Thursday, May 04, 2006

There's an absolute must-read at Salon today--a lengthy excerpt from Lapdogs, a new book by the inestimable Eric Boehlert, about the way the mainstream media utterly bungled the runup to the Iraq War. It's great for lots of reasons, but what strikes me hardest are some of the amazingly clueless quotes from media types about how they and why they covered the story.

Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, on why nobody challenged Bush during the famously scripted press conference a couple of weeks before the war began:
"I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war," she told students at Towson University in Maryland. "There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."
Which explains why Bumiller's work reads like that of a stenographer to the powerful, rather than the observations of a seasoned and savvy watchdog. She's afraid to be anything else.

David Ignatius, Washington Post:
"The media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own."
And why not? Because that wouldn't be fair and balanced. It's been one of the tenets of this blog for a long while that the concept of balanced coverage falls apart when one side is lying, as the administration quite clearly was at this time. Ignatius' cowardly quote proves the breakdown.

Dan Rather, September 2002:
"George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions. Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call."
Excuse me, sir---who are you and what have you done with the guy who took on Nixon during a live press conference?

The good news, if there is any, in Boehlert's article, is that some journalists seem to recognize that they blew it in 2002 and 2003. However, that doesn't mean they'll never blow it again. Yes, we're seeing a bit more critical and less credulous reporting these days--at least they checked into the ridiculous National-Anthem-in-Spanish "controversy" instead of merely reporting it. But at the same time, reporters are still showing a great deal of unwillingness to make the administration uncomfortable. Exhibit A: the mainstreamers' response to Stephen Colbert's speech the other night. They've decided that Colbert crossed the line and wasn't funny, when in fact he left the Emperor standing naked with no place to hide, and cracked up half the country doing it.

Journalism has come a long way since Woodstein helped chase Nixon back to San Clemente. It would take more time and space than I have and more psychoanalysis than I'm capable of to figure out how that happened. Apart from a few hacks at Fox News, none of the reporters who got things so badly wrong set out to be what they became. Colbert put it nicely:
Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
More Recommended Reading: At TPM Cafe, Mark Schmitt handicaps the 2008 Republican presidential field. Be sure to read the comments, too.

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