From The New Criterion.
September 23, 2003.
"Suffering News Burnout? The Rest of America Is, Too." Or so The New York Times headed a story by Jim Rutenberg last month which purported to show that Americans were weary of serious news stories because they were tuning out the network news shows.
American soldiers are dying in Iraq almost daily, questions are continuing to swirl around the Bush administration's case for the March invasion and United States Marines are poised off the coast of Liberia. At home, decisions by the Supreme Court prompted national debates on affirmative action and gay rights, a basketball star stands accused of sexual assault and the California governorship suddenly hangs in the balance. And yet, television news viewers are tuning out.
Imagine how fed-up we must be with the news if we’re not tuning in to something as exciting as those swirling questions about the administration’s case for the March invasion! Yet I wonder that Mr Rutenberg never thinks to ask himself whether it might not be precisely the media’s obsession with that case — to the exclusion of other things that actual news consumers might be more interested in — which is turning them off? But then why should he when it is so easy to conclude, in the words of Jack Wakshlag, the head of research at Turner Broadcasting/CNN, that "I'm not sure that national import and national interest always correspond"?
Very probably they don’t. But just because the rubes and hicks too unsophisticated to watch CNN may be mostly interested in Kobe (the basketball star) and Arnold (a film star seeking to supplant Gray Davis as governor of California), it doesn’t mean that they can’t also be bored to tears with the media’s trying day after day to make a scandal out of something they are stubbornly unwilling to regard as one. Though the newsworthiness of this blatant probe for evidence — any evidence — of malfeasance by the government in making its case for the war may be obvious to the media itself, it is not to those Americans who are still, unaccountably, inclined to extend to their government the assumption of good faith. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in late June — when the campaign had been going on for only a month or so — found that 30 per cent of respondents thought the media were devoting too much attention to the controversy over Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, while only 19 per cent thought they were devoting too much attention to the general situation in Iraq.
There is some evidence that this scandal-hunting, reprehensible though it may be in moral or honorable terms, does at least have a genuine market in Great Britain. It is at least a silly-season story that can sell papers when tied to such local stories as the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, whom the British government had accused of being the source for an allegation by the BBC that it had "sexed up" the case for war. But in Britain the unpopularity of the war in Iraq is somewhat greater than it is in America, and the dislike of America’s president is much greater. More importantly, perhaps, after six years in power the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has become a bore to the media. They want a new story. And as the old story about Blair was all to do with his political wizardry, the new story is naturally all to do with his political failures and missteps, of which the most unaccountable to them is his decision to tie his political fortunes to those of the cretinous Texas cowboy.
Thus in July The Times of London blared that "Tony Blair’s difficulties over weapons of mass destruction deepened last night when the US Government admitted that the Iraq war had been fought on the basis of ‘murky intelligence.’" Huh? How did those difficulties — almost entirely created by the media in the first place — "deepen" because Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, said in a television interview that "the nature of terrorism is that intelligence about terrorism is murky"? To most of us that could be nothing more than a statement of the obvious. In fact, all intelligence is rather murky, and governments don’t always have the luxury of waiting until it clarifies if they want to avoid terrorist acts against their citizens. As Wolfowitz went on to say, "I think the lesson of 9/11 is that if you are not prepared to act on the basis of murky intelligence, then you’re going to have to act after the fact, and after the fact now means after horrendous things have happened to this country." Some admission!
In America, the press was more likely to batten on to Wolfowitz’s suggestion that there was some connection between the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror — because the American troops in Saudi Arabia, cited by Osama bin Laden as a particular provocation of his terrorist acts, had been there to guard against further expansionist adventures by Saddam Hussein. Maureen Dowd in The New York Times characterized Wolfowitz’s argument as "an Orwellian fan dance, covering up the lack of concrete ties to the 9/11 terrorists with feathery assertions that securing ‘the peace in Iraq is now the central battle in the war on terror.’" I’m not sure that she quite intended the delightful image she had conjured up of the gaunt and tubercular Orwell in the buff, shaking his ostrich plumes, but it helps to obscure the fact that she never gets around to explaining what exactly is wrong with Wolfowitz’s logic.
Her resolute refusal to give the administration credit for anything is becoming more and more typical of the media these days, and an indication of the extent to which it reflects the division in our political culture. In the same poll in which 30 per cent of those surveyed said they thought the press was paying too much attention to WMD, 24 per cent said they thought it was not paying enough, while 40 per cent said they thought it about right. Allowing for the large proportion who are bound to be don’t-knows on any question involving close attention to the media’s editorial policies, this breakdown is not so far from that noticed by psephologists between committed conservatives, committed liberals and swing voters. Could it be as simple as that President Bush’s Republican base thinks it all a witch hunt, the Democratic opposition wants even more proof that the president is a liar and a crook while the swing voters are still willing to be persuaded either way?
If so, it seems to me another indication that news — at least political news — is becoming indistinguishable from spin. Given that all politics is seen as a Hobbesian — or, more accurately, a Marxian — struggle for advantage, and that ideas of civility and honorable dealing are regarded as hypocritical pretense, it is natural for the media to reflect the rhetorical assumptions of politicians themselves, for whom the honorable members opposite are nowadays more likely to be regarded as scoundrels at best and criminals at worst. If those who are falling away from the network news broadcasts are indeed Republicans fed up with scandal-hunting, we can expect the networks more and more to settle down to addressing their niche audience of liberals and Democrats for whom scandal-hunting against a Republican will always be news. And since scandal-hunting is what they do, the media can expect a reversal of the process, and a predominantly Republican audience, if they should take to scandal-hunting against a future Democratic president as they did against Bill Clinton.
A forceful reminder of those days turned up over the summer with the near simultaneous publication of Hillary Clinton’s best-selling memoir, Living History, and a partisan brief against the "Clinton-haters" from Sidney Blumenthal called, with characteristic hyperbole, The Clinton Wars. In a review of the two books on a website called opendemocracy.net, Todd Gitlin undertakes to explain the origins of the right-wing hostility to Bill Clinton which has done so much to produce the equal-and-opposite hatred of George W. Bush. This is basically summed up in his casual remark that "the hard right" regarded Clinton’s political successes "as infringements upon their God-given prerogatives" — which prerogatives seem to include but not necessarily to be limited to the prerogative of power.
As it happens, this is precisely Sidney Blumenthal’s view of the matter, which makes for a happy meeting of the minds between author and reviewer. Here is how Gitlin sums up Blumenthal’s argument:
It is, in short, that Clinton was a Progressive president in the line that began with Andrew Jackson and continued through FDR, Kennedy and Johnson; that reactionaries regarded all of them as intruders on their sacred ideological soil; and thus that, like his predecessors, he inspired wild and desperado hatred and a long- running campaign to bring him down and repeal the 1960s.
So a network of foundations, media, lawyers, politicians and other operatives hijacked first the Republican Party and then the Republic.
There is probably something to this. The shock of being turfed out of office, as the Republicans were in 1992, understandably gives rise to dark thoughts on the part of the rejected officeholders of the illegitimacy of their successors, and some of them are likely to make an effort through foundations, media etc. to establish that illegitimacy in the public mind. If so, however, Gitlin is not quite alive to the irony of his own use in the same article of expressions like "Newt Gingrich’s 1994 seizure of Congressional power" or "the right-wing takeover of American government."
No Gotcha team hammers Bush day after day on talk radio or cable news about his many years as a drunk, or the missing year during his draft-evading service in the Texas Air National Guard, or the mysterious windfall oil profits that came his way when other investors in his company were losing their shirts. Reporters have only recently begun to mar his triumphalist excuses for press conferences by asking pesky questions about Saddam Hussein’s phantom nuclear deal with Niger, or his putative al-Qaida connections, or other untruths this administration has found useful. The Niger-uranium deception finally undermined Bush’s amazing reputation for plain speaking, but on most issues he still escapes sustained scrutiny.
Excuse me, but who was it again who was continually assailed by the partisans of a discredited predecessor as a corrupt and illegitimate president?
Nor is it just the president’s good faith which is called into question. Gitlin blithely refers to "the serial liar Rush Limbaugh" and seconds Richard Cohen’s verdict on Tom DeLay as "unhinged" — implying that as "the most powerful man in the House of Representatives" (Dennis Hastert might have something to say about that), this obvious lunatic is an actual danger to world peace. "His fellow Texan know-nothing nationalists and oilmen rule not only Washington but as much of the known world as they can (barely) handle. Their vitriol, venom, and victories, Blumenthal knows, are the big story of American politics in the last generation. A journalism that does not know that it happened is clueless. A politics that fails to address it is helpless." All true, of course, as an assessment of our state of political health, yet sublimely and (I’m afraid) characteristically blind to the vitriol and venom in its own diagnosis.
Maybe the case for Bush as liar would be more plausible if those who make it didn’t sound so gleeful about it. I thought the same about those who called Clinton a liar. Well sure, but you who are making the case have a pretty strong vested interest in finding him so, don’t you? A judge may find a defendant guilty who is guilty, but if the defendant has done him, the judge, wrong we think it advisable to let someone else determine of his guilt or innocence. The Republicans in Congress should similarly have recused themselves from any voting on the impeachment of Bill Clinton because they had such an obvious self-interest in impeaching him. If they had left the matter up to the conscience of the Democrats they would have put the opposition on the spot, instead of forcing them to rally round their Democratic president, and taken away from the Clintons and their supporters all those self-pitying pleas about the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that still, as the outcry years later of a Blumenthal or a Gitlin shows, have the power to bore.
They might even have forestalled the equally boring efforts of the Bush-is-a-liar crowd which — what do you know? — is made up entirely of Bush’s political enemies. Don’t they understand? It’s not for them to say that Bush is a liar, since their saying so immediately politicizes the question and guarantees that the Republicans will rally round him just as the Democrats rallied round Clinton. Just listen to the case made by an organization called TomPaine.com in a quarter-page ad in the New York Times. After referring us to another ad allegedly detailing "five of Mr. Bush’s pre-war whoppers," the ad goes on to give its own examples of "the strain between the rhetoric and the reality of Mr. Bush’s policies." They are as follows: "endorsing Medicare while trying to undermine it; a ‘Clear Skies’ plan that leads to more pollution; promising to ‘leave no child behind’ but underfunding his own education plan; and Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax policies masked as ‘compassionate conservatism.’"
There may be a strong case to be made against each of these policies of the Bush administration, just as there may be against the war in Iraq, but it is not the case that is being made here, namely that Bush is a liar. Just as he genuinely believed in the rightness and the necessity of the war, so he genuinely believes that he is doing right by Medicare, the environment, education and taxes, or that the trade-offs involved in each case are best resolved by his own policies rather than those of the Democrats. This is only what we would expect in any free and democratic political system run by decent and honorable men. But the ad’s funders have chosen — perhaps in a spirit of revenge for what was done to Bill Clinton — to attack him not for making poor judgments on these matters but for bad faith and deliberate deception. Even if they were right, by what reasoning could they have supposed that their charge was politic, or likely to lead to a political result favorable to themselves? I conclude that there was no reasoning involved, only the same visceral hatred that the Republicans felt towards Clinton.
Where does it come from? George Will, among others on the right, traces it back to the venomous and vitriolic confirmation hearings on Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Trumping him, a correspondent of the Washington Post attempts to justify the treatment meted out to Bork while looking back instead to "the excessive, personal and often mean-spirited efforts to block President Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas as chief justice in 1968." Those on the left are still angry, like Mr Gitlin, at the vehemence of Republican opposition to President Clinton and have never forgiven Newt Gingrich for his successful campaign against Speaker Jim Wright or his subsequent "seizure of Congressional power." The Republican consultant and web-logger, Rich Galen, in turn traces the Gingrich revolution back to "Indiana-8" in 1984-5 — when the Democrats used the sheer muscle of their congressional majority to reverse a Republican victory in an Indiana congressional district.
The incivility of our political discourse these days seems to extend even to mutual recriminations over who is to blame for the incivility! The occasion for Mr Galen’s contribution to what has yet to become a reasonable debate on this subject was an extraordinary apology from Representative Bill Thomas, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee over an outburst from the minority party, possibly involving a threat of fisticuffs from Representative Fortney "Pete" Stark, over a procedural maneuver of his own thought to have ridden roughshod over the rights of the minority. In response to the Democrats’ seeming threat of disorderly conduct, he had summoned the Capitol Police — and almost immediately repented of having done so. As Juliet Eilperin reports it in the Washington Post, "Thomas broke down in tears as he addressed a hushed chamber usually reserved for policy debates and state speeches" —
"I learned a very painful lesson on Friday," he told the House. "As members, you deserve better judgment from me, and you'll get it. Because of my poor judgment, those outside the House who want to trivialize, marginalize and debase this institution were given an opportunity to do so. Because of my poor judgment, the stewardship of my party as the majority party in this House has been unfairly criticized."
But Miss Eilperin buries her lead. This moment of public contrition, she writes, "capped a week of quiet damage control by GOP leaders. Furious at the thought of handing Democrats a public relations win, top Republicans have spent hours in closed-door meetings lecturing senior members on proper decorum." Well, well, Maybe so. But so accustomed is she, like the rest of the journalistic pack, to "damage control" and sniffing out one party’s fury at the thought of handing the other a public relations win, that she treats as merely incidental the really revolutionary matter of political leaders "lecturing senior members" — of their own party, mind you, not the opposition — "on proper decorum."
Now there’s a word you don’t hear very often anymore! I take it as a most hopeful sign that the Post even published it without supplying some sort of explanatory gloss. At some level, we do still know what decorum and civility mean, and maybe even what they would look like if only a few of our political leaders had the strength of mind and character to stand up to the media’s demands for scandal, slander and character assassination. Bill Thomas may be an unlikely candidate to be the first, but Rich Galen suggests a reason. He was the only Republican on the three-member panel charged by Speaker Jim Wright with steamrolling the Democratic candidate into office in Indiana-8 and so "remembers what it felt like to be treated as if he didn't matter in the Southwest corner of Indiana."
If, as Galen says, "the Republicans in the US House have been moving perilously close to giving Democrats the kind of radicalizing ammunition that Indiana-8 gave Republicans nearly two decades ago," it would be nice to think that they had stepped back from the brink. But it’s easier for them to be magnanimous in power than it is for the Democrats to give up the pleasure of hugging their grievances in opposition and nursing thoughts of revenge. The true test of whether or not there is any hope of change will come when we see if there are any Democrats who, like Bill Thomas, are prepared to put themselves in the opposition’s place — and so end the nightmarish subservience of our political life to the media’s scandalous scandal-culture.