Bush's War on the Press
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this war against the media has been the fact that members of the media have largely behaved as if it is just business as usual. In fact, much of the success of the effort derives from the cooperation, both implicit and explicit, of the press. No one, after all, forces local TV stations to run official propaganda videos in lieu of their own programming, or without identifying them as such, and no one forces CNN Newsource, among others, to distribute them. And why did the curious mystery of "Gannon," despite its obvious newsworthiness--and sex appeal--receive so little critical coverage and virtually no outrage in the mainstream press? (Washington Post media critic and CNN talking head Howard Kurtz even went so far as to blame the scandal on "these liberal bloggers, [who] have started investigating his personal life in an effort to discredit him," and the National Press Club invited Gannon to be an honored guest on a panel on blogging and journalistic credibility.) Mike McCurry, White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, says he marvels at the willingness of the press corps to swallow the various humiliations offered them by Bush & Co. He told a recent gathering of Washington reporters and editors, "I used to think that if I ever tried to control the message as effectively as the current White House did, that I would have been run out of the White House press briefing room. But clearly I misjudged the temperament that exists."
The media's failure to resist this assault is perhaps understandable. Members of the profession are under siege from so many directions simultaneously they may feel they can hardly keep up with each incoming salvo. Not only is much of the traditional media controlled by multinational corporations that view their operations not as a public trust but as profit centers to be squeezed, but newspapers are facing an alarming decline in readership (and more than a few are admitting to having padded those numbers all along). Broadcast news has been steadily losing audience share for decades. In a vicious cycle, the results of such declines are more declines, as resources are cut to match reduced profits and pressure escalates from above to do more with less. Meanwhile, more and more "news" programs are succumbing to the tabloid temptation, and the lowering of quality has been ac-companied by a proliferation of factual errors, plagiarism and outright fiction proffered as reportage, further undermining public respect for the field. As Philip Meyer recently wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review, there is a sense that journalism itself "is being phased out. Our once noble calling is increasingly difficult to distinguish from things that look like journalism but are primarily advertising, press agentry, or entertainment." Throw in the nonstop ideological assault from the self-intoxicated section of the (mostly conservative) blogosphere, from (even more conservative) talk-radio and cable loudmouths like Limbaugh and O'Reilly, plus the fact that members of generations X and Y seem more likely to commit acts of terrorism than pick up a newspaper or watch a news broadcast, and it seems almost a luxury to worry about the Bush Administration's attack as well.
Another reason for the press's complacency is that many of these tactics are nothing new. Reporters have always engaged in a complex push-me/pull-you relationship with the President, alternately sucking up and pulling down as the political tides rose and fell. More than thirty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in Commentary that "in most essential encounters between the Presidency and the press, the advantage is with the former. The President has a near limitless capacity to 'make' news which must be reported.... The President also has considerable capacity to reward friends and punish enemies in the press corps.... Finally, a President who wishes can carry off formidable deceptions." What's unprecedented is the degree to which this Administration has employed these efforts to undermine the journalist's democratic function.
His formidable deceptions notwithstanding, George W. Bush has charmed many in the press personally, and his Administration, in the person of Karl Rove, has impressed them with its political perspicacity. Media insiders believe Bush/Rove to be a tougher political combination than most but have trouble believing they are seeking to effect a fundamental transformation in press-presidential relations. Media insiders appear to like Bush a great deal more than the public does and frequently overestimate his popularity (in fact, in early April, Bush's approval rating had fallen to the lowest level of any President since World War II at this point in his second term, according to the Gallup organization).