Amid the smoke and stench of burning careers, Washington feels a bit like the last days of the ancien régime. As the world’s finest democracy, we do not do guillotines. But there are other less bloody rituals of humiliation, designed to reassure the populace that order is restored, the Republic cleansed. Let the perp walks begin. Whether the public feels reassured is another matter.
George W. Bush’s plight leads me to thoughts of Louis XV and his royal court in the eighteenth century. Politics may not have changed as much as modern pretensions assume. Like Bush, the French king was quite popular until he was scorned, stubbornly self-certain in his exercise of power yet strangely submissive to manipulation by his courtiers. Like Louis Quinze, our American magistrate (whose own position was secured through court intrigues, not elections) has lost the “royal touch.” Certain influential cliques openly jeer the leader they not so long ago extolled; others gossip about royal tantrums and other symptoms of lost direction. The accusations stalking his important counselors and assembly leaders might even send some of them to jail. These political upsets might matter less if the government were not so inept at fulfilling its routine obligations, like storm relief. The king’s sorry war drags on without resolution, with people still arguing over why exactly he started it. The staff of life–oil, not bread–has become punishingly expensive. The government is broke, borrowing formidable sums from rival nations. The king pretends nothing has changed.
The burnt odor in Washington is from the disintegrating authority of the governing classes. The public’s darkest suspicions seem confirmed. Flagrant money corruption, deceitful communication of public plans and purposes, shocking incompetence–take your pick, all are involved. None are new to American politics, but they are potently fused in the present circumstances. A recent survey in Wisconsin found that only 6 percent of citizens believe their elected representatives serve the public interest. If they think that of state and local officials, what must they think of Washington?
We are witnessing, I suspect, something more momentous than the disgrace of another American President. Watergate was red hot, but always about Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon. This convergence of scandal and failure seems more systemic, less personal. The new political force for change is not the squeamish opposition party called the Democrats but a common disgust and anger at the sordidness embedded in our dysfunctional democracy. The wake from that disgust may prove broader than Watergate’s (when democracy was supposedly restored by Nixon’s exit), because the anger is also splashing over once-trusted elements of the establishment.
Heroic truth-tellers in the Watergate saga, the established media are now in disrepute, scandalized by unreliable “news” and over-intimate attachments to powerful court insiders. The major media stood too close to the throne, deferred too eagerly to the king’s twisted version of reality and his lust for war. The institutions of “news” failed democracy on monumental matters. In fact, the contemporary system looks a lot more like the ancien régime than its practitioners realize. Control is top-down and centralized. Information is shaped (and tainted) by the proximity of leading news-gatherers to the royal court and by their great distance from people and ordinary experience.
People do find ways to inform themselves, as best they can, when the regular “news” is not reliable. In prerevolutionary France, independent newspapers were illegal–forbidden by the king–and books and pamphlets, rigorously censored by the government. Yet people developed a complex shadow system by which they learned what was really going on–the news that did not appear in official court pronouncements and privileged publications. Cultural historian Robert Darnton, in brilliantly original works like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, has mapped the informal but politically potent news system by which Parisians of high and low status circulated court secrets or consumed the scandalous books known as libelles, along with subversive songs, poems and gossip, often leaked from within the king’s own circle. News traveled in widening circles. Parisians gathered in favored cafes, designated park benches or exclusive salons, where the forbidden information was read aloud and copied by others to pass along. Parisians could choose for themselves which reality they believed. The power of the French throne was effectively finished, one might say, once the king lost control of the news. (It was his successor, Louis XVI, who lost his head.)
Something similar, as Darnton noted, is occurring now in American society. The centralized institutions of press and broadcasting are being challenged and steadily eroded by widening circles of unlicensed “news” agents–from talk-radio hosts to Internet bloggers and others–who compete with the official press to be believed. These interlopers speak in a different language and from many different angles of vision. Less authoritative, but more democratic. The upheaval has only just begun, but already even the best newspapers are hemorrhaging circulation. Dan Gillmor, an influential pioneer and author of We the Media, thinks tomorrow’s news, the reporting and production, will be “more of a conversation, or a seminar”–less top-down, and closer to how people really speak about their lives.
Which brings us to the sappy operetta of the reporter and her influential source: Scooter Libby, the Vice President’s now-indicted war wonk, and Judith Miller, the New York Times‘s intrepid reporter and First Amendment martyr. What seems most shocking about their relationship is the intimacy. “Come back to work–and life,” Scooter pleaded in a letter to Judy, doing her eighty-five days in jail. “Out west, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.” Miller responded in her bizarre first-person Times account by telling a cherished memory of Scooter. Out West, she said, a man in sunglasses, dressed like a cowboy, approached and spoke to her: “Judy, it’s Scooter Libby.”
Are Washington reporters really that close to their sources? For her part, Miller has a “tropism toward powerful men,” as Times columnist Maureen Dowd delicately put it. This is well-known gossip in court circles, but let’s not go there. Boy reporters also suck up to powerful men with shameful deference, wanting to be loved by the insiders so they can be inside too (shades of the French courtiers). The price of intimacy is collected in various coins, but older hands in the news business understand what is being sold. The media, Christopher Dickey of Newsweek observed in a web essay, “long ago concluded having access to power is more important than speaking truth to it.”
The elite press, like any narcissistic politician, tells a heart-warming myth about itself. Reporters, it is said, dig out the hard facts to share with the people by locating anonymous truth-tellers inside government. They then protect these sources from retaliation by refusing to name them, even at the cost of going to prison. That story line was utterly smashed by this scandal. Reporters were prepared to go to jail to protect sources who were not exactly whistleblowers cowering in anonymity. They were Libby and Karl Rove–the king’s own counselors at the pinnacle of government. They were the same guys who collaborated on the bloodiest political deception of the Bush presidency: the lies that took the country into war. So, in a sense, the press was also protecting itself from further embarrassment. The major media, including the best newspapers, all got the war wrong, and for roughly the same reason–their compliant proximity to power. With a few honorable exceptions, they bought into the lies and led cheers for war. They ignored or downplayed the dissent from some military leaders and declined to explore tough questions posed by anyone outside the charmed circle. The nation may not soon forget this abuse of privileged status, nor should it.
Leaks and whispers are a daily routine of news-gathering in Washington. The sweet irony of President Bush’s predicament is that it was partly self-induced. His White House deputies enforced discipline on reporters and insiders, essentially shutting down the stream of nonofficial communications and closing the informal portals for dissent and dispute within government. This was new in the Bush era, and it’s ultimately been debilitating. It has made reporters still more dependent on the official spin, as the Administration wanted, but it has also sealed off the king from the flow of high-level leaks and informative background noises that help vet developing policies and steer reporters to the deeper news.
The paradox of our predicament is that, unlike the ancien régime, US citizens do enjoy free speech, free press and other rights to disturb the powerful. In this country you can say aloud or publish just about anything you like. But will anyone hear you? The audible range of diverse and rebellious voices has been visibly shrunk in the last generation. The corporate concentration of media ownership has put a deadening blanket over the usual cacophony of democracy, with dissenting voices screened for acceptability by young and often witless TV producers. Corporate owners have a strong stake in what gets said on their stations. Why piss off the President when you will need his good regard for so many things? Viewers have a zillion things to watch, but if you jump around the dial, with luck you will always be watching a General Electric channel.
How did it happen that the multiplication of outlets made possible by technology led to a concentration of views and opinions–ones usually anchored by the conventional wisdom of center-right sensibilities? Where did the “freedom” go? Where are the people’s ideas and observations? Al Gore, who found his voice after he lost the presidency, recently expressed his sense of alarm: “I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse.” The bread-and-circuses format that monopolizes the public’s airwaves is driven by a condescending commercial calculation that Americans are too stupid to want anything more. But that assumption becomes fragile as other voices find other venues for expression. This is an industry crisis that will be very healthy for the society, a political opening to rearrange access and licensing for democratic purposes.
For the faltering press, the bloggers will keep sharpening their swords, slicing away at the established order. This is good, but the pressure will lead to meaningful change only if the Internet artisans innovate further, organizing new formats and techniques for networking among more diverse people and interests. The daily feed of facts and bile from bloggers has been wondrously effective in unmasking the pretensions of the big boys, but the broader society needs more–something closer to the democratic “conversations and seminars” that Gillmor envisions, and less dependent on partisan fury and accusation.
As an ex-Luddite, I came to the web with the skepticism of an old print guy. Against expectations, I am experiencing sustained exchanges with many far-flung people I’ve never met–dialogues that inform both of us and are utterly voluntary experiences. This is a promising new form of consent. Democracy, I once wrote, begins not at election time but in human conversation.
Establishment newspapers like the New York Times face a special dilemma, one they may not easily resolve. Under assault, do editors and reporters align still more closely with the establishment interests to maintain an air of “authority,” or do they get down with folks and dish it out to the powerful? Scandal and crisis compelled the Times to lower its veil of authority a bit and acknowledge error (a shocking development itself). But while the Times is in my view the best, most interesting newspaper, it always will be establishment. For instance, it could be more honest about its longstanding newsroom tensions between “liberals” and “neocons.” What the editors might re-examine is their own defensive concept of what’s authoritative. It is not just Bush’s war that blinded sober judgment and led to narrow coverage. In many other important areas–political decay and global economics, among others–the Times (like other elite papers) seems afraid to acknowledge that wider, more fundamental debate exists. It chooses to report only one side–the side of received elite opinion.
Readers do understand–surprise!–that the Times is not infallible. A newspaper comes out every day and gets something wrong. Tomorrow, it comes out again and can try to get it right. In essence, that is what people and critics already know. They are more likely to be forgiving if the newspaper loosens up a bit and makes room for more divergent understandings of what’s happening. But as more irreverent voices elbow their way into the “news” system, the big media are likely to lose still more audience if they cannot get more distance from throne and power.
What will come of all this? Possibly, not much. The cluster of scandals and breakdown may simply feed the people’s alienation and resignation. The governing elites, including major media, are in denial, unwilling to speak honestly about the perilous economic circumstances ahead, the burgeoning debt from global trade, the sinking of the working class and other threatening conditions. When those realities surface, many American lives will be upended with no available recourse and no one in authority they can trust, since the denial and evasion are bipartisan. That’s a very dangerous situation for a society–an invitation to irrational angers and scapegoating. It will require a new, more encompassing politics to avert an ugly political contagion. We need more reliable “news” to recover democracy.