Not the President's Men
Back when Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing some California ballot initiatives that even he didn't really give a damn about, the New York Times ran a story about how he promoted his political agenda the same way he always sold the latest Terminator. While the piece itself was old hat, Duh Gubna was in beaming good humor, delighted to share his tricks--how he trained himself to appear "real" in public, always stayed on message and wasn't afraid to repeat the exact same phrases every time. "I come from the world of reps," he explained with the sinewy assurance one expects of the Austrian Oak. "Remember that. It is all reps."
Is it ever. Today's media politics is all about saying the same few things over and over until they come to seem inevitable, even if--especially if--they're not true. Naturally, such systematic lying is hardly new. Nor is the media's ingrained habit of regurgitating these lies as news, then getting huffy when Stephen Colbert points it out during your cozy banquet with liars. But in an age when manufactured myths flood the increasingly corporatized airwaves--and the hardest-hitting newscaster, Keith Olbermann, made his name cracking wise on ESPN--it seems ever harder to tell the public something real.
This struggle to do so lies at the heart of two very different new books. One was written by a comfortably situated liberal columnist, the New York Times's Frank Rich; the other, Myra MacPherson's biography of the radical investigative journalist I.F. Stone, tells the still-heartening tale of a self-described Jeffersonian Marxist whose own not inconsiderable taste for punditry ultimately required him to build his own soapbox. The two journalists embody different approaches to telling truth to power.
With The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, Rich becomes the third Times columnist to turn disdain for the Bush presidency into a highly publicized book. Surely this must be the most progressive newspaper on the planet!
Now, it's tempting to view Rich with skepticism or envy. For starters, he works at the Times, a newspaper destined to outrage the right while leaving its natural, left-of-center audience bitterly disappointed at the timid sobriety of a liberalism that gets assertive only after the United States invades Iraq. Then, too, Rich inhabits the op-ed page, the Park Avenue of punditry. I don't know a journalist who wouldn't leap to claim one of those columns, with its high international profile, extraordinary access (almost every big shot will return your calls) and near papal sense of its importance. Even as you're churning out the most received of ideas, you can believe they're somehow newly minted just by virtue of their appearing in the Times. How else could David Brooks solemnly announce--this decade, let alone this year--that tattoos aren't really nonconformist?
Like so many of today's pundits, Rich did not start out as a political reporter, but unlike most, he didn't even have much of a political background, unless being a Beltway baby and Harvard grad count. He made his name as a drama critic, the Butcher of Broadway, and when his column first appeared, he took a lot of grief for actually bringing something fresh to American newspapers--a recognition of the interplay between popular culture and public life, which is where so much of American politics actually happens. Rich wrote less about events than about the perception of events, the meta-media madness that fills our heads. Perhaps because his prose often exudes the earnest, leaden-joke complacency of one who channels (and is worshiped on) the Upper West Side, many people initially dismissed him as a flyweight. He was bad-mouthed by hard-core political types who foolishly thought analyzing pop culture is frivolous, and tweaked by arts critics who assumed that, naturally, they could do the job better. And some might have. Those early columns could be labored and tinny.
But over the years, Rich's political writing has sharpened. Unlike Dowd (does she ever leave her apartment or phone anybody outside the Times?), he isn't lazy. Reading his densely packed double-sized columns, you can see the man sweat. And since the beginning of the Bush years, his Sunday pieces have been some of the strongest things in the Times--as strong as those by snappish Paul Krugman, who vaingloriously seems to think he's all alone out there in op-ed no man's land. Rich is not vacuously jokey like Dowd, not boringly honorable like Bob Herbert, not flatly self-promoting like Thomas Friedman or Nicholas Kristof (who has morphed into liberalism's Steve Irwin, protecting endangered Darfurians and Asian sex slaves while making sure the video camera celebrates his derring-do). In fact, back when Krugman and Friedman 4.0 (as we call him round my house) were still fighting for the soul of Maureen, a late arrival at the Bush Bashers' Ball, it was Rich who, each Sunday, captured the texture of what people were talking about. He lucidly dissected the Administration's latest lies, sideshows and photo-ops--some of the very work I.F. Stone used to perform. Although Rich doesn't do passion, his column took on a real urgency.