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Lies About Blowjobs, Bad. Wars? Not So Much. | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

Lies About Blowjobs, Bad. Wars? Not So Much.

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At a recent conference on the Clinton Administration at Hofstra University, ex-press secretary Jake Siewart made a point that had previously eluded me: It was during the early days of Clinton's presidency that the democratization of instant information made the insider press corps obsolete. To retain their importance and self-regard, these journalists had to invent a new function for themselves, and they did: interpreting, not reporting, the news. But instead of doing the hard work of researching the historical, economic, sociological and political contexts of a given story and then finding a way to explain these in lay terms, they preferred to rely on what came most easily to them: cocktail party gossip, green room small talk, semiofficial leaks and unconfirmed rumor, almost always offered up as if the source had no interest in pushing a point of view.

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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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Many Israelis, Netanyahu included, were never serious about seeking a two-state solution in the peace negotiations.

It soon became clear that the insider press corps had developed a set of values almost completely antithetical to those of the majority of the American people. This disjunction is frequently misinterpreted--often deliberately--as one of snooty liberal elitists versus God-fearing, Darwin-disbelieving, upright common folk. It's almost impossible to find reliable evidence for this characterization, either in what the press corps believes or what the public does. Ironically, the media elite are attacking themselves when they embrace this myth, which is purposely stoked by the far right, as I've demonstrated ad nauseam.

A true dichotomy between the public and the elite media can be found, on the other hand, on the subject of presidential lying. Excluding George Washington and perhaps Jimmy Carter, just about all Presidents have found it necessary to lie to the American people. And with those two exceptions, and possibly a few others, many have also found it necessary--or at least desirable--to fool around with women other than their wives. For reasons of culture and history, the mainstream media decided that both of these longstanding traditions had to end with Bill Clinton.

When Bill Clinton lied about a few blowjobs, the Washington press corps treated his actions as a threat to the Republic. As John Harris observes in his history of the period, The Survivor, on the night Clinton offered his prime-time, post-testimony national apology, network commentary was overwhelmingly negative. Calls for Clinton to resign reigned on pundit television and on the op-ed pages throughout the ordeal--often couched in terms of doing so "for the children." But Clinton pollster Mark Penn would soon find, Harris explains, that "a clear majority of viewers thought Clinton's remarks were fine.... It was only hard-core Republicans and political 'elites'--the kind of people quoted by the networks--who were dissatisfied with the speech." This would prove, Harris observes, "a vivid example of the dichotomy in public opinion that had existed all year." Indeed, Clinton's approval rating hovered between the mid-sixties and the low seventies through the entire ordeal.

Oddly, given the many obvious and quite consequential differences between a blowjob and a botched war effort, the Washington press corps appears to have reached a consensus that the former is a far more serious matter. Pundit "dean" David Broder, who whined that Clinton "trashed the place, and it's not his place," has declared himself uninterested in the question of whether Bush & Co. deceived Congress and the nation into its ruinous Iraq adventure. "This whole debate about whether there was just a mistake or misrepresentation or so on is, I think, from the public point of view largely irrelevant," Broder explained to his chum Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press. "The public's moved past that." Shortly thereafter Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report wondered why the topic was even being raised: "Ah, 'misleading.' Didn't we live through that argument already? In fact, wasn't that in the Democratic talking points in the 2004 election? Are we still arguing over who lied or did not lie about WMD?" she complained. It's shocking enough that pundits had less interest in Bush's prewar lies than, say, Oprah had in James Frey's rehab program, but it's more so that they can't be bothered to care now that the lies have been exposed. The explosive revelations in the Downing Street memo got relatively scant coverage, as did recent revelations of documents demonstrating that the phony story about the yellowcake uranium Iraq allegedly bought from Niger had been discredited long before Bush made his false pronouncements on the subject.

Underlying this attitude may be a simple matter of personal pique. While the punditocracy, much like a scorned lover, resented Clinton, it cannot shake its affection for Bush, no matter how much contempt he showers on their collective heads. As Chris Matthews proclaimed, "Everybody sort of likes the President, except for the real whack-jobs." Today the percentage of Americans who say they actually "like" Bush, according to a New York Times/CBS Poll, is 37 percent. That figure is consistent with Harris Interactive polls reported around Thanksgiving, just before the above statements were made, showing that about 64 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration "generally misleads the American public on current issues to achieve its own ends...while fewer than a third of Americans believe the information provided by the Administration is generally accurate."

But the insider press corps cannot connect Bush's war lies to his unpopularity, because it has so much difficulty acknowledging either one. Nor have its members--so many of whom, not just Judy Miller, helped lay the groundwork for this Administration's criminal deception by parroting its lies and propaganda--seen fit to take responsibility for their role. Even today, Bush remains a far more respected and admired figure among insiders than Clinton, much less Al Gore, Ted Kennedy or any of our leaders who sought to save us from the Iraq catastrophe.

Clinton's 1998 State of the Union address was the most progressive of any President's in two decades, but it mattered little because, it turned out, he'd lied about his sex life. Eight years later Bush's State of the Union address will matter much more, because, after all, he only lies about everything.n

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