Of course, far more is wrong with the mainstream media than can be described, or even enumerated, in one column. But let’s give it a shot, using only items that have come up since my last column, all of which speak to the issue of why its members have forfeited our collective trust.
1. Its members consistently defer to conservative Republican Presidents with a history of deliberate deception, allowing them to define their terms. “One of the reasons for not [calling chaos in Iraq a civil war] was, you know, honestly, a concern that because the White House has contended that this is not a civil war, that using the phrase amounted to a kind of unnecessary political statement.”–Bill Keller, executive editor, New York Times.
2. Its members invite Republican Congressmen, known to be not merely unreliable but delusional, to lie about Democratic Congressmen. When challenged, they reply that they cannot be bothered to discern the truth: Time‘s Joe Klein, a pundit who terms the Democratic Party “a party with absolutely no redeeming social value,” one whose members “make fools of themselves even when they speak the truth,” recently informed the magazine’s readers that “tone-deaf” Democrats in the House had passed legislation that “would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target’s calls to be approved by the FISA court, an institution founded to protect the rights of U.S. citizens only,” and thereby “give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans.” The liberal blogosphere, led by Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, demonstrated that this statement was categorically false, as the bill reads: “A court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.” Time eventually printed a correction but refused to adjudicate between truth and falsehood, claiming merely that Democrats and Republicans interpret the bill differently. Klein shrugged off criticism by saying, “I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right.” Later Republican Peter Hoekstra, who is also on record insisting that the United States had discovered a WMD program in Iraq but that the CIA had conspired to cover it up, revealed that he had been a key source for Klein’s reporting.
3. Its members invite conservative Republican individuals known to be insane, unbalanced and unconcerned with the truth to lie about Democratic presidential candidates on the front page of their newspapers and when confronted respond that it is not their job to determine the truth. The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon published a recent front-page article giving voice to right-wing paranoids, racists and assorted hatemongers who insist that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Sources included the Moonie-financed Insight online magazine, Human Events (home to Ann Coulter), demagogues Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, and some guy who posted on the Internet somewhere. Beyond the Obama campaign’s denials, nowhere in the piece did Bacon inform readers that these allegations are demonstrably false. In an online chat, the paper’s Lois Romano explicitly defended the practice, claiming that “airing some of this and giving [Obama] a chance to deny its accuracy could be viewed as setting the record straight.”
4. Its corporations fire, and then buy the silence of, their own reporters in order to hide the truth, when it involves the draft records of certain conservative Republican Presidents. After being fired by CBS News as the chosen fall-person for Dan Rather’s story on George W. Bush’s draft avoidance, producer Mary Mapes published Truth and Duty, a book that insisted the story was true, the documents were real and she had been the victim of a deal between CBS’s parent, Viacom, and the Bush White House to quash the story. After the book’s publication, CBS paid Mapes an undisclosed sum to settle her lawsuit against the company and required her to sign a confidentiality agreement covering the deal. The three other CBS staffers working with Rather on the story were also fired and given settlements, one reportedly worth $3 million. Recall that the documents in question, while never authenticated, have never been proven to be forgeries, and CBS’s own committee of inquiry took no position on their veracity.
5. Its members are so in thrall to the powerful conservative Republican figures they cover that they make up excuses for their self-serving behavior. Appearing on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show, Mark Halperin, former political director of ABC News, now a top analyst for ABC and Time, offered his views on the reason Senate minority leader Trent Lott was resigning: “I think that this is a true ‘wants to spend more time with his family’ case.” Halperin was apparently unaware that Lott–whose politically connected brother-in-law was recently indicted on bribery charges–himself failed to offer this lamest of excuses and also that his resignation came just in time to avoid the enactment of a tough new ethics law relating to retiring legislators and their future lobbying practices.
6. Its members ignore the substance of politics and instead focus obsessively on atmospherics, leaving voters clueless about the politicians for whom they are expected to vote. “I’ve always felt that we did a disservice to voters and the public by filling the news hole with too much horse race and not enough information to let them make a decision on who the best President would be,” Halperin explains in a new book. “We should examine a candidate’s public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance,” he then added in a widely quoted mea culpa on the New York Times op-ed page. Alas, within a week of writing those words, Halperin published two pieces on the Time website that focused exclusively on the various campaigns, with nary a substance-related syllable in either one.