Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hosebags in the House
There's a must-read story at Salon this weekend by Cintra Wilson, a civilian (or, as she puts it, "a no-account hosebag") who was embedded in the White House Press Corps last July, about the time the corps was abusing press secretary Scott McClellan over Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame affair. It's like a travel piece, in which an observer unacquainted with the rituals of some exotic culture goes in wide-eyed and comes out barely able to describe the strangeness of what she has seen. It's also frequently hilarious, as when Wilson describes what it meant when Bush flip-flopped from saying he'd fire anyone involved in the outing to saying he'd fire anyone convicted of a crime in the outing:
Since it was far from clear that outing Plame was technically illegal, and given the proliferation of fabulous lawyers in Washington D.C., this was tantamount to saying, "We'll burn the witch if she assumes the form of a sturgeon when we hose her down."
Wilson found that the members of the White House Press Corps are, with few exceptions, locked into a kabuki-style ritual with rigid boundaries for acceptable behavior. Life among the Corps is also a lot like high school, in which some people's opinions count for more than those of others, who have the misfortune of ranking further down on the social ladder. (And just like high school, it doesn't matter if those further down are actually smarter or more perceptive than those higher up--they still don't count for as much, because it ain't what you are, it's who you are that really matters.)

The ritual structures and the social dynamic work against the primary function of the press, which is to call bullshit on the bullshit. And at some molecular level, the reporters seem to understand this, in spite of their best efforts to keep from noticing. They often struggle to keep their ids from coming out, and they're successful so often that when an id actually escapes, as seems to have happened during Wilson's time at the White House, the effect is shocking.

While Wilson's piece begins as a humorous travelogue, at the end of her trip, things aren't quite so funny. She concludes that while the Bush Administration has created lots of enemies and imagined many more, the enemy it fears most and fights hardest against is information. Scott McClellan's job is not to impart the real thing, but to ladle out clever simulations of it, stuff that looks like nutritious soup but on closer examination is really just colored water and packing peanuts. Wilson characterizes him as "the Undertaker of Information," but a better explanation of what the White House is up to comes from an unnamed member of the press corps, who tells Wilson:
You get frustrated, and you think it's like nailing mercury to a wall, and then you realize that it's not because Scott is so masterfully evasive, but because the White House declines to provide any mercury, or a wall.
If you are not a Salon subscriber, you can watch a brief ad to get access. You can also pony up the cash for a year's subscription, which you will find to be be money well spent.

More Recommended Reading: There are a couple of other good pieces out there this weekend that make good reading alongside Wilson's lengthy travelogue. Many people who cover Washington, whether they're in the White House Press Corps or their beat is some other aspect of the government, eventually achieve the coveted status of "Washington Insider." Yesterday, Digby discussed the way Washington insiders set the parameters for thinking about various politicians (for example, why the insiders loved JFK but hated Clinton), and how their attitudes corrupt the way Americans perceive their leaders and think about their government. Paul Waldman at the Gadflyer picks up the idea, and figures out why the press insiders who were so hard on Clinton have let Bush slide for so long.

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