The words "Al Gore" are properly understood to be synonymous with the words "cautious politician." And yet speaking to MoveOn.org at New York University recently, Gore gave voice to some plain-spoken truths that were just about unsayable in the mass media until he said them. Gore accused George W. Bush of undertaking "a systematic effort to manipulate facts in service to a totalistic ideology that is felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty." The President, he said, was "pursuing policies chosen in advance of the facts--policies designed to benefit friends and supporters--and [using] tactics that deprived the American people of any opportunity to effectively subject his arguments to the kind of informed scrutiny that is essential in our system of checks and balances." To top it all off, Gore nervily quoted George Akerlof, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics, who told Der Spiegel, "This is the worst government the US has ever had in its more than 200 years of history."
The reaction was as swift as it was predictable. Recalling the hysterics of late Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly, who termed Gore's September 2002 antiwar speech to be "dishonest, cheap, low...hollow...wretched...vile...contemptible...a lie...a disgrace...equal parts mendacity, viciousness and smarm," Post editors accused Gore of leading his party "off a cliff" and "validat[ing] just about every conspiratorial theory of the antiwar left."
Yet on the very same day that these good citizens of Quinn-Broderville were fulminating about Al Gore, Post reporters Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus published a 5,331-word report detailing how Bush and his aides "made allegations depicting Iraq's nuclear weapons program as more active, more certain and more imminent in its threat than the data they had would support...withheld evidence that did not conform to their views," and "seldom corrected misstatements."
Ignoring the facts on page one of its own newspaper to launch ideologically inspired attacks on the truth is a time-honored tactic for the wingnuts who run the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but it is dismaying to see the same phenomenon taking hold at the Post--an editorial page that was considered "liberal" so recently that The American Prospect's new editor, Michael Tomasky, mistakenly included it as such in his recent study of the relative ferocity of conservatives versus liberals.
It's worth noting, by contrast, that in Britain, Tony Blair is on the ropes for offenses against democracy that--while significant--pale in comparison to Bush's. Blair faces an aggressive, independent-minded media whose members consider it their job, in the words of the BBC's head of newsgathering, Adrian Van Klaveren, "to question governments...to hold governments to account.... This is not passive journalism. This is about trying to get information which others don't want us to know."
As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger says, "The BBC is easily the most trusted institution in the country, and you feel like the government and the right-wing media almost want to bring it down." Indeed, the conservative campaign against the BBC is quite similar to that against the New York Times, with the difference that it has been more energetically earned. Bush is still riding high in this country in part because we lack institutions like the BBC and the Guardian--that is, a press that is not shy about inviting right-wing opprobrium as it carries out its mission of holding the government accountable for its actions.
Here, the mainstream media almost always allow the Bush Administration to lie without consequence. It's not that lies go unnoticed; it's just that it's considered bad manners to worry about so silly an issue--and never more so than when those lies are deployed to justify a needless war. Even frequent Bush apologist Howard "Conflict of Interest" Kurtz could not help noticing that when Bush said, "Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is: absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in," his answer bore "no relation to reality." He asked his guest on CNN's Reliable Sources, "Why has that not been more made of by the press?" The Post's Dana Milbank, who has established a deserved reputation as the toughest of all the regular White House correspondents, answers, "I think what people basically decided was this is just the President being the President. Occasionally he plays the wrong track and something comes out quite wrong. He is under a great deal of pressure."
There you have it. An American President is said to be "under a great deal of pressure"--unlike, say, Bill Clinton--and so the Washington press corps decide that "people" prefer that he not be held accountable even for his own deceitful words. No wonder that, as Rusbridger notes, the Guardian website is now serving the news needs of 2 million US readers per month, while BBC viewership here is also skyrocketing. These people are saying, "We can't get this kind of thing in America," says Rusbridger. He was here for a conference on war reporting the newspaper organized together with New York magazine and the New School's World Policy Institute. I asked Rusbridger if he happened to witness the famous Bush press conference where White House reporters happily acted as props for what was clearly a Karl Rove propaganda exercise. He said he found it "appalling," actually cringed watching it and wondered "how any information ever gets out at all."
It's not as if the information we need to judge our government is kept from us. The reporters are, for the most part, doing their jobs. But as the Guardian's New York correspondent, Gary Younge, pointed out to the New School audience, "In the political context in America, there weren't that many takers for certain kinds of information." Indeed, you can learn what liars the members of the Bush Administration are on the front page of the Washington Post. But if you say so aloud, be prepared to be smeared as "paranoid" by the paper's editors.
The Guardian's announcement that it's exploring the US market for a possible launch couldn't come at a more propitious moment. Here's hoping they come over and deliver to our media the kick in the arse they have worked so hard to deserve.