As the Press Turns
Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water supply.
An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16 damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it, certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.
It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11 September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).
One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really Clinton's fault.
All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them. For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush became President. Reporters might also look into the way the Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping terrorists.
"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start connecting some dots of their own.