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Bush's War on the Press | The Nation

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Bush's War on the Press

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Journalists, George Bernard Shaw once said, "are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization." How odd, given the profession's un-equaled reputation for narcissism, that Shaw's observation holds true even when the collapsing "civilization" is their own.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Make no mistake: The Bush Administration and its ideological allies are employing every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function to hold power accountable. In fact, the Administration recognizes no such constitutional role for the press. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has insisted that the media "don't represent the public any more than other people do.... I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."

Bush himself, on more than one occasion, has told reporters he does not read their work and prefers to live inside the information bubble blown by his loyal minions. Vice President Cheney feels free to kick the New York Times off his press plane, and John Ashcroft can refuse to speak with any print reporters during his Patriot-Act-a-palooza publicity tour, just to compliant local TV. As an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." For those who didn't like it, another Bush adviser explained, "Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read the New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times."

But the White House and its supporters are doing more than just talking trash--when they talk at all. They are taking aggressive action: preventing journalists from doing their job by withholding routine information; deliberately releasing deceptive information on a regular basis; bribing friendly journalists to report the news in a favorable context; producing their own "news reports" and distributing these free of charge to resource-starved broadcasters; creating and crediting their own political activists as "journalists" working for partisan operations masquerading as news organizations. In addition, an Administration-appointed special prosecutor, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, is now threatening two journalists with jail for refusing to disclose the nature of conversations they had regarding stories they never wrote, opening up a new frontier of potential prosecution. All this has come in the wake of a decades-long effort by the right and its corporate allies to subvert journalists' ability to report fairly on power and its abuse by attaching the label "liberal bias" to even the most routine forms of information gathering and reportage (for a transparent example in today's papers, see under "DeLay, Tom"). Some of these tactics have been used by previous administrations too, but the Bush team and its supporters have invested in and deployed them to a degree that marks a categorical shift from the past.

Many of these lines of attack on the press might at first appear to have little in common. What does an increase in official secrecy have to do with payments to pundits, or the broadcast of official video news releases, or the presence of a right-wing charlatan in the White House press room pretending to be a reporter and serving up softball questions to the President in prime time? And how is any of this connected to the Administration's willingness to mislead the nation on everything from stem cells to Social Security?

The right wing's media "decertification" effort, as the journalism scholar and blogger Jay Rosen calls it, has its roots in forty years of conservative fury at the consistent condescension it experienced from the once-liberal elite media and the cosmopolitan establishment for whom its members have spoken. Fueled by this sense of outrage, the right launched a multifaceted effort to fight back with institutions of its own, including think tanks, advocacy organizations, media pressure groups, church groups, big-business lobbies and, eventually, its own television, talk-radio, cable and radio networks (to be augmented, later, by a vast array of Internet sites). Today this triumphant movement has captured not only much of the media and the public discourse on ideas but both the presidency and Congress (and soon, undoubtedly, the Supreme Court as well); it can wage its war on so many fronts simultaneously that it becomes nearly impossible to see that almost all these efforts are aimed at a single goal: the destruction of democratic accountability and the media's role in insuring it.

The Bush attack on the press has three primary components--Secrecy, Lies and Fake News. Consider these examples:

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