years to get into his "aggressive reporting mode" was puzzling. The famed reporter had countless opportunities to become engaged in the story:
At any point along the way if Woodward had come forward with his information about the Plame leak it would have been damaging for the White House. And Woodward's bombshell would have been especially devastating for Bush had it come in the summer of 2005, just as it was becoming clear the White House had lied about its involvement in the leak, or had it come right before Fitzgerald's indictment was announced in October, when public attention was at its highest level. Instead, Woodward remained mum about the facts while publicly mocking Fitzgerald's investigation. It seemed as though Woodward, like the Bush White House, was hoping the Fitzgerald cloud would simply go away.
When finally forced to discuss his leak, Woodward, like lots of politicians, was cagey with his explanation, which evolved over time.
For instance, Woodward at first said he didn't come forward with the vital information because he feared being subpoenaed by Fitzgerald. But Woodward received his tip in June 2003 and Fitzgerald wasn't assigned the case until December of that year, and his first subpoenas were not issued until May 2004, so there was no reason for Woodward to be concerned about subpoenas.
When Woodward finally met with Fitzgerald, he did so because he received a waiver from his source which allowed Woodward to lift the confidentiality agreement that existed when their off-the-record conversation took place in 2003. The source gave Woodward permission to reveal his identity to Fitzgerald and to Woodward's editor at the Washington Post, but not to the Post's readers, which seemed too cute by half. Months earlier when Time magazine's Cooper received a waiver from his source — Karl Rove — and cooperated with Fitzgerald, Cooper immediately wrote about his testimony and informed the public who the source was. When the Times's Miller received a waiver from her source — Libby — she, albeit reluctantly, wrote about her testimony and informed the public who her source was. Woodward though, refused to talk publicly about the details of his testimony and refused to reveal the identity of his source, who appeared to be part of a widespread administration effort to discredit a war critic.
Meanwhile, Woodward claimed he tried twice, once in 2004 and once in 2005, to get his source to lift his confidentiality restriction so Woodward could "put something in the newspaper or a book." The source, prior to November 2005, refused. But if Woodward thought the Plame tip was a "casual offhand remark," as he stressed it was, why did he bother going back not once but twice in an effort to break the confidentiality bond? And if Woodward was simply going to use the source's information for his book, he wouldn't have needed to ask his source to waive confidentiality because, as nearly every reviewer has noted, the bulk of Woodward's books are based on background, or off-the-record, conversations. The only reason Woodward would have approached his source in 2004 and 2005 asking that their confidentiality pact be lifted was because Woodward wanted to report the leak in the Washington Post, which meant Woodward recognized it was news. So why, when he was finally forced to go public with his leak information, did he pretend it was not news?
Woodward claimed he told Walter Pincus, a Post colleague, about the Plame tip right when it occurred in June 2003. But Pincus says Woodward did no such thing. Besides, if Woodward felt comfortable telling Pincus, why didn't Woodward tell the paper's editor? And if Woodward was concerned that telling people about the leak would lead to a subpoena, than why did he supposedly share the information with his colleague?
As part of his testimony, Woodward relayed to Fitzgerald that he met with another Bush official on June 27, 2003, precisely at "5:10 P.M." and that the reporter produced four typed pages of notes from the meeting. (Woodward is famous for his meticulous note-taking.) Yet when it came to recalling his meeting with his CIA leak source, Woodward, at least publicly, went fuzzy, explaining that the conversation took place sometime in "mid-June."
Asked by CNN's Larry King whether his source had mentioned whether Plame worked undercover at the CIA (if the source had, that could have meant legal troubles for the source), Woodward insisted the source had not, and Woodward even recalled the exact language the source used to describe Plame's job; a WMD analyst, not necessarily undercover. Woodward's total recall for the language used simply highlighted the oddity of his inability to even recall the date when the conversation took place. And again, if the leaked information was given to Woodward in a casual, offhanded manner, why, two and a half years later, was Woodward able to recall parts of the discussion verbatim (i.e., that Plame was a WMD analyst) in a way that was pleasing for the White House?
Woodward suggested — falsely — that the Plame controversy was really about the use of anonymous sources and noted his most famous Watergate source, Deep Throat, had also been anonymous. The key difference, of course, was Woodward used the information provided to him by Deep Throat, but sat on the information provided to him by his secret Bush administration source.
Woodward's wandering explanations, most of which were aired during the interview with King on CNN, represented a kaleidoscope of half answers and misinformation.
(Following Woodward's head-scratching appearance, one blogger quipped, "This is the guy who brought down Nixon?") Toward the end of the Larry King Live interview, Woodward assured viewers he was suddenly in hot pursuit of the story he'd ignored for twenty-nine months: "We'll keep chipping at it and running at it. And people will write things, and there will be controversy. And welcome to American journalism."
If that's the state of American journalism, then there is something seriously wrong. The press enjoys extraordinary freedom within the United States, and with that freedom comes the serious responsibility of informing the citizens, of providing unvarnished reporting to the day's events. And perhaps in no area is that duty more important than in the political arena, where the press is supposed to act as a neutral observer, helping Americans make informed decisions about the day's most pressing matters, whether it's to support a war or support reelection. A democracy literally cannot function without a fair, robust press corps. During the Bush years, though, the press too often failed to provide its most important service.
The MSM itself is back on its heels, grappling with a changing media landscape where more and more news organizations are owned by fewer entities (which narrows career choices for journalists), while their collective clout is usurped by new online players. The newspaper industry, losing millions of readers each year, is contracting at an unprecedented rate, with deep cutbacks hitting virtually every major newsroom in the country. Meanwhile, television news teams are under intense pressure to turn a profit, which has driven some of the decision-making process into the ground. That's particularly true of the twenty-four-hour cable news channels, where pointless high-speed car chases are occasionally broadcast live under the guise of "breaking news." Widespread economic uncertainty gripping the news business means authentic job security has become scarce, which in turn feeds an urge to follow the pack. All of that has added to the Beltway media's tentativeness, on display since 2000.
Yet to hear Bush's former flak Ari Fleischer tell it, the durable D.C. press corps is "one of the toughest, sharpest, most skeptical groups anyone will encounter." Fleischer insists newsrooms feed off conflict: "Conflict is juicy, conflict sells, the public is interested in conflict, and the White House press corps respond by providing it."
There was a time the D.C. press corps mostly lived up to the hype — skeptical scribes at the top of their game. But in covering the Bush White House, too many journalists walked away from their traditional role as referee, freeing the Bush administration up to tackle all sorts of extraordinary press initiatives, like producing phony, look-alike newscasts to run on local television stations, paying pundits to hype White House initiatives, severely restricting the government's public flow of information, sponsoring a partisan crusade against public television, prosecuting journalists, and giving special White House press privileges to a former GOP male escort who was waved into the Bush White House — minus the FBI background check — while volunteering for a right-wing propaganda website. All of it was designed to undercut the Fourth Estate. But who could blame the White House for adopting such a radical media agenda? In five-plus years the press failed again and again to assert itself and hold the administration accountable.
The MSM's unique brand of journalism, unveiled just for Bush, represented precisely the kind of clubby, get-along reporting that would have been roundly mocked by journalists themselves just a few years earlier. During the Clinton years, the D.C. newsroom sin was to be seen as soft on Democrats — "a Clinton apologist" — and journalists went to extraordinary lengths to prove their mettle by staying up late chasing Whitewater rumors and trying to prove the White House gave away weapons secrets to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions. The phrase "double standard" barely begins to describe the titanic shift that occurred in how Bush and his Republican administration were covered by the suddenly timorous press corps. It's hard to believe the Bush-era slumbering press was the same one that a decade earlier shifted into overdrive when bogus allegations flew that President Clinton caused commercial airplanes to back up at Los Angeles International Airport while he received a $200 haircut from a celebrity stylist aboard Air Force One in 1993. Federal Aviation Administration records later showed no such delays occurred, but that didn't stop the Washington Post from referencing the silly incident fifty-plus times in less than thirty days, treating the hoax as a serious political story. (The Post staff managed to squeeze in nearly one hundred Clinton haircut references during the 1993 calendar year.) Then again, just four months into his first term, the Post published a lengthy, mocking feature on Clinton's soft approval ratings. ("The Failed Clinton Presidency. It has a certain ring to it.") Yet in 2005 when Bush's job approval rating plunged into the 30s, the Post refused to print the phrase "failed presidency" to describe Bush's second term. To do so would simply invite conservative scorn; something the newsroom seemed to go to extraordinarily lengths to avoid.
It's all part of the double standard adopted for Bush and Republicans that became the unfortunate news norm and that produced endless, head-scratching anomalies. It's why, despite the avalanche of Iraq coverage between 2002 and 2005, not one major news outlet went back and highlighted this incriminating August 27, 2000, quote from Vice President Dick Cheney, uttered on network television, regarding the wisdom of U.S. forces taking over Iraq:
It's why in the fall of 2003 Time printed the White House's insistence that Karl Rove was not involved in the CIA leak of Valerie Plame, despite the fact at least three Time reporters working on the article knew that denial was a lie because they had firsthand knowledge that Rove was the source. As blogger Jane Hamsher asked, "Under what journalistic principle is a magazine obligated to print bold, outright lies perpetuated by Administration spokesmen that it knows for a fact are untrue?"
It's why amid the 2004 national nominating conventions, Bush's interview blunder when he told NBC's Matt Lauer the War on Terror might not be winnable received a fraction of the coverage lavished on Teresa Heinz Kerry's trivial, caught-on-tape "shove it" barb tossed toward a reporter.
It's why an obvious bulge seen under Bush's suit jacket during the first presidential debate was deemed to be not worth serious attention from mainstream reporters.
It's why during the Terri Schiavo right-to-die debate, ABC News released a poll on the morning of March 21, 2005, showing 67 percent of Americans thought politicians, including Bush, intervening in the case were doing so simply "for political advantage." Yet that night's ABC World News Tonight, which led with a Schiavo story and aired four separate reports on the issue, made no mention of its own bad-news-for-Bush poll results.
It's why in 2005, despite the fact well-known national pollster John Zogby had found that 53 percent of Americans were in favor of Congress considering impeachment proceedings against Bush if he lied about the reasons for taking the nation to war, the Washington Post refused even to poll on the issue of impeachment because the question was "biased" and "not a serious option."
"Accommodating passivity" is how Mark Hertsgaard described the media in his landmark 1988 book, On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. Despite the incessant chatter even then about the "liberal media," that Reagan, the so-called Teflon President, received fawning press coverage was common knowledge among his top aides, such as former communications director David Gergen. "A lot of the Teflon came from the press. They didn't want to go after him that toughly," Gergen told Hertsgaard. Today's crop of pundits and reporters passed the accommodating passivity marker a long time ago — Bush's Teflon coating grew much thicker than any press protection Reagan ever enjoyed.
The stakes during the Bush years couldn't have been higher for the press and the public. With the Republicans' one-party rule in Washington, D.C., and the GOP's decision to end Congressional oversight of the executive branch, the press's watchdog role was all the more vital, and especially pronounced during the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush's unique war of choice, where credible information and an honest, vigorous debate would have helped Americans make informed decisions. The country needed the press to report aggressively and clearly, to be unafraid of the facts and to be unafraid of being unpopular. Instead, the press ceded to Bush, while at the same time treating his opponents, be it Democrats or antiwar activists, with open disdain. Or, as Daniel Okrent, the former public editor, or ombudsman, of the New York Times, described it, "The general rolling over on the part of the American press allowed the war to happen." It's hard to imagine a news media failure more grave than that.
The press's rampant timidity towards Bush was not simply a reflection of the flag-waving patriotism that surrounded a wartime culture either, because some of Bush's most supine and pleasing coverage came between the fall of 2004 and the fall of 2005, long after the national shock of 9/11 had worn off and long after television anchors removed the American flag lapel pins that were donned during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
That Bush would receive pleasing press coverage as president from faithful courtesans came as no great shock. The MSM signaled their affection for Bush during the 2000 campaign, showering him with accolades for being authentic and fun to be around, while at the same time mocking and ridiculing his opponent Al Gore at nearly every turn. (Just ask conservative cable TV talker Joe Scarborough:
"In the 2000 elections, I think [the media] were fairly brutal towards Al Gore.") And the MSM's personal affection for Bush remained strong for years, even after the president's popularity plummeted during his second term. On the November 28, 2005 telecast of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews insisted "Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left." Matthews's thinking likely reflected a simple yet firmly held belief inside the Beltway among the courteous press corps: Bush, good; his critics, bad. But as the watchdog group Media Matters for America noted, polling data at the time of Matthews's comment showed a clear majority of Americans not only didn't approve of the job Bush was doing as president, but they did not like him personally and they did not think he was honest. Sobering results, but at least Bush could count on celebrity pundits to vouch for him while insulting his critics as "whack-jobs."
The MSM flip-flop was duly noted. "The press is missing in action, with all due respect," complained Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2004. "Where are the investigative reporters today? Why aren't they asking the hard questions? I mean, c'mon, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake." Thin-skinned Beltway pundits quickly derided Clinton's comments, but members of the MSM had heard that same complaint loud and clear. Note this exchange between Washington Post political reporter Jim VandeHei and a reader during a newspaper-sponsored online chat:
The newsroom retreat did not occur in a vacuum. It was fueled by the fact that America's consolidated MSM had "their ears cocked to the right," as historian Todd Gitlin put it in 2005. "They know where political power lies." Conservative activists have perfected the art of media intimidation through its deep-pocketed noise machine (Matt Drudge, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and an army of bloggers) that wields extraordinary power in its ability to keep press attention fixed on whatever given story the right deems urgent or vaguely newsworthy. When the right yelled jump, as in the right-to-die saga of Terri Schiavo or the bogus GOP-fed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks, the press asked how high? Alternately, when the right begged silence, as in the bizarre tale of conservative White House correspondent/male escort Jeff Gannon, or the embarrassing prewar revelations from the Downing Street memo, the MSM whispered how soft?
The press bullying from the right is not new, but the ferocity is. (Fox News anchor: "Is the liberal media taking up the defense of Saddam Hussein?") The tough talk has worked. Journalists have acknowledged the intimidation at play. At a 2004 media panel held at Harvard University, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw discussed how conservative activists "feel they have to go to war against the networks every day." The late Peter Jennings of ABC News added, "I hear more about conservative concerns than I have in the past. This wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, rushes at our corporate suites. I feel the presence of anger all the time." And CBS's Dan Rather, describing the toxic atmosphere, noted the press haters are "all over your telephones, all over your e-mail, all over your mail," creating "an undertow in which you say to yourself, 'You know, I think we're right on this story. I think we've got it in the right context, I think we've got it in the right perspective, but we better pick another day.' " And that was before he became the target of right-wing rage following CBS's botched use of memos in its 2004 report on Bush's Texas Air National Guard service.
On the eve of the first presidential debates during the 2004 campaign, influential conservative blogger, and former Nixon Library director, Hugh Hewitt wrote a preemptive threat against moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, warning him that if activists thought he went easy on Kerry (i.e., if they saw "any detectable bias on Lehrer's part") the results would be "a cyber-tsunami headed towards PBS affiliates across the country," with activists "canceling their pledges to local PBS affiliates." Taking their cue from the White House, which regularly attacked news organizations by name, and whose chief of staff Andy Card once announced the press corps was nothing more than another special interest group seeking access, the press haters during the Bush years — buoyed by a wartime culture that rendered reporters unusually docile — moved in for the kill.
"You have to be prepared before you go up against these guys," warned Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who became the target of a Republican attack campaign following the paper's endorsement of Kerry in October 2004. "It was a tough month, trying to deal with the storm they created," said Satullo.
"This particular anti-press campaign is not about Journalism 101," wrote Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne. "It is about Power 101. It is a sophisticated effort to demolish the idea of a press independent of political parties by way of discouraging scrutiny of conservative politicians in power." The "new postmodernists" on the right want to "shift attention away from the truth or falsity of specific facts and allegations — and move the discussion to the motives of the journalists and media organizations putting them forward," wrote Dionne. In other words, the goal is to create a news culture where there are few if any agreed upon facts, thereby making serious debate impossible.
Bring back the Ben Bradlee of 1978, the hard-charging editor of the Washington Post, who fired off a letter to Accuracy in Media founder Reed Irvine, a conservative press critic who pioneered the art of intimidation-meets-fabrication. In his missive to Irvine, Bradlee referred to him as a "miserable, carping retromingent vigilante." As Bradlee's correspondence illustrates, coordinated conservative efforts to undermine the press have been underway for decades. (Accusing the MSM of having a liberal bias is like referring to Social Security as the third rail of American politics; it's become the ultimate cliché.)
The press's accelerated retreat under Bush not only manifested itself in the soft coverage, but in a lot of other disturbing ways. Determined not to offend Republicans, reporters began to worship at the altar of "balance." Not necessarily "fairness," which is a prerequisite for all serious journalism, but the manufactured need to be balanced, which when it came to political reporting translated into a he-said/he-said recitation of accusations, while too often tentatively refusing to inform news consumers which set of facts were accurate. "It used to be we, as the press, would adjudicate the facts of the battle," said Scott Shepard, a political correspondent for the Cox newspaper chain who covered his fifth presidential election in 2004. "We don't do that anymore. Now we present attacks. That's troublesome to me. We've gotten the idea if we say something is 'fact' than somehow we're biased. The attacks have worked. People are intimidated."
After seeing his 2004 campaign reporting on Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout in Missouri appear as part of a larger, watered down, everybody-does-it campaign dispatch, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Ken Silverstein complained to his editors in an email: "I am completely exasperated by this approach to the news. The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn our brains off and repeat the spin from both sides. God forbid we should...attempt to fairly assess what we see with our own eyes."
That fear of conservative press critics — and the desire to mollify them — also explains why right-wing extremists are treated like serious commentators by the MSM and so rarely challenged. Interviewing Fox News's chronic fabricator Bill O'Reilly, ABC's Good Morning America co-host Charlie Gibson cooed, "I always have a good time talking to him." Previewing a November 2005 speech Bush was giving on Iraq's future, NBC's Today show invited O'Reilly on the program to comment on world affairs, despite the fact O'Reilly announced he had no intention of listening to Bush's Iraq speech. O'Reilly did, though, compare Democrats to Hitler sympathizers on Today, a tasteless attack that host Katie Couric let pass without comment. (It was left to a late-night comedian, David Letterman, weeks later, to actually press O'Reilly on his hateful rhetoric when O'Reilly appeared on CBS's The Late Show.) In November 2005, CNN turned to esteemed military strategist Ann Coulter to discuss troop withdrawal proposals for Iraq. Weeks later CNN entered into discussions with former Reagan education secretary Bill Bennett to become an on-air political analyst. A self-styled values czar who had to admit to a monstrous gambling addiction, Bennett's CNN deal came just months after he told radio listeners that, hypothetically, aborting "every black baby in this country" would help reduce the crime rate. CNN welcomed Bennett within weeks of announcing it had hired former GOP congressman J. C. Watts to be yet another right-wing pundit in the CNN stable. Meanwhile, in January 2006, CNN Headline News signed right-wing radio talker Glenn Beck to a nightly hour-long talk show. Announcing the new hire, Headline News president Ken Jautz, trying to take the edge off Beck's fringe past, described the host as "cordial" and "not confrontational." Yet the previous year, when not fantasizing about killing filmmaker Michael Moore ("I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it") Beck told his listeners that Hurricane Katrina survivors trapped in New Orleans were "scumbags," and that he hated "9/11 victims' families." He also labled antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan a "pretty big prostitute."
So much for being "cordial."
It's not just the name-calling that journalists fear from the right, it's the career track implications the "liberal bias" allegations carry. "When I covered the White House I had the unlimited backing of the late [ABC News president] Roone Arledge," recalled Sam Donaldson, who famously shouted some of the few tough questions posed to Reagan during his term. "One time I got a raise because of what he considered to be unwarranted criticism of my work. Today, not all the bosses support their reporters. So if you're a reporter at the White House and you're thinking about further successes in the business and you're nervous about your boss getting a call, maybe you pull your punches because of the career track." Conversely, those in the MSM who play nice with the White House are compensated. Noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: "Let's be frank: the Bush administration has made brilliant use of journalistic careerism. Those who wrote puff pieces about Mr. Bush and those around him have been rewarded with career-boosting access."
Whatever the specific motives, the timidity became entrenched and the results plain to see. And that's what Lapdogs documents in detail.
Copyright © 2006 by Eric Boehlert
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