All the King's Media
Amid the smoke and stench of burning careers, Washington feels a bit like the last days of the ancien régime. As the world's finest democracy, we do not do guillotines. But there are other less bloody rituals of humiliation, designed to reassure the populace that order is restored, the Republic cleansed. Let the perp walks begin. Whether the public feels reassured is another matter.
George W. Bush's plight leads me to thoughts of Louis XV and his royal court in the eighteenth century. Politics may not have changed as much as modern pretensions assume. Like Bush, the French king was quite popular until he was scorned, stubbornly self-certain in his exercise of power yet strangely submissive to manipulation by his courtiers. Like Louis Quinze, our American magistrate (whose own position was secured through court intrigues, not elections) has lost the "royal touch." Certain influential cliques openly jeer the leader they not so long ago extolled; others gossip about royal tantrums and other symptoms of lost direction. The accusations stalking his important counselors and assembly leaders might even send some of them to jail. These political upsets might matter less if the government were not so inept at fulfilling its routine obligations, like storm relief. The king's sorry war drags on without resolution, with people still arguing over why exactly he started it. The staff of life--oil, not bread--has become punishingly expensive. The government is broke, borrowing formidable sums from rival nations. The king pretends nothing has changed.
The burnt odor in Washington is from the disintegrating authority of the governing classes. The public's darkest suspicions seem confirmed. Flagrant money corruption, deceitful communication of public plans and purposes, shocking incompetence--take your pick, all are involved. None are new to American politics, but they are potently fused in the present circumstances. A recent survey in Wisconsin found that only 6 percent of citizens believe their elected representatives serve the public interest. If they think that of state and local officials, what must they think of Washington?
We are witnessing, I suspect, something more momentous than the disgrace of another American President. Watergate was red hot, but always about Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon. This convergence of scandal and failure seems more systemic, less personal. The new political force for change is not the squeamish opposition party called the Democrats but a common disgust and anger at the sordidness embedded in our dysfunctional democracy. The wake from that disgust may prove broader than Watergate's (when democracy was supposedly restored by Nixon's exit), because the anger is also splashing over once-trusted elements of the establishment.
Heroic truth-tellers in the Watergate saga, the established media are now in disrepute, scandalized by unreliable "news" and over-intimate attachments to powerful court insiders. The major media stood too close to the throne, deferred too eagerly to the king's twisted version of reality and his lust for war. The institutions of "news" failed democracy on monumental matters. In fact, the contemporary system looks a lot more like the ancien régime than its practitioners realize. Control is top-down and centralized. Information is shaped (and tainted) by the proximity of leading news-gatherers to the royal court and by their great distance from people and ordinary experience.
People do find ways to inform themselves, as best they can, when the regular "news" is not reliable. In prerevolutionary France, independent newspapers were illegal--forbidden by the king--and books and pamphlets, rigorously censored by the government. Yet people developed a complex shadow system by which they learned what was really going on--the news that did not appear in official court pronouncements and privileged publications. Cultural historian Robert Darnton, in brilliantly original works like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, has mapped the informal but politically potent news system by which Parisians of high and low status circulated court secrets or consumed the scandalous books known as libelles, along with subversive songs, poems and gossip, often leaked from within the king's own circle. News traveled in widening circles. Parisians gathered in favored cafes, designated park benches or exclusive salons, where the forbidden information was read aloud and copied by others to pass along. Parisians could choose for themselves which reality they believed. The power of the French throne was effectively finished, one might say, once the king lost control of the news. (It was his successor, Louis XVI, who lost his head.)
Something similar, as Darnton noted, is occurring now in American society. The centralized institutions of press and broadcasting are being challenged and steadily eroded by widening circles of unlicensed "news" agents--from talk-radio hosts to Internet bloggers and others--who compete with the official press to be believed. These interlopers speak in a different language and from many different angles of vision. Less authoritative, but more democratic. The upheaval has only just begun, but already even the best newspapers are hemorrhaging circulation. Dan Gillmor, an influential pioneer and author of We the Media, thinks tomorrow's news, the reporting and production, will be "more of a conversation, or a seminar"--less top-down, and closer to how people really speak about their lives.
Which brings us to the sappy operetta of the reporter and her influential source: Scooter Libby, the Vice President's now-indicted war wonk, and Judith Miller, the New York Times's intrepid reporter and First Amendment martyr. What seems most shocking about their relationship is the intimacy. "Come back to work--and life," Scooter pleaded in a letter to Judy, doing her eighty-five days in jail. "Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them." Miller responded in her bizarre first-person Times account by telling a cherished memory of Scooter. Out West, she said, a man in sunglasses, dressed like a cowboy, approached and spoke to her: "Judy, it's Scooter Libby."
Are Washington reporters really that close to their sources? For her part, Miller has a "tropism toward powerful men," as Times columnist Maureen Dowd delicately put it. This is well-known gossip in court circles, but let's not go there. Boy reporters also suck up to powerful men with shameful deference, wanting to be loved by the insiders so they can be inside too (shades of the French courtiers). The price of intimacy is collected in various coins, but older hands in the news business understand what is being sold. The media, Christopher Dickey of Newsweek observed in a web essay, "long ago concluded having access to power is more important than speaking truth to it."