All the President's Pets

Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush by Eric Boehlert (Free Press, 352 pages, $25.00)

It will come as no surprise to readers of these pages that the galloping pack of Washington journalists has spent much of the last five and a half years rolling over for an alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) fanatical, inept, mendacious, and clueless George W. Bush. In the run-up to war, they gave him the benefit of many undeserved doubts. When he claimed to accomplish his mission, they saluted. They buried their doubts and when the time came for apologies displayed remarkably little curiosity as to how they had acquired so many sins to apologize for. Even today, with Bush's approval ratings on the shadowy side of one-third and his coalition unraveling, they leave much of his malfeasance and that of his entourage barely noticed. When they do unearth telling dots, they soon re-inter them unconnected.

If you have any doubt, read Eric Boehlert's devastating book. Read it and weep, tear your hair, rend your garments, gnash your teeth. If you still doubt, you must in all honesty ask yourself what evidence it would take to convince you that the game is rigged.

Choose pages of Boehlert at random. You'll be reminded, if you needed reminding, how regularly Tim Russert lies down for Republicans. (In 2004, Meet the Press had room around its round tables for 13 times as many conservatives as liberals, though during the first 10 months of 2005 the ratio slumped to a mere 3-to-1.) You'll discover Ted Koppel covering for Colin Powell and Gwen Ifill doing likewise for Condoleezza Rice. And who can forget the moment when Time deemed Ann Coulter a “public intellectual” worthy of cover treatment, and, scouring her oeuvre, failed to “find many outright Coulter errors”?

If you can stand to revisit the Swift Boat debacle, wherein a credulous press gave credence to a liars' campaign that torpedoed Kerry (helped along by Kerry's ineptitude) [see my “Swifter than Truth,” TAP, November 2004], Boehlert goes voluminous on it -- chapter, verse, and footnote. Likewise on Bush's MIA National Guard days, and Judy Miller, and the Downing Street memo, and on the disproportion between Whitewater coverage and anything in Bush's career (and Boehlert doesn't even mention the tale of Bush's timely unloading of his Harken stock), and, and, and.

However skewed you think the media have been, it may at times be worse than you think. Boehlert tells us that, during the entire 2000 campaign, ABC's evening news show never -- not once -- referred to Bush's carefree National Guard record. Outside The Boston Globe -- whose Walter Robinson did yeoman work on discrepancies, omissions, and plain distortions in Bush's accounts -- the total number of media accounts that mentioned both his absenteeism and Texas pol's Ben Barnes' acknowledgment that he tried to sneak young Bush into the Guard: two. The number of accounts of the phony charge that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet: more than 4,800.

Or take CNN's news chief Eason Jordan, later attacked by the right as insufficiently patriotic. In the run-up to the Iraq War, Jordan vetted the network's ideas for on-air military commentators with the Pentagon.

Or this tidbit about Time's house liberal. In the issue of December 10, 2005, Joe Klein quoted Howard Dean as follows: “The idea that we are going to win this war … is just plain wrong.” Klein added: “Dean -- as always -- seemed downright gleeful about the bad news. He seemed to be rooting for defeat.” Wonder what Klein dropped from the Dean quotation in favor of those three little dots? The word was “unfortunately.”

Boehlert is not unimpeachable. His endnotes are incomplete, with some sources missing and therefore uncheckable. I checked six factual claims that made me wonder, including the items above. Five he got exactly right. The sixth was mistaken in such a way as to indict big media unconvincingly. Boehlert suggests that Wall Street Journal editors moved Middle East reporter Farnaz Fassihi, whom he calls “Famaz,” out of Iraq because of her widely circulated, grim e-mail report on conditions there. But Fassihi herself insists she was on a scheduled rotation. To be definitive, Boehlert has to do better homework -- even in the first rough draft of history.

Still, you can take Boehlert's case and discount it by half. Note, as did Jack Shafer on Slate, that Boehlert is more convincing about the obsequiousness of television's poor excuses for journalists than about the nation's hotshot print operatives. After all's said and done, what Boehlert leaves you with is a mountain of evidence that much of the press corps (TV more consistently than print) has not just failed to deliver some well-deserved punches, but effusively slobbered over Bush.

After everything Boehlert adds to Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, what's a conservative critic to do with the talking point that the mainstream media are “liberal” if not satanic? Play nyah-nyah-so's-your-old-man. On National Review Online, Stephen Spruiell thinks he has scored the gotcha of all gotchas with this: “Eric Boehlert would freak out if you were to point out to him how much his book Lapdogs … reads like a mirror image of the conservative press criticism he despises.” This waddles and quacks like a canard. If the right had the left's evidence, the debate could be serious. But the right isn't and neither is the debate. It's past time for the canard to be roasted for dinner.

Intellectually, the interesting question is: Why this skew? Boehlert isn't systematic. In ascending order of importance, I would say, first, that reporters fear losing access if they show themselves (and, by extension, their organizations) to be too persnickety. During the 2004 campaign, Boehlert notes, a New York Times reporter was barred from the Cheney press plane. (He doesn't point out that this item was reported not in the Times itself but in The Christian Science Monitor.)

Second, television's owners know what government decisions can do for them -- and conversely. The instinct to go for the big story gets overridden when one risky piece flops; the network gets nervous about others. In 2004, 60 Minutes was ready to go with an Ed Bradley segment investigating the Niger forgeries -- replete with material on the Italian intelligence intermediaries never shown elsewhere. This was the segment foolishly shelved for the disastrous Dan Rather-Mary Mapes piece of September 8, 2004, on Bush and the Air National Guard, the one that returned the initiative to the White House because CBS did such a shoddy job authenticating documents. Almost two years have passed, and the Niger piece still gathers dust on the CBS shelf. It stretches credulity that CBS top management is indifferent to the economic advantages of keeping goodwill in the White House.

Third -- and partly for reason two -- big media are uncomfortable with opposition to power. The glory years of Vietnam and Watergate, however noble for Hollywood purposes and J-school lore, unnerved them. They're vulnerable to being battered by FOX, Rush, and the dittoheads barking over their right shoulders. So they bend over backwards to prove, even to themselves, that they're not lefties. To be oppositional -- to call a falsehood a falsehood -- would ill-comport with the absurd standard of fairness that guarantees, in their eyes, their professional status.

Thus they end up trapped in the notion immortalized by Rob Corddry: “My job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other.” So what if reality is biased? Not their job to get in the way of obfuscation and say so.

Todd Gitlin's latest book is The Intellectuals and the Flag.

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