David Brooks is having an excellent decade. As he might have put it in his breezy, best-selling Bobos in Paradise, he's the Restoration Hardware of conservative punditry, the Starbucks of insouciant moderation. Indeed, with his frequent appearances in Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly and other magazines, not to mention his regular TV gig, Brooks might seem to have franchised himself. At The Weekly Standard, amid much drollery and pontificating, he has done what more pundits should do: report. On Jim Lehrer's Newshour, Brooks has astutely personified suburban conservatism with a human face, squaring off every Friday against the older, more rumpled, more urban Mark Shields.
I noted in the June Prospect that while the bombs were bursting over Iraq, America's TV networks were so excited about embedding with troops that they declined to subject the war's rationale to serious scrutiny. How could hype, hysteria, wishful distortion and rank deception in high places be news when there were no -- well, not many -- pictures to interrupt the all-conquering crusade? The networks, America's channels for what is euphemistically called information, had untold hours to spare for desert travelogues, retired generals' briefings and the spectacular deliverance of Jessica Lynch.
In a standard supplement to their regular war package, mainstream media now occasionally feature -- what else? -- mainstream media criticism. This time around, the two prime subjects were (1) embedded reporters and (2) bombastic cable networks. Easier targets have never presented themselves. The cheerleaders of FOX News are surefire objects of scorn for networks and newspapers aiming to occupy the center. No complaint here: FOX's high-volume bluster and low-doubt punditry deserve all the criticism they get. FOX and MSNBC marinated their reportage in bathetic music and drum tattoos, binding their audience to the war effort and stifling thought.
What's the role of an op-ed page? Echo chamber for a newspaper's editorials? Ping-Pong table for both sides of the story? Or supplier of third, fourth, and nth sides and angles of the polyhedral truth? The reader might guess that this writer prefers a lively page that improves the debate, makes new arguments and surveys intelligent thought from all manner of viewpoints. If you're The Wall Street Journal, the answer is (excepting Al Hunt) "echo chamber." No surprise there. It's rather more odd that if you're The Washington Post, the disconcerting answer, at least during December and January, was also echo chamber. To pump up its chorus of hawkish editorials, the Post called up a flock of yes-birds. For the 12-week period of Dec. 1 through Feb.
After months spent diligently not noticing -- or belittling -- the anti-war movement, mainstream news media are suddenly listening up. But their sluggishness and incapacity illustrate a more general flaw: the inability of journalists to connect dots and put together big pictures.