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May 29, 2008

What Happened to Scott McClellan in Longer Perspective: 100 Years of the White House Press

I never expected McClellan to write a book about being the jerk at the podium for Bush, or to make connections between his experience and the larger wreckage of the Bush presidency. But he's done just that.

“You got to be able to step back and look at the big picture,” said Scott McClellan on the Today show this morning, talking about his book disturbance. I did that in April 2006 when McClellan resigned as White House spokesman. See The Jerk at the Podium: Scott McClellan Steps Away. Most of what I have to say on this week’s events is in that post.

(This week it was still on the first page of results for a Google search of McClellan’s name. The New York Times topic page for McClellan also picked it up. So did Mahalo. Long form bloggers live for these moments, when the live web and search come together.)

McClellan saw that he became just that: the jerk, the guy whom everyone could abuse. He is now trying to explain, in public, how such a thing happened. In “The Jerk at…” I was talking about his visible part in the Bush presidency— on television, in the public eye. Invariably, Washington reporters I met would tell me what a good person McClellan was… in person. “Great guy to work with.” And they almost always said the same thing about why his performances were so excruciating. “He’s in a tough spot.” And then their voices would trail off.

But it was way more than that. He was the point person for what had become a kind of propaganda presidency. The shocking thing is that he knows it now, he goes there in his explanations, even though the Washington press corps (still) does not. If they did go there, they would be the ones in a tough spot.

The Today Show rocked today. McClellan, a Texan from an prominent political family, pressed his case. Then he was mocked by Dan Bartlett, a Texan around the same age who could not make heads or tails of that case. (You have to watch it.) I never thought I would see the intellectual crack-up of the Bush team on live television, but that is what the clip shows, I think.

McClellan’s story (in my paraphrase)…

I was stupid, I allowed myself to be fooled by them. I was misled. I was misguided by the people who were supposed to guide me so I don’t die out there. I trusted the wrong people, but they were the top people. I see now that I was the public speaking part of a propaganda mission. The people running it let me lie for them. They destroyed their own press secretary when they did that. The American people rejected us because we didn’t level with them. I know, because I was the one not leveling….

And just below the surface of the words. A dream I had about public service died inside when I lied for you from the White House podium. I blame myself for not seeing that. And now I turn to your part in those events.

I never expected McClellan to write a book about being the jerk at the podium for Bush, or to make connections between his experience and the larger wreckage of the Bush presidency. He’s not only done that; he’s clearly ready to hit the circuit and explain himself. So to the wave of commentary here and coming, I offer another step back: a hundred-year perspective on this week’s events. The ruining of Scott McClellan was part of something way bigger, and to understand it we have to go back to the beginning of the White House press corps.

In from the cold

The modern era in presidential press think begins with Theodore Roosevelt, who directed that special quarters be built for reporters when renovations were made to the White House during his first term. In 1902 the work was completed: the press got invited into the heart of the presidency and the nature of presidential power shifted.

It shifted because of something Roosevelt had grasped: a national media system, then emergent, needed a big national narrative, and the President would be the main character in that narrative because, once elected, he alone stands for—as well before—the country as a whole. As head of government, ceremonial chief of state, and national protagonist—a triple advantage—the President would always dominate over other actors in the system. What today we call “commanding the stage,” because we take for granted that there is a stage, was in 1902 an imaginative leap forward into the media age.

With Roosevelt, often called the first modern president, the executive began its long ascendency over the other two branches, a development that sped into maximum overdrive with the president whom Scott McClellan served. The incorporation of the press into presidential power actually began a few years earlier with William McKinley, who first invited reporters into the White House and allowed them to hang out in a small room off the North Portico. Prior to that time they had taken to waiting in the street hoping to interview departing visitors. Congress was the nerve center of Washington then, and the more powerful branch. Its press gallery dates from 1841, 60 years before the White House supplied similar quarters.

It was McKinley who instituted regular White House briefings, but he kept his distance: reporters never met with the President and had to conduct interviews outside the building. When Roosevelt took over after McKinley’s assassination things changed; the great embrace had begun. T.R. liked reporters. (His uncle was a newspaper editor; Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, was a friend.) He took them into his confidence, traveled with them in tow and encouraged them to report on the president through the medium of his outsized personality. His notion of the presidency as “bully pulpit” and his decision to invite the press into the White House were parts of the same insight. Ever since then the presidency and the press have glamorized each other.

The stooge figure

That era lasted almost exactly 100 years. Bush engineered a strategic shift, the press part of which I have called Rollback. Scott McClellan was a key figure in that shift, but he seems to have had a change of heart about it, which is important to whether the change becomes permanent or fades with Cheney and Bush gone.

Sensing an institution in decline and uncomfortable with interlocutors of any type, they decided to return the press to where it stood before McKinley: effectively out in the cold. But they didn’t go all the way and actually expel reporters from the executive mansion, which would have alerted the country—and the press—to something extreme going on.

Instead the Administration decided to innovate in other ways. It denied the whole theory of the “fourth estate,” ridiculed the idea that the press is part of the system of checks and balances, told reporters they were a special interest group rather than a conduit to the public-at-large, wiped out all remaining distinctions between propaganda and public information, and welcomed the de-legitimizing of the news media by allies in the culture war.

“Back e’m up, starve ‘em down and drive up their negatives” is the way I summarized this approach. In July 2003 Bush took it further when he installed in the White House briefing room a stooge figure, a pathetic character who had no power, no in-in-the-loop knowledge, no respect from key players in the Administration, no talent for improvised explanation under the lights, and no problem being made to look like an ass in front of the country, the cameras and the rest of the world.

This was Scott McClellan, at that time a Bush loyalist in the extreme sense, someone willing to surrender his self-respect to be part of the President’s team. (“I have given it my all, sir, and I’ve given you my all,” McLellan said on the day his resignation was announced, words that have a strange poignancy now.)

Now these were mere tactics; the strategy was something else entirely. Here’s the way I would put it: The Bush forces, led by Dick Cheney, thought they had an insight that cancelled out Theodore Roosevelt’s insight from 1902. And they had a view of presidential power that contradicted his. Their idea—unappreciated to this day—was to make the executive more illegible, which would increase presidential power on the model of the state trooper’s sunglasses. (He can see out but no one can see in.)

This, I think, was an imaginative leap away from Roosevelt’s. T.R.’s insight was that the President as national protagonist could, by revealing himself more regularly to the media, begin to dominate the national stage. The president’s image had to be controlled, of course, and Roosevelt was quite good at that. Later Administrations would perfect the art of news management. Bush’s idea was entirely different. You’re more powerful if you don’t have to explain, answer questions or admit even the slightest error.

“There’s no longer any credibility.”

The leap that Roosevelt engineered (“come on in…”) led to an increase in presidential power by making the president a bigger figure nationally. For Bush and Cheney greater opacity in government signifies the president’s unchallenged power. Don’t answer questions; it encourages people to think that you can be questioned. Give up on persuasion; propaganda gets the job done more efficiently. Reason-giving only shows weakness; when the real reasons are elsewhere that shows strength.

Strategic non-communication was the best name I could come up with for this approach. It was a staggering gamble and of course it failed on every front, especially the one most important to Bush: public support for the war in Iraq. In August of 2007, Tim Russert reported on a meeting between Bush and House Republicans that featured some blunt talk. According to Russert, one Republican congressman told Bush: “The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There’s no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus.”

That Congressman was saying a remarkable thing: The White House was no longer a legitimate source of political news about the war in Iraq. It could not be believed on the subject. McClellan is trying to explain how things got to that point, since he now regrets his part in them. Here is what I wrote about that part in April ‘06.

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are large to start with—to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

McClellan in his book charges that the Bush White House was “continually in campaign mode, never explaining, never apologizing, never retreating. Unfortunately, that strategy also had less justifiable repercussions: never reflecting, never reconsidering, never compromising. Especially where Iraq was concerned.”

But where his account and mine really come together is this part about the culture war: “I think the concern about liberal bias helps to explain the tendency of the Bush team to build walls against the media,” McClellan writes. Culture war concealed what was a risky and radical shift in White House communications. “Unfortunately, the press secretary at times found himself outside those walls as well.”

It wasn’t by accident. When Roosevelt welcomed the press in from the cold, he was agreeing that the modern presidency needed an interlocutor, and would benefit by having a official one on hand. It was exactly this premise that Bush and Cheney rejected, as part of a larger project, creating a more unfettered presidency all around, less accountable to other parts of the system. They wanted the lights to go out on the idea of answering questions from an unpersuaded press. They chose McClelland as the dimmer, and he was dumb enough to let them.

But I don’t think they calculated well.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 29, 2008 2:15 PM   Print


Ha I wouldn't worry too much about the guy, I mean he may have lost his old friends but he had it all worked out. This article has some nice insight on his thought process:

Posted by: Alyssa at May 29, 2008 3:12 PM | Permalink

The Bush Administration's "Rollback" of the White House Press Corps came after more than 3 decades of the softening up of the press through endless attacks from the Republicans. Resentment broke out into open hostilities during Nixon's Administration, and Agnew's broadsides remain the model for those who followed. By the time Blankman McClellan stepped to the podium, the Administration was confident in its contempt for press. Not only was the institutional press struggling with historically low approval ratings and the unsettling advent of the blogsphere, Fox News and Conservative Radio had emerged to cover the Administration's flanks. Not only could those media outlets be counted on to parrot and amplify Administration speaking points, they also confirmed with unrestrained glee, the most negative assumptions about the press. McClellan always knew the game he was playing, and what we are seeing now is that in the waning days of Bush's term in Office, Bush can no longer strike fear in the hearts of former staffers, and he can no longer provide meaningful access.

What strikes me most about McClellan, is his apparent calculation not to court a position with Fox (or a wannabe Fox network), and to instead set fire to that particular bridge. It may be that the winds are shifting, and in the post-Bush world, Conservatives, and their media champions, and their media tactics, will recede again to the fringes.

Posted by: Mark J. McPherson at May 29, 2008 4:14 PM | Permalink

Reading the first excerpts is a bizarre experience, somewhat akin to chewing on peyote buttons.

It's eerie ... like Scott McClellan (Scott McClellan ???) channeling Jay Rosen ... sometimes almost word-for-word.

Beam me up, Scotty. (And, kudos to you, Jay.)

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 29, 2008 5:10 PM | Permalink

I'm fascinated by McClatchy's (Strobel and Landay) reaction to all this:

But the responses to McClellan from the Bush administration and media bigwigs, history-bending as they are, compel us to jump in. As we like to say around here, it's truth to power time, not just for the politicians but also for some folks in our own business.

[Emphasis in the original]

They make the case, fairly irrefutable in retrospect, that the truth was still there to be discovered, just not from the WH press room.

Posted by: William Ockham [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 29, 2008 5:27 PM | Permalink

I watched some of the other videos at the MSNBC link and David Gregory denying any media responsibility for the Iraq War gear up is bizarre. It's as if his commitment to the process of journalism supercedes his commitment to the function of journalism. They fed us propaganda and we were duty-bound to report that propaganda. As long as we attributed it correctly, we bear no responsibility for the accurancy of the information.

Posted by: Mavis Beacon at May 29, 2008 5:55 PM | Permalink

which would increase presidential power on the model of the state trooper’s sunglasses

But that's the abiding mystery, innit? If you wanted to project a stern, authoritarian face (which BTW shares an interesting etymology with façade and fasces) why would you want to use clown makeup?

There's a curious parallel with Mark Danner's notion of the Iraq circus of incompetence as a reaction to the "dirtied face of power."

Posted by: Sven at May 29, 2008 6:12 PM | Permalink

I thought Towle did a good job predicting what would happen to the Bush administration during the "tough times" after 2003. His research and Janeway's provide important insight for understanding the "three cornered thing," journalism's decline and the rise of the permanent campaign.

I also think it's interesting how the Press Secretary position has evolved along with the President-Press relationship:

The evolution of what became the White House press office, from George Cortelyou to Mike McCurry, was gradual, but the change was profound....

The late Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic put the case well in an interview in 1976. "It's a game here in Washington," he said. "The executive has the sheep and we are the stealers--we're the poachers. We're trying to get the news and they are trying to keep it from us or select the news we get. And it's a game."
Is it still a game?

Posted by: Tim at May 29, 2008 9:24 PM | Permalink

Nice talk by satellite to Sydney Australia a few weeks back Jay, re Future of Journalism Conference. Your article makes me contrast the CJ character in West Wing too.

Not quite sure I'm buying your thesis. Yes he was one of the hired dissemblers no doubt. So was this to enhance unparalleled power, post cold war, post blank cheque of 9/11? I suppose. Or was it as per usual to cover guilty secrets - like it was always about the oil folks, because I'm an Enron backed Texas tea man, what else did you damn well expect?

In which case rooting out the secrets would probably have been better searched out away from the White House altogether and the dissemblers, say in the field of Iraq (no WMD), or New Orleans (no emergency services), or social welfare budget carnage spent on the $3 trillion according to Stiglitz.

Only exponents of Big Media addicted to the mutual glamourizing of the WH would have stuck around for the non communication after a few insulting sessions. But then that would take really serious courage, not just smarts or looks, like the soldiers actually under fire.

Posted by: Tom McLoughlin at May 30, 2008 7:01 AM | Permalink

Don't expect any such confessions from Dana Perrino; she seems to relish her lies, i.e. We don't torture!

Now that McClellan's come clean it would be nice to see some of the media confess to how probing reporters were pulled from the White House when they were cold shouldered or were bullied into cozying up so that they wouldn't be. This White House has been relentless to people who asked obvious but embarrassing questions. We should be grateful that Helen Thomas still lives.

Posted by: yourstruly at May 30, 2008 9:44 AM | Permalink

Scott McClellan's "family" is NOT "prominent Texas Republican."

Google: Barr McClellan.

Google: Carol Keaton Rylander (The former Mrs. McClellan) has run for office in Texas as a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent.

His father, Barr, was a supporter of RFK.

He, and his brother served in the Bush administration. The rest of the family......lawyers and politicians of all stripes.

Posted by: ERW at May 30, 2008 11:29 AM | Permalink

Yeah, I realized I should not have written "prominent Republican" but "prominent political." I am going to change that.

Steve, see what Dan Kennedy wrote at his blog:

And what Rosen finds stunning is that McClellan himself seems to have adopted Rosen's analysis. That is, McClellan now understands that he was a mere pawn in a much larger game. And despite his still-evident shortcomings, he has come to realize that he doesn't like it one damn bit. After all, it was he who was transformed into a fool, along with the media. Journalists still don't understand that (or maybe they do, given their hostile response to Stephen Colbert's epic performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006). McClellan, though, understands it all too well.

I do find this a surprising turn of events.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 30, 2008 12:16 PM | Permalink

I find Tom Brokaw's response to the charge of media culpability in promoting the invasion of Iraq to be reprehensible and cowardly"

Brokaw: "It needs to be viewed in the context of that time. When the president says we're going to war, there's the danger of the mushroom cloud, we know there had been experiments of Iraqi nuclear programs in the past, honorable people believed he had weapons of mass destruction. But there is always a drumbeat that happens at that time. You can raise your hand and put on people like Brent Scowcroft which we did, very credible man, who said this is the wrong decision. But there are other parts of America who also have a responsibility. How many senators voted against the war? I think 23 is all, altogether.

There was this feeling this [Saddam Hussein] is a bad man, he had weapons of mass destruction, we couldn't make the connection that he was sponsoring terrorists or harboring them, we raised that question day after day. This president was determined to go to war. And it was more theology than it was anything else and that's pretty hard to deal with.

Look, I think all of us would like to go back and ask questions with the benefit of hindsight and what we know now, but a lot of what was going on then was unknowable...So there was a fog of war, Brian, and there's also the fog of covering the war...."

Loaded with buzzwords like "fog of war" and the one I think we'll see proliferate quite a bit in the days to come, "drumbeat," Brokaw seems to be beginning the novel that a lot of pundits and marshmallow media are going to embellish and set in stone. You won't hear much more of the soul searching, I guarantee it.

Posted by: Ferdy at May 30, 2008 12:54 PM | Permalink


The Scott-McClellan revelations have pointed up how the White House, itself, has been dishonored by the very occupant of the Oval Office and his henchmen. The reactions of those who have abused their offices and betrayed the people ranged from "you shouldn't mention such a thing" to "why didn't he speak up sooner" to "he's just trying to promote his book." Skinheads have faced similar obstacles in trying to clean up their ranks. Some have suggested "just keep quiet about it" or "don't criticize others," under the notion that "unity" is promoted by keeping mum. However, the silence has enabled critics to mount an anti-Skinhead campaign, depicting Skinheads as criminals, low-lifes, drunks and freaks, although quite the opposite is true.

Anti-Skinhead elements have concocted their own films and videos, depicting Skinheads as wanton or perverse, which are clearly parodies. Others portray what they claim are "genuine" Skinheads, engaging in lewd or disgusting behavior, propagandizing the images to not only degrade Skinheads, but to try to ward off would-be recruits. Skinheads take great pride in their appearance, blood and ideals. Their clean-cut stance is the exact opposite of hippies, Beatniks and punks. However, some individuals have tried to affix tattooing, nakedness and drunkenness to the Skinhead-image. Whether accurate or phony, well-intended or misrepresented, the false characterization has reached "enough is enough," prompting "finger-pointing" and a clean-up campaign.

Unlike McClellan, Skinheads have been reluctant to name names. Some, like Freddie Howell, simply warn Skinheads away from anti-social or destructive tendencies. Howell, a California Skinhead with several tattoos, instructs, "Don't defile your body with tattoos. Be pure." Jonathan Schoniwitz, a Mississippi Skinhead, shaved off his goatee and moustache, bidding others to follow his lead. Jason Bunnell, a New Jersey Skinhead, exudes being not only clean-cut but neatly-dressed. On the other hand, some calling themselves "Skinheads" depict themselves naked, even dropping their drawers and getting tattooed, accompanied by "giving the finger," toting beer-cans and sporting facial-hair. But, Bunnell is speaking out, demanding "to change things."

Richie Rose, a Kentucky Skinhead, has been a sort of counterpart to McClellan. He went through considerable "soul-searching" before finally coming out for the truth. But, he now insists on Skinheads who are brothers and patriots, not bums and pariahs. "How could someone claim to be for a clean, upright and pure America," asks Rose, "while, at the same time, living like a low-life, reject and crud." Keith Spilman, a Florida Skinhead, sums it up that Skinheads must have "clean goals and clean appearance." According to Rose, "A Skinhead should never bring shame upon his people or come across as insecure." A man characterizing himself as a "Golden State Skinhead," who has been parading naked over the Internet, should be reminded to "keep pride."
Copyright 2008 Skinheadz

Posted by: oyes at May 30, 2008 2:43 PM | Permalink

On a completely unrelated note ... McClellan seems to have lost about three chins and 30 pounds.

Staring truth in the face can do that to a fellow.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 30, 2008 4:43 PM | Permalink

That was a pathetic performance by Brokaw and Williams. Pathetic, smug, self-satisfied, un-illuminating in the extreme. Really bad. "There's always propaganda in war" was one of the things he said that really signaled to me that Brokaw has no intention of examining what happened, even though he's out of the game, has the time, and could make a nice contribution by leading the charge among network journalists. When you settle for something like that, "there's always propaganda in war..." you're making it very clear how important you think it is to examine press failure in this war.

When the bell rings on this one, almost all the big names in the trade will fail to show.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 30, 2008 5:36 PM | Permalink

It's amazing to me how McClellan's mea culpa has led to so many other mea culpas by people who tried for a very long time to pretend that they were committing journalism -- i.e., Yellin, Williams, Brokaw, et al.

"Hello ? Sorry there ... but frankly I was feeding you an entire load of shit night after night after night for the whole time."

We have entered bizzaro world here, and frankly, it's about fucking time.

As Jay puts it, in a masterpiece of understatement, "I do find this a surprising turn of events."

Ummm, no shit ! But also a welcome turn of events. Certainly too late for anyone who lost a loved one in the desert, or paid a single tax dollar to support this luancy. But, still, welcome.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 30, 2008 8:45 PM | Permalink

Jay, good article, astute foresight and I like the hundred-year view of things.

How does that hundred-year perspective appear when the shoe is on the other foot, i.e., things seen from the perspective of the people who comprise the press?

Over the last hundred years, how does the press's view of itself and its role changed? How has it been shaped by White Houses of yore (and the current one)?

I'm intrigued by Mark J. McPherson's comment about the changing view of the press going back to Nixon, and the way that distrust made for fertile ground in which the Bush Admin could do its "stretegic non-communication" thing.

How many journalists have cut their press-teeth since Nixon, and have been affected overtly or subtlely by the antagonistic view of the media?

How much have journalists bought into the White House views regarding what their role is? (Witness David Gregory, Tom Brokaw, etc. etc.)

Are McClatchey's Landay, Strobel and Youssef an exception? If so, why?

And I suppose, to complete the picture and harken back to the three-cornered footing:

[the] triangular relationship among journalists, the Administration and the public. Each leg—the President and the American people, the White House and the press, the press and the public—counts.

So while we're doing the hundred-year retrospective, the press's view of itself and the American public's view of the White House and the Press also needs to be taken into account.

Posted by: Susan Kitchens at May 30, 2008 10:33 PM | Permalink

Prof Rosen wrote:

Before the certification of “Jeff Gannon” as a White House reporter who was good to go there was the Bush Administration’s de-certification move against the Washington press, which it felt had to go. These two things are deeply related.

The idea that joins them was stated by Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff: “They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election,” said Card. “I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”

See? No check and balance role. Not representative. That’s post-press thinking, coming from the Chief of Staff. It is a political innovation for which Bush does not get enough credit.

When Andrew Card speaks to the total absence of accountability with respect to the modern political press corps, irrespective of his motives or agenda, isn't he basically correct on the facts?

Isn't your criticism...

When you settle for something like that, "there's always propaganda in war..." you're making it very clear how important you think it is to examine press failure in this war.

...indicative of the exactly the type of catastrophic failure in self-policing Fourth Estate obligations to which Card self-servingly refers?

In your construction of events, Prof Rosen, you make the case for a type of Stockholm Syndrome afflicting a national press corps somehow held hostage by a dangerous, ski-masked Administration. It seems to me that an argument could be made for the Bush Administration simply taking advantage of a situation in which the national press industry was in a later process of a profound transformation, an important aspect of which was a deliberate, systemic and cultural abdication of Fourth Estate roles and responsibilities. Which came first? A dangerously gilded-age industrial monolith of a press corps (perpetually failing in its constitutionally enumerated duty), or the Bush Administration's tactics?

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at May 30, 2008 10:54 PM | Permalink

I live in Sydney and just saw McClellan on your PBS network, I just about have to scream when I heard him say nobody in the US understood where they went wrong with their 9/11 response! America went wrong because George Bush went to Ground Zero and allowed a war chant USA USA USA to start up around him. He decided to empower Osama by declaring war on a bunch of criminals... Outside the US, we were all screaming, don't do this stupid thing; let your police / FBI head up the response with support of the military against the Taliban if needed; but do NOT tie your future to defeating a phantom force that wears no uniform.

George Bush is a Bonesman and like the rest of the Military Industrial Complex his friends wanted something to replace the Cold-War which allowed corporations like Bechtel to get away with horrific acts for decades without the US public hearing about these.

McClellan is still too close to the situation to have good perspective on it.

Posted by: Andrew Johnson at May 31, 2008 3:30 AM | Permalink

A Tell-All That Doesn't
Spurious George: A geek tragedy
Lonesome George

And what's Georgie doing now?

Posted by: Tim at May 31, 2008 8:41 AM | Permalink

If i understand stuart correctly, I'm with him on this.

I think 'rollback' is a great descriptive phrase for what happened, but as a theory for why/how it happened, I think its overdetermined, because it sounds too much like an agressive, rather than a defensive, strategy.

Imagine, if you will, a White House that was open, honest, and accessible to the media -- do you think we'd get better journalism?

I don't. Bob Somersby has been 'documenting the atrocities' since 1998. The poor excuse for what was once called "journalism" necessitated a response like "Rollback".

I think that the advent of 24 hour "news" networks played a large role in the creation of "rollback" as well; the alternative reality that exists on Fox, CNN and MSNBC demands a response -- they obviously aren't going to cover "objective" reality, so the administration had little choice but to construct and sell its own alternative reality.

The media has its own agenda, and it has nothing to do with journalism. As someone who supports Hillary Clinton, watching the media over the last year has given me a new appreciation of the right-wing critique of the media. I understand why they call it "the liberal media" -- from a right wing perspective, the complete disconnect from reality, and the obvious agency involved in how "news" is reported, would appear to be "liberal."

"Rollback" happened because it had to happen -- and that dynamic is separate and distinct from the Bush political agenda. The problem is that once you construct an "alternative reality" for the media to report on, you have to live in that alternative reality.

and "Rollback" hasn't failed, the alternative reality constructed by the Bush administration is still the baseline reality that is the basis of media reporting. If it wasn't you wouldn't have people like David Gregory, Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams et al making excuses for their failures during the run up to the Iraq War.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 31, 2008 9:44 AM | Permalink

Susan: Thanks for your Kos post, and your questions.

"Over the last hundred years, how does the press's view of itself and its role changed? How has it been shaped by White Houses of yore (and the current one)?"

Obviously a lot happens in a period like the one I am talking about, 1902-2002. The main lines of change are: the growing size of the White House press corps especially in the last 30 years, the gradual rise in power of the executive branch compared to Congress, which really accelerated after the Great Depression and the New Deal, the initial period of deference and chumminess that lasted through the Eisenhower, the coming of television and the glamour of the media age with Kennedy especially, who was completely at ease in front of the cameras and in answering questions, the beginning of the loss of deference with the credibility gap suffered by Lyndon Johnson and then of course the onset of the current era with Nixon, Agnew, Rather, culture war, Watergate, gotcha showoffs and all the rest.... Important to insert into that picture the "man with his finger on the button" psychology from Truman to Bush One.

To go back to what Mark said, I think that after Nixon elements in the Republican party decided that the national press could and would destroy their guy, and that more could be gained by attacking the news media than by answering its questions.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 11:49 AM | Permalink

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 31, 2008 9:44 AM:

If i understand stuart correctly...

As usual, Paul manages to wade through my commentary, and gets to the heart of what my point was.

I think that the advent of 24 hour "news" networks played a large role in the creation of "rollback" as well; the alternative reality that exists on Fox, CNN and MSNBC demands a response -- they obviously aren't going to cover "objective" reality, so the administration had little choice but to construct and sell its own alternative reality.

The media has its own agenda, and it has nothing to do with journalism.

...And therefore the Bush Administration, by being shrewd enough to correlate 24 hour cable news (consolidation, etc., etc.) with the "permanent campaign", was simply the first executive organism to flourish within this new sea of profligate press corps failure.

I wish to make clear that I'm not a Clinton supporter, and that Paul and I have had numerous disagreements in other forums. This being said, I must concur with his analysis here.

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at May 31, 2008 11:54 AM | Permalink

Brilliant article professor Rosen.

I would add a couple of points to the larger arc of history you describe. I'm old enough to remember Agnew's description of the press and the Nixon administrations, general contempt for the fourth estate. This, to me, was the beginning of the narrative of "elitist" liberal press vs the "silent majority". It is no accident ,that many of the main players in the unitary executive crowd, were around when Nixon resigned. To them, this was a great injustice, that they systematically and doggedly, have worked to correct.

I believe, it was at that point, their view of the press became, if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Moon and Murdoch, are of course, the shinning examples and beneficiaries of quid pro quo legislation which has made them enormously wealthy and powerful and now are returning the favor.

The loop is closed, by filling the courts during the intervening years with Judges who have no regard for anti trust laws and never saw a merger they couldn't embrace. What is it now, six entities control 90% of all information?

The rise of cable and the "News" channels 24/7 cycle has only accelerated the process of consolidation. They fill the air with naked propaganda, at worst, or trivialities and distractions at best. They have done this, in large part by the creation of a class of celebrity talking heads, who are obscenely compensated for parroting the corporate line. As an example, Russert isn't going to do anything that would jeopardize his digs in Nantucket by challenging the status quo.

When the government exists to serve the corporations interests, we can hardly expect the corporate media to be exempt.

Posted by: Myers at May 31, 2008 12:09 PM | Permalink

Stuart: Good questions. I know I responded to some of this in the comments to earlier posts, but can't find that stuff now.

Card and Bush introduced a confusion, and the only way to sort it out is by introducing a distinction not in common use, between the people and the public. As far as I know, I am the only one who makes such a distinction.

Bush and Card are right about one thing. The press does not legitimately represent the American people. It's not elected; there is no "throw the bums out" remedy available to us. Nor is it representative in the sense of resembling the American people in microcosm. (But then neither is Congress, or the White House staff.)

If the press has a "representative" function at all, it would be to represent our interest in having available out there a healthy and informed public sphere where we can find out what's going on and discuss it, and where lying, denial, secrecy and propaganda are not raised to universal principles.

This is where Bush and Cheney wanted to innovate. They believe that to have such a sphere is an unnecessary restraint on executive power, and they did what they could to destroy it.

In the limited sense I described above, the press is supposed to represent the part of the public that is at least somewhat attentive to politics-- or rather it represents the interest those people have in seeing some basic questions addressed by people in power. Like, for example, why did we invade Iraq and did it have anything to do with the rationale stated publicly?

Now the question of "who represents?" is an entirely different question from: has the national press done a good job at representing the public's interest in having that healthy sphere of discussion and information? In many ways I would say no, it has not done a good job. Part of the reason, of course, is that "the press" morphed into the media.

Card, I believe, wasn't referring to poor self-policing and professional accountability. He was just debasing himself and this discussion in a routine round of culture war theatre, where "unrepresentative" equates to "cultural elite." President Bush represents real people, the press is the latte-lovers.

For purposes of understanding, the value of that kind of criticism is lower than zero. For purposes of mobilizing resentment and discrediting anyone who dares to challenge you, it works fine.

Finally, I agree that a lot had happened to weaken the press by the time Bush, Card, Cheney, Rove, Bartlett and crew came into power, and that you cannot separate Rollback from those larger shifts.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 12:42 PM | Permalink

Concerning Brokaw...

Yes, that "all wars are based on propaganda" excuse is exceedingly lame. However, I find nothing mealymouthed about this:

"This President was determined to go to war and it was more theology than it was anything else and that is pretty hard to deal with." Later Brokaw quotes McClellan himself to rebut criticism that the news media were not aggressive enough in asking questions about weapons of mass destruction, pointing out that the "real reason" for the war "was an idealistic democratic Iraq in the post 9/11 world," nothing to do with WMDs.

Paul Wolfowitz and Scott McClellan and Tom Brokaw thus share an analysis.

Making a decision to go to war based on theology rather than geostrategy...dissembling about the true motive...sticking to a decision based on determination rather than debate: all of these seem to be of a part with a "state trooper's sunglasses" style of government.

I personally believe that nothing whatsoever reported in the news media would have deterred George Bush on his path to invade Iraq. A responsible news media should have done what reporters like NBC's Jim Miklaszewski at the Pentagon actually did: tell his viewers that war was inevitable and to point out that they were delusional if they thought that fact finding or debate of the issues or democratic protest or invocation of international law would have made an iota of difference.

Thus Jay's test--"Why did we invade Iraq and did it have anything to do with the rationale stated publicly?"--is more moderate than McClellan's and less fantastical about the realistic power of the press to change policy. Against this smaller, more reasonable test, the mainstream media acquit themselves better.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at May 31, 2008 1:16 PM | Permalink

The poor excuse for what was once called "journalism" necessitated a response like "Rollback".

Basically, I don't agree with this, Paul. But I am not praising the performance of the press, or defending what journalists do.

Rollback, as I said in this post, was a tactic, not a strategy. Strategic non-communication was the strategy, along with making executive power more opaque, retreating from empiricism, escaping from oversight of any kind, using confusion and secrecy to maximize room for maneuver and reducing all means of public accountability other than elections.

The strategy was to attack the premise of "open government" on as many fronts as possible. You must understand this part: The people in power wanted government to become more opaque. And that is what necessitated a response like "Rollback."

As I said it was a staggering gamble. And in the end a disaster for the U.S, a disaster for Bush, a disaster for the Republican party, a disaster for the fight against Islamic extremism, a disaster in the battle for world opinion.

The miraculous thing is that McClellan knows it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 1:26 PM | Permalink

I personally believe that nothing whatsoever reported in the news media would have deterred George Bush on his path to invade Iraq.

I agree with that, Andrew.

What needs to be explained is the notion that you could "bend" reality enough to invade for one reason, provide to the public, the Congress and the world a different set of reasons, and somehow it would all work out because the White House is powerful enough to impose its view and fix the facts around the policy.

Where that corrupt and deluded idea came from, the history that lay behind it, how it was that so many came to accept it, the huge number of people still blind to it, the army of rationalizers who supported Bush as he continued with it-- all to me are fantastic phenomena that defy simple explanation.

In this I am in a small minority. Most people either see nothing to explain (right) treat the explanation as simple (left) or want the whole discussion to go away because it's been done to death (journalists like Brokaw.) But that is the kind of "niche" professors are supposed to have.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 1:54 PM | Permalink

Jay Rosen

I think the Bush press policy is an act of political realism and does testify to the acumen of the administration. I think they should take credit for it, and their supporters should give them credit. Historians will.
The Master Narrative on Iraq was set before this Bush Administration, wasn't changed, was challenged, voted on and passed, then publicly presented.

Posted by: Tim at May 31, 2008 2:57 PM | Permalink

whoops, passed

Posted by: Tim at May 31, 2008 3:00 PM | Permalink

Why hasn't anyone asked George Stephanopoulos about this?

George published a "scathing" denunciation of the Clinton administration in '99, yet he suffered no consequences. In fact, he got a juicy job at ABC News.

The only person I have seen slobbering over McClellan's tome is Keith Olbermann. I'm thinking McClellan is angling for a job at MSNBC along with the other frothing Obama lovin' Bush haters like Olbermann and Chris (I feel a tingle up my leg) Matthews.

I'd say it's a perfect fit---when you're a press secretary and you diss your boss, the national press rewards you with untold riches----and a Sunday show!

It's Win-Win for McClellan!

Posted by: QC Examiner at May 31, 2008 4:58 PM | Permalink

Thank you so much for your response and clarification, Prof Rosen; it is very much appreciated.

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at May 31, 2008 6:04 PM | Permalink

And what exactly is this nefariously hidden, "theological" reason for invasion? So far, that's been left unsaid here, as if it were too obvious to even mention.

Posted by: Neuro-conservative at May 31, 2008 9:09 PM | Permalink

It's not our responsibility to divine what Brokaw had in his head. His statement wasn't explained; by my lights he was being extremely inarticulate.

McClellan says Bush believed that invading Iraq and creating a stable republic there would transform the Middle East into a region of democracy and free markets. Maybe that's what Brokaw had in mind.

Bush somehow knew he couldn't sell that vision as the primary rationale, so he went looking for other reasons that could be sold to us. No one around him had the balls to object to this inherently dishonest way of going to war, and that's why he picked them, according to former Bush staffer David Frum. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher thinks it's sad that this is what Bush means by loyalty.

But let's get real. I don't have anything left to say to anonymous Bush dead enders like you, just as you have nothing to say to me. Cheers.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 9:59 PM | Permalink

The rollback was not imposed by the White House on the media, it was an agreement. Brokaw says so himself if you listen. However you can't think of it in terms of a conscious strategy carried out in tactical stages. It was the result of a cultural shift where the culture of news people was and is corporate.

Culture is all those things we know without thinking. Things internalized deeply, that are never questioned. Gore was hated, universally at a deeply personal level by the entire mainstream press corp. He still is to this day. Few to this day could actually tell you why. If asked they will haul out the narrative, liar, goody goody, stiff, phony, etc. etc. Those are't really reasons however because they are in themselves just a construct that was invented to explain the animus. Gore was hated by big media because he was capable of challenging the corporate ambitions of the big media corporations. If you worked for those corporations that animus was evident in behind the office door conversations at the very top and filtered down. Having contempt for Gore was de rigur in the personal conversations at the wather cooler eventually. A snide remark, a ticket punched.

Soon enough they will hate Obama. It will take a bit of time. It's coming. Soon enough the 'reasons' will be apparant.

Posted by: rapier at May 31, 2008 10:52 PM | Permalink

Tim quotes from a journalist in the 70s. "The executive has the sheep and we are the stealers--we're the poachers. We're trying to get the news and they are trying to keep it from us or select the news we get. And it's a game."

I think this aspect is definitely a factor in what ended up happening with Bush. If it's a game, then one can choose not to play it. "We don't play that game." And some game patterns become destructive, or they creative incentives that are purely internal to the game and have no wider benefit. I get all that. The press has often discredited itself by its fascination with "the game" of politics.

However, you see the problem: "Congressional oversight? We don't play that game." There is a "game" aspect to an oversight hearing. It's still very important that we have them.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 31, 2008 11:51 PM | Permalink

We thought he might do it, and he did. Tim Russert went there: an entire interview with Scott McClellan today and zero questions about media complicity in the Iraq war. None! I think that brings a certain clarity.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 1, 2008 11:29 AM | Permalink


I'm with neuro-c... the wheels just fell off the reasoning process. That's just nuts.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at June 1, 2008 2:23 PM | Permalink

Good-- then go tell Brokaw he has a faulty reasoning process. We don't care. This isn't the corporate communications department for NBC. Jeez.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at June 1, 2008 2:37 PM | Permalink


I think the three cornered thing and the game aspect fit together nicely.

Which corner decides the rules of the game? Who benefits from the game (wins)? Who is playing fairly? What penalties are applied?

I think this is especially useful because of the difference in the two games your comment describes. The check and balance rules and penalties between the three branches of government are stated in a constitution, with the fourth corner being a bi-annual voting public.

Posted by: Tim at June 2, 2008 9:08 AM | Permalink

Mr. Rosen,
Check out Professor Leupp's take on the reaction to McClellan's book. (excerpt)

Ain’t it grand how telling your personal “truth” can make you look good, make you a fortune, and obfuscate the real issues all at the same time? The Bush people pronounce themselves “puzzled” and “sad” about their former colleague’s confessions. But I think they should be relieved, considering the alternatives. Instead of depicting Bush as a well-meaning democratic idealist he could have expressed the real truth: Bush is a child of privilege, indifferent to human suffering, energized by a deep cruel streak, dangerously affected by religious delusions, contemptuous of ideas and intellectuals, disdainful of international law, still at large and dangerous as he plans an unjustifiable assault on Iran. Instead of depicting the Iraq War as an act of criminal aggression McClellan does the administration a big favor by merely terming it a “strategic blunder.”

Posted by: Myers at June 2, 2008 1:21 PM | Permalink

There is an undercurrent of media corporatism in the larger story. Even Katie Couric, apparently, is confessing that she felt pressure from higher-ups to root root rot for the home team.

That appears to be at least partly because for-profit media is interested in telling people what they want to hear, because it brings in viewers and therefore ad revenue.

The untold story is that at the same time the Administration was pushing its case for war through the news outlets, the big media conglomerates were pushing their case for more media ownership through the FCC.

The hands washed one another.

After the rule changes were announced -- on June 2 -- media coverage seemed to me to become more critical, virtually overnight.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at June 2, 2008 2:36 PM | Permalink

(Also, of course, that NBC had a direct financial interest in the war -- for the prosecution of which the Pentagon was purchasing GE weapons systems).

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at June 2, 2008 2:51 PM | Permalink


I am not sure where to post this and it is off topic, but I have a serious question. (I guess you could somehow relate it two journalism in the presence of power figures, but it is a strectch).

Mayhill Fowler, a member of your Off the Bus team is described a journalist, and she has even stated she was a Obama supporter. However, she just posted an audio clip on the Huffington Post, that I believe really call her intentions and credibility into question.

1. She asked the President the following question "Have you read that hatchet job in Vanity Fair about you"? Two issues are raised here. One, she did not include her question in the article, which was obviously leading, and likely the cause of Clinton's reaction, although he later apologized.

2. She stated that she "reminded" the President of the writer's relationship to Dee Dee Myers. She did more than remind him. She stated it in a condescending tone.

3. Three, which isn't a journalistic issue, but calls into question her honesty. She allowed the former President to essentially attack Barack Obama without any follow-up. Granted, this was a rope line, but there seemed to be an opportunity to really drill in here.

My question is, do you stand by Mrs. Fowler's reporting, or has she run astray of your goals of off the bus?

Posted by: justmy2 at June 2, 2008 11:37 PM | Permalink


I don't know if you're still doing the After Matter thing (which I think is one of the things that sets this blog apart), but if you do, I suggest a link to James Moore's piece in the HuffPost. He provides a little background on McClellan and why he was considerably more than a loyal, empty vessel skilled at pouring out well-chosen words.

Posted by: William Ockham [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 3, 2008 9:00 AM | Permalink


The media has its own agenda, and it has nothing to do with journalism. As someone who supports Hillary Clinton, watching the media over the last year has given me a new appreciation of the right-wing critique of the media. I understand why they call it "the liberal media" -- from a right wing perspective, the complete disconnect from reality, and the obvious agency involved in how "news" is reported, would appear to be "liberal."

Well... yes.

What's more, I'd point out that the media, writ large, is so OVERWHELMINGLY liberal that they were even further left than Hillary-Care Clinton, hence their collective swan-dive into the tank for Obama.

Then again, that's been obvious to most of us in America for some time now.

Hell, now even Bill's noticing, and has been excoriating media figures. (Heh. NOW who's practicing rollback?)

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at June 3, 2008 11:31 AM | Permalink

A long time ago (Ford Administration), I wrote sketch (now buried in POD somewhere) that showed the Washington Press Corps in the press room - but their questions came from one of those wire baskets that spin - you know - the way they pick the lotto numbers or Bingo.

It seems quite clear that the Washington Press Corps is a club that encourages collegiality, however, this White House has been brutal to obliterate the truth. McClellan did do his job - as described in your other article. It was difficult to see David Gregory dancing with Karl Rove - at Press Club events - in fact - difficult is a mild word for the deep emotions that my Italian heritage genetically predisposes - particularly Vendetta. Yet I tried to wrestle with a pound of salt, the difficulty in covering a White House that made obfuscation an art form.

And Tony Snow, took it to a new height - our very own Baghdad Bob - as you said - not an interlocutor but rather a popular propagandist. He was more difficult to take than McClellan, because McClellan always appeared to be in conflict - Snow, like Perino and 'Bob', are ideologues, with lips blue from the Kool-Aid.

The Almost Daily Binx

Posted by: Binx101 at June 3, 2008 6:44 PM | Permalink

The Bush administration's changed view of the news mredia away from the fourth estate principle has considerable logic to it.

Corporate amalgamations in the past two decades make it legitimate to question whether any reporter from any print, blog or broadcast outlet is there as a simple reporter, or as a tool of the corporation that took over his or newsopeper, magazine, television or radio chain.

NBC's man in Iraq is reporting in a new book that a senior network pestered him to provide reports on the "lighter side"of the war.

Was that senior guy functioning as a news executive? I doubt it. The sign on the office door might very well say otherwise.

Posted by: kunino at June 5, 2008 6:34 PM | Permalink

I don't believe I've seen any commentary from Tony Snow on McClellan's book.

Fleischer and Perino have both attacked, but Snow seems to be curiously absent from the campaign to undermine McClellan's argument by undermining his credibility.

Also, here Joe Strupp at E&P ponders whether the book will change White House-Press relations.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at June 6, 2008 3:16 PM | Permalink

Prof Rosen:

How do you like being referenced by that luminary Kathleen Parker?

You tell me: Does she actually endorse your theory?

Posted by: Stuart Zechman at June 6, 2008 5:12 PM | Permalink

Ummm, sorry to blow your paranoid little fantasy for you, but Snow's absence isn't "curious" at all.He's sick.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at June 6, 2008 7:54 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the info, Jason. But ...

Ummm, to what "paranoid little fantasy" are you referring?

You're suggesting, then, that if Snow wasn't sidelined by illness, he would be out in front of the cameras attacking his predecessor on the Administration's behalf.

I was thinking I might have to give Snow more credit than that.

Maybe not.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at June 6, 2008 9:49 PM | Permalink

Please, Richard...

If you were going to give Snow more credit than that, you would not have referred to his recent absence from the public stage as "curious."

Second, I never "suggested" any such thing. I don't pretend to be able to draw conclusions about people absent a shred of evidence to support them.

The one making a wholly unfounded "suggestion" was you.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at June 7, 2008 12:02 AM | Permalink

Simon --

the campaign to undermine McClellan's argument by undermining his credibility

It is my impression that almost none of the talking points about McClellan have criticized his book on the grounds of his credibility. Almost all of the criticism I have seen have been ad hominem, challenging his 1) loyalty 2) consistency. The fact that so little effort has been spent challenging his accuracy implies to me that McClellan has written little that is false.

By the way, I agree with you. There is no "paranoid little fantasy" in wondering where Tony Snow stands with regard to his predecessor.

Snow's appointment to replace McClellan appeared to be an implicit acknowledgement that the "stooge" method of manning the White House podium had failed; Snow, unstoogelike, treated the press corps as being important enough to debate with and to spin to.

On the other hand, Snow would presumably contradict McClellan's newfound belief that -- being a federal employee -- the White House spokesman has dual loyalties: first to be an advocate for the President; second to insure that the American people are fully and accurately informed about the information, policies and principles guiding the President's decisions.

To summarize the main thrust of What Happened, as presented by its author on his book tour -- correct me if I am wrong, I have only heard him, not read it -- McClellan appears to be saying that he disregarded that second loyalty in his job, treating it instead purely as a role for spinning talking points in the permanent campaign, indifferent to whether those points happened to be illuminating or misleading just as long as they were effective.

Rosen at PressThink, it seems, disagrees with McClellan's self-image, since in his view a stooge (McClellan) is a role better fitted for rollback as opposed to an interlocutor (Snow) for spinning. Under the PressThink model McClellan's claims do not hold water.

Snow was more the spinner, less the stooge. That is why Simon's speculation about Snow's take is no "paranoid little fantasy" but hits the nail on the head.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at June 7, 2008 4:09 PM | Permalink

Well, that's the difference between you and me, I guess.

You're content with speculation. I deal in facts.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at June 7, 2008 8:09 PM | Permalink

Bush, Cheney and Roosevelt in the same sentence about freedom of the press and lack thereof. Somewhere in a grave someone in a rollin'

Bobby McGill

Posted by: b at June 9, 2008 10:34 AM | Permalink

Their idea—unappreciated to this day—was to make the executive more illegible, which would increase presidential power on the model of the state trooper’s sunglasses. (He can see out but no one can see in.) . . . You’re more powerful if you don’t have to explain, answer questions or admit even the slightest error."
I saw an unexpected echo of the logic behind the Bush administration's media strategy as I was reading Stanley Fish's weekly blog/column at the nyt website:
What, after all, justifies [liberal education]? The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”
I'm not sure if I have particular point to make here, but I was struck by the phrase "because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere." It is that very same diminishing of authority through justification to another authority that the Bush administration thought it could overcome by renouncing the responsibility to be publicly responsive. There is a crucial different of course. Fish claims that his goal is for academics to be left alone in their complete irrelevance. More radical than "art for art's sake" (which hardly any artist or art critic ever really endorsed anyways)--Fish embraces "academics for academics sake" with all of its disempowering implications. When, however, it is the executive branch that refuses to account for itself in anyone else's terms, the ones who are made irrelevant, disempowered, even ornamental, are the citizens. Or, more precisely, the public, which is what I think Jay is getting at with this:
If the press has a "representative" function at all, it would be to represent our interest in having available out there a healthy and informed public sphere where we can find out what's going on and discuss it, and where lying, denial, secrecy and propaganda are not raised to universal principles.
And, in fact, this is where I think the doctrines of rollback and of academic isolationism overlap--both involve a retreat from the public and its humbling demand of justification, as Fish puts it, "from those outside the enterprise." Elsewhere, Jay has referred to the Bush administration's overall governing strategy as a retreat from reason. So, to perhaps push the question too far into theoretical abstractness, what is the connection between the public, with the press in its imperfectly performed representative role, and reason as an ideal of governance?

Posted by: Ess.Err at June 9, 2008 1:22 PM | Permalink


By undermining McClellan's credibility, I mean that they are attacking his communicator credibility, his authority to comment knowledgeable, by suggesting that he is adopting the positions of "liberal bloggers" or that the juicy bits were ghostwritten by a New York editor -- rather than by, as you point out, challenging the veracity of his claims.

It is the common pattern with team Bush. They can't dispute the claims, because the claims are true (see ONeill, Paul; Clarke, Richard; Wilson, Joe) -- so they use personal attacks on the messenger designed to undercut the message by undermining the authority with which they speak.

It looks like McClellan will be testifying about this approach in the Plame case.

Posted by: Richard B. Simon at June 10, 2008 10:56 AM | Permalink

From the Intro