Anchors Aweigh: The Refs Are Worked

Anchors Aweigh: The Refs Are Worked

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At the opening of the Democratic convention, long before Dan Rather put a big bull’s-eye on his back, Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy hosted Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, together with Jim Lehrer and Judy Woodruff, to discuss the state of network news coverage before an audience of political and media luminaries. They had some interesting admissions to make about the effect of conservative media pressure on them, offering fresh evidence of the right’s effective campaign to “work the refs.”

Speaking of conservative media activists like L. Brent Bozell III, for instance, Rather noted that they are “all over your telephones, all over your e-mail, all over your mail,” and it “creates an undertow in which you say to yourself, ‘you know, I think we’re right on this story, I think we’ve got it in the right context, I think we’ve got it in the right perspective, but we better pick another day…'” Next thing you know, the CBS anchor continued, “your boss or somebody on your staff will say, you know what, if we run this story we’re asking for trouble with a capital T. Why do it, why not just pass on by? That happens–I’m sorry to report that happens. Now you can say that it is the result of fear, it’s the result of not wanting to deal with the trouble of all those e-mails.”

Tom Brokaw likened the pressures created by Bozell’s “pressing of a button” to “a kind of tsunami…. He’s well organized, he’s got a constituency, he’s got a newsletter, he can hit a button and we’ll hear from him.”

Peter Jennings concurred, adding that he sensed a degree of “anxiety in the newsroom, and I think it comes in part from the corporate suite.” He identified “the rise, not merely of the presence of conservative opinion in the country, but the related noise being made in the media by conservative voices these days” and their “effect in the corporate suites.” Jennings professed concern that the media were “perceived to be, I think, infinitely more liberal, by the way, than the newsmedia establishment is,” and as a result, “this wave of resentment rushes at our advertisers, rushes at the corporate suites and gets under the newsroom skin, if not completely into the decision-making process to a greater degree than it has before.” Jennings observed that “what the conservatives in this country have learned in the last ten years especially, is they feel they have to go to war against the networks every day…. Our job then is to be resistant to that–we should have been more resistant.”

The anchors declined my invitation, issued from the audience, to ruminate on their own responsibility for the fact that a President of the United States was able to mislead the people of the United States based on what, even then, were demonstrably false arguments. Eventually, however, they did respond to the polite prodding of Patrice Arent, my favorite Utah state senator and the body’s entire female Jewish caucus. Rather explained, “Look, when a President of the United States, any President, Republican or Democrat, says these are the facts, there is heavy prejudice, including my own, to give him the benefit of any doubt, and for that I do not apologize.” Addressing himself directly to the question of the networks’ unwillingness to ask tough questions of Bush and his advisers before the war, Rather admitted, “When I referred to fear before, that’s one of the specific things I had in mind.”

Brokaw chimed in, “I think the big failure on our part was that we didn’t connect enough dots on our programming…. I think we didn’t raise enough questions about the political process…. it was our responsibility to at least put up more caution signs than we did. And I think, in fact, we didn’t live up to that responsibility, in terms of generating more of a political debate about it.” (Peter Jennings declined to offer any second-guessing of ABC’s coverage on this score.)

Watching and listening, a part of me actually felt a bit of these multimillion-dollar babies’ pain. Network news is getting hit from all sides. Their corporate owners are squeezing them at every opportunity to increase profits by simultaneously skimping on costs, pushing for “tabloid” stories and dumbing down what’s left. Viewership is declining both in numbers and demographic desirability. The future is clearly with narrow-cast networks, like Fox’s right-wingers and Jon Stewart’s fake-but-truer-than-the-real-thing news, and these dinosaurs are hanging on to the Cronkite/Sevareid tradition by their magnificently manicured fingernails.

But they are doing so by offering surrender after surrender. While the above admissions do begin to scratch the surface of the networks’ collective failure to live up to their democratic responsibility to hold our leaders accountable, they did not go nearly far enough. Jennings, for instance, proudly cited ABC’s coverage of Colin Powell’s February 2003 UN speech without noting that the speech, and hence the uncritical coverage, has been entirely discredited. And none of the networks were willing to take on the Swift Boat liars and the President’s unwillingness to repudiate their slanderous untruths. In the wake of its momentous foul-up regarding Bush’s still-unexplained absences from the National Guard, CBS decided to sit on a big breaking story it had about the President’s false claims of Iraqi nuclear ambitions, lest its broadcast be perceived as helping the Democrats.

Meanwhile, following the Cheney-Edwards debate, for instance, Jennings & Co. were so eager to pronounce a winner that they went on the air with an instant poll that contained a 38 to 31 percent bias in favor of Republicans, a figure nobody believes to be credible but that allowed them to call Cheney the winner. None of these journalistic lapses would have gone unanswered if the left had matched the right’s decades-long campaign to pressure the networks to report the news their way. Remember, this is not Fox News we’re talking about here. (Fox declined the Shorenstein Center’s invitation to the discussion.) These are the guys who are supposed to be the last defenders of media civilization against the barbarian invasion.

Welcome, Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

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