It is all well and good to celebrate the cautious baby steps being taken by Congress to reassert itself as a check and balance upon the executive-branch excesses of the monarchical Bush administration. When even Republicans, such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, are publicly admitting that the House and Senate failed during the first six years of the Bush interregnum to practice even minimal oversight with regard to the administration, there is perhaps a measure of hope for the Republic.
But that hope will not be realized if we wait for Congress to develop the spine it has been deprived of since the Watergate era. There must be an external check and balance upon the executive branch, and that will only happen if the media abandons the bended-knee position from which it has covered the Bush administration.
The willingness of most mainstream media outlets to continue to treat seriously the absurd and propagandistic claims of this president and his aides is at least as damaging to the discourse–and, by extension, to the American experiment–as the collapse of Congressional oversight. To allow the Administration and its supporters to suggest, at this late stage in the disaster that is the Iraq invasion and occupation, that challenges to the president’s proposal to escalate the war are disrespectful of US troops serving in that country–or perhaps even threatening to them–is to perpetuate a lie that warps the national debate in a manner that ensures more Americans and Iraqis will be killed.
The President and his dwindling circle of supporters certainly have a right to make their pronouncements. But they do not have a right to expect that lies and spin will be swallowed by the media and then regurgitated into the living rooms of Americans.
Unfortunately, that is what happened Wednesday night, as a presidential address that should have been met with unbridled skepticism was instead treated as a meaningful statement regarding the future U.S. presence in Iraq. Yes, of course, there were more critical voices and questions than before the country went to war, but for the most part the Washington press corps was still trying to suggest that the emperor really was wearing clothes.
Just as it would be wrong for the media to censor Bush, so it is equally wrong for the media to allow the madness of this modern-day King George to infect the discourse without the immediate application of the antidote of truth.
Handing the bully pulpit over to a president who has repeatedly misused his position to deceive the Congress and the American people is not journalism, it is stenography.
And make no mistake: A “free” press that practices stenography to power is no different from the “kept” press of a totalitarian state.
Indeed, the promise of “freedom of the press” is nothing more than a meaningless clause in a disposable document if journalists do not use the freedom they have been afforded by the Constitution to challenge the status quo.
It is significant, indeed, that the travesty of the latest presidential address to the nation comes on the eve of the third National Conference for Media Reform, which will bring more than 3,000 activists, academics, members of Congress and concerned journalists to Memphis this weekend. They could not have picked a better time to address the crisis created by a increasely consolidated, dumbed-down and homogenized national media.
There is a dawning realization that what’s wrong with America is not just the fault of an incompetent and deceptive president, nor of a cowardly and dysfunctional Congress. The founders established a free press to keep watch on the executive branch – particularly in a time of war. No less a figure than James Madison warned that, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”
Iraq is a tragedy. Proposals to escalate US involvement are a farce. And, surely, Madison would tell us a media system that does not have the capacity to communicate that fact to the American people–bluntly, and without apology–is in need of radical reform.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that has organized the National Conference on Media Reform.