Story location:

September 4, 2007

When We Try to Explain the Rout of the Press under George W. Bush

A few factors that tend to get overlooked...

Glenn Greenwald wrote a post at Salon last weekend about the “reverence for Karl Rove” among Washington journalists. He mentions my August 14th entry, Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press, in which I try to explain that savviness—“that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it,’ and unsentimental in all things political”—is the real ideology in Beltway journalism. Rove, I said, “understood and exploited for political gain” this cult of savviness in our press corps.

Glenn’s point of departure is a recent column by Gloria Borger of US News that deserves our derision because it is nothing but horse race fluff. The column also shows undue reverence for Karl Rove’s political acumen. “When Rove speaks, the political class pays attention—usually with good reason,” she writes. Greenwald observes that “nothing Borger says is ever unique or original,” which is true. Like a lot of pundits who appear on pundit shows, Gloria Borger is an interchangeable part.

“She is merely channelling the deep admiration which her Beltway media colleagues have long harbored for Rove and his underlings,” says Greenwald. Admiration seems to him a pretty good explantion for things:

The media virtually never takes seriously any administration lawbreaking and corruption scandals because the people at the center of those scandals are those whom they deeply admire. They do not want political operatives whom they admire to be investigated, let alone prosecuted. They do not subject White House claims to scrutiny because they hear those claims from operatives with whom they identify and for whom they have deep affection. And they adopt GOP-fed narratives and blindly recite them because they are convinced that those who feed them those claims are individuals who possess the greatest insight.

I agree that the people in the press admire Karl Rove and wish they knew as much about politics as they believe he does. But I would recommend to Glenn some other factors that deserve consideration if we’re trying to explain the collapse of the press under Bush, Cheney and Rove.

The most important of these is that journalists and their methods were overwhelmed by what the Bush White House did— by its radicalism. (The subject of another Greenwald post today.) There is simply nothing in the Beltway journalist’s rule book about what to do when a group of people comes to power willing to go as far as this group has in expanding executive power, eluding oversight, steamrolling critics (even when they are allies) politicizing the government, re-interpreting the Constitution, rolling back the press, making secrecy and opacity standard operating procedure, and repealing the very principle of empiricism in matters of state. That’s not an excuse for what happened, but I think it does help explain why the press got beat so badly.

As one observer put it:

From the Kyoto accords to the International Criminal Court, from torture and cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners to rendition of innocent civilians, from illegal domestic surveillance to lies about leaking, from energy ineptitude to denial of global warming, from cherry-picking intelligence to appointing a martinet and a tyrant to run the Defense Department, the Bush administration, in the name of fighting terrorism, has put America on the radical path to ruin.

Unprecedented interpretations of the Constitution that holds the president as commander in chief to be all-powerful and without checks and balances marks the hubris and unparalleled radicalism of this administration.

And that was from one of the administration’s own: Lawrence Wilkerson, a Republican, and former top aide to Colin Powell.

I think “overwhelmed by” explains more than Glenn’s “identify with” or “affection for.” In my view the press suffered from not only a failure of nerve under Bush, and a default in leadership, but a dearth of imagination. Most of the people in the capital press—the correspondents, and their bosses— could not imagine what it was going to take to maintain any sort of watchdog role under Bush. They never dreamed that their routines could be so ill-matched to the moment.

From this point of view, the reason Washington journalists don’t “call them on it” (to use a phrase heard a lot in these discussions) is not that they identify with the GOP, or want to maintain their access, or cannot bear to lose their ticket to Washington cocktail parties, or have to obey corporate masters who naturally favor the pro-business Republicans; rather, it’s that “calling them on it” in any consistent way would require such a dramatic departure from known methods of Washington journalism—methods a Gloria Borger has mastered to get where she is—that it would effectively demand a new playbook.

And this new set of instructions could never be a consensus document because no consensus exists on what to do when people manage to gain power who are willing to go much further than others who held similar positions in the past.

The clearest example of this is the awesome phenomenon of Dick Cheney. If the Washington press were serious about about being a watchdog, speaking truth to power, or just covering the people making the key decisions it would have long ago said to itself, “we need to put as much effort into covering the OVP as we do in covering the White House.” (OVP is Office of Vice President.)

Of course it never happened— except in retrospect. And yet it had to happen if the press was to have any hope of “calling them on it.” That it didn’t happen isn’t discussed, isn’t even mentioned in press circles. Yet Cheney is routinely described—by Beltway journalists themselves—as the most powerful Vice President ever, and as extremely “secretive.” So it’s not that they are unaware of the phenomenon. But they don’t know what to do about it without overhauling rituals and assumptions that have lasted for the length of Borger’s career.

Similarly, they couldn’t imagine that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the closer your sources were to the White House, the more likely they were to be wrong— or entirely propagandistic. It’s kind of a radical thought. And yet according to Warren Strobel, whose reporting for Knight-Ridder was more skeptical and closer to the mark, that was definitely the case. Listen to what he says:

We had people talking to us [whom I call] “professionals,” I mean intelligence analysts, uniformed military and US diplomats who were expert in Iraq, expert in the Middle East, had done this stuff their whole careers. And they kept telling us over and over again that their views were being ignored, that the process was being politicized, strange things were going on, that a separate, almost alternate government was being set up, different reporting channels, and so on and so forth. And I think what happened was — They were talking to other members of the media as well, obviously they just didn’t come to Knight Ridder, but we took them a lot more seriously. We followed very aggressively on what they had to say. And in the end we found that their version of reality was more accurate than the version of reality that the White House was trying to put out.

“A separate, almost alternate government was being set up.” Where’s the rulebook for that? The closer you get to the White House, the further you are from the reality of what the White House is doing. This was the unbelievable truth. Under these conditions, the normal routines of White House reporting actually lead you away from the story, and the longer you stick with those routines the further away you get. And yet you think you’ve done nothing wrong because you’re doing what you’ve always done.

When an error that large is made, the overwhelming tendency is to deny or domesticate it. Just calling Bush a “conservative” (when he is actually a radical) helps. It normalizes things that are quite out of the ordinary. (Wilkerson again on Bush and company: “They are radical. They’re not conservative. They’ve stolen my party and I would like my party back.”)

Which gets to another factor I want to emphasize. The press has a weakness for cyclical theories in politics. It tends to favor a view of Washington in which the pendulum may swing back and forth but the eternal truths remain true. As history this outlook is mostly junk, but it expresses well enough the view of a permanent political class that includes the press and expects to be around longer than any Administration. Republicans are in power today, Democrats tomorrow. Ideology gains for a while, but pragmatism soon takes over. Reformers may have the initiative for a while, but soon enough they will be followed by business-as-usual. And every four years “presidential hopefuls” will make the trek to Iowa and New Hampshire. What does the political class call elections? “Cycles.”

In other words, if you wait long enough, politics will assume a familiar shape. The excitements of the moment are just that— momentary. People who deep down think this way are absolutely vulnerable to a game-changer like Bush the younger. And this too was a factor in the Washington journalist’s inability to cope with the current regime.

I mention these things not because they account for everything or defeat other explanations, but because they tend to be overlooked when we try to explain the rout of the press under George W. Bush. Cheers.

UPDATE: For the Huffington Post version, I added a new top, reflecting on the President’s surprise trip to Iraq, which produced the desired headlines about troop reductions.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had a good question for the White House press corps Monday, when the President—surprise!—flew to Iraq. Reporters on the plane wanted to know if they were trailing along for what was essentially a photo op. “Would you guys like us to come without you?” said Hadley.

Good idea!

Of course our palace press would never do that. It would never call Hadley’s bluff. Now it’s true that nothing is more important to journalists than their reputation for independence; still, the press is not capable of making an independent decision denying the president his spin zone with a dateline in Iraq. When the White House says we’re going, they’re going.

What individuals in the press can do — because this is within their rules — is observe the next day that other individuals, their colleagues, were manipulated into writing phony headlines the previous day. Which is what Howard Kurtz does in Wednesday’s Washington Post. (See Falling for the Spin.) We might call this “independence after the fact,” made necessary by a refusal to act against an obvious ploy.

No one on that plane thought Bush was going to make any real news in Iraq, and yet they also knew that their bosses weren’t about to send them all the way over there and get nothing from it. This made them dependent on what the President decided to say in lieu of making news. So what we got was misleading announcements about possible troop reductions when, as Kurtz wrote, “a troop reduction is no more likely today than it was yesterday.” (Even so, reporters left behind were heard griping about being “out of position.”)

Hadley was actually taunting them with, “Would you guys like us to come without you?” If he didn’t already know that the press corps was incapable of taking an independent decision, he never would have done that. He would have done what spokeswoman Dana Perino did. “There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity,” she said. “We wholeheartedly disagree.”

I disagree too. “Photo-op” understates and normalizes it. Bush flew to Iraq on a propaganda mission that required the press to complete the mission for him. But this was all above board in the sense that these moves are ritualized. And that’s the truly strange part. Tune into this from the President as they all flew on to Australia aboard Air Force One:

If you look at my comments over the past eight months, it’s gone from a security situation in the sense that we’re either going to get out and there will be chaos, or more troops. Now the situation has changed where I’m able to speculate on the hypothetical.


See “Would You Guys Like us to Come Without You?” (Sep. 5)

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 4, 2007 12:45 AM