Journalists, George Bernard Shaw once said, “are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” How odd, given the profession’s un-equaled reputation for narcissism, that Shaw’s observation holds true even when the collapsing “civilization” is their own.
Make no mistake: The Bush Administration and its ideological allies are employing every means available to undermine journalists’ ability to exercise their First Amendment function to hold power accountable. In fact, the Administration recognizes no such constitutional role for the press. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has insisted that the media “don’t represent the public any more than other people do…. I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.”
Bush himself, on more than one occasion, has told reporters he does not read their work and prefers to live inside the information bubble blown by his loyal minions. Vice President Cheney feels free to kick the New York Times off his press plane, and John Ashcroft can refuse to speak with any print reporters during his Patriot-Act-a-palooza publicity tour, just to compliant local TV. As an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” For those who didn’t like it, another Bush adviser explained, “Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read the New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times.”
But the White House and its supporters are doing more than just talking trash–when they talk at all. They are taking aggressive action: preventing journalists from doing their job by withholding routine information; deliberately releasing deceptive information on a regular basis; bribing friendly journalists to report the news in a favorable context; producing their own “news reports” and distributing these free of charge to resource-starved broadcasters; creating and crediting their own political activists as “journalists” working for partisan operations masquerading as news organizations. In addition, an Administration-appointed special prosecutor, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, is now threatening two journalists with jail for refusing to disclose the nature of conversations they had regarding stories they never wrote, opening up a new frontier of potential prosecution. All this has come in the wake of a decades-long effort by the right and its corporate allies to subvert journalists’ ability to report fairly on power and its abuse by attaching the label “liberal bias” to even the most routine forms of information gathering and reportage (for a transparent example in today’s papers, see under “DeLay, Tom”). Some of these tactics have been used by previous administrations too, but the Bush team and its supporters have invested in and deployed them to a degree that marks a categorical shift from the past.
Many of these lines of attack on the press might at first appear to have little in common. What does an increase in official secrecy have to do with payments to pundits, or the broadcast of official video news releases, or the presence of a right-wing charlatan in the White House press room pretending to be a reporter and serving up softball questions to the President in prime time? And how is any of this connected to the Administration’s willingness to mislead the nation on everything from stem cells to Social Security?
The right wing’s media “decertification” effort, as the journalism scholar and blogger Jay Rosen calls it, has its roots in forty years of conservative fury at the consistent condescension it experienced from the once-liberal elite media and the cosmopolitan establishment for whom its members have spoken. Fueled by this sense of outrage, the right launched a multifaceted effort to fight back with institutions of its own, including think tanks, advocacy organizations, media pressure groups, church groups, big-business lobbies and, eventually, its own television, talk-radio, cable and radio networks (to be augmented, later, by a vast array of Internet sites). Today this triumphant movement has captured not only much of the media and the public discourse on ideas but both the presidency and Congress (and soon, undoubtedly, the Supreme Court as well); it can wage its war on so many fronts simultaneously that it becomes nearly impossible to see that almost all these efforts are aimed at a single goal: the destruction of democratic accountability and the media’s role in insuring it.
The Bush attack on the press has three primary components–Secrecy, Lies and Fake News. Consider these examples:
All Presidents try to keep secrets; it comes with the job description. Following 9/11, the need for secrecy increased significantly. Bush, however, has taken advantage of this new environment to shut down the natural flow of information between the governing and the governed in ways that have little or nothing to do with the terrorist threat. As Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity points out, “The country has seen a historic, regressive shift in public accountability. Open-records laws nationwide have been rolled back more than 300 times–all in the name of national security.” Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood adds, “Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent…. His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004.”
Some of these efforts may be justified as prudent preparation in the face of genuine threats, but this is hard to credit, given the contempt the Administration has demonstrated for the public’s right to information in non-security-related matters. Upon entering office, Bush attempted to shield his Texas gubernatorial records by shuttling them into his father’s presidential library. That was followed by an executive fiat designed to hide his father’s presidential records, as well as those of the Reagan/Bush Administration, by blocking the scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and issuing a replacement presidential order that allowed not only Presidents but also their wives and children to keep their records secret. (The records had already been scrubbed for national security implications.)
In the aftermath of 9/11, Administration efforts to prevent accountability accelerated to warp speed. Attorney General Ashcroft reversed a Clinton Administration-issued policy governing FOIA requests that allowed documents to be withheld only when “foreseeable harm” would likely result, to one in which merely a “sound legal basis” could be found. And that was just the beginning. Even when documents were not withheld de jure, Administration officials often withheld them de facto. When People for the American Way sought documents on prisoners’ cases being litigated in secret, the Justice Department required it to pay $373,000 in search fees before officials would even look. “It’s become much, much harder to get responses to FOIA requests, and it’s taking much, much longer,” David Schulz, the attorney who helps the Associated Press with FOIA requests, explained to a reporter. “Agencies seem to view their role as coming up with techniques to keep information secret rather than the other way around. That’s completely contrary to the goal of the act.”
In addition, as Aftergood notes, “an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases.” These sources were once freely available but are now being withdrawn from view under the classification “sensitive but unclassified” or “for official use only.” They include: the Pentagon telephone directory, the Los Alamos technical report library, historical records at the National Archives and the Energy Department intelligence budget, among many others. Even more alarming is the web of secrecy surrounding the operations of what has become the equivalent of a police state at Guantánamo Bay and other military prisons around the world, where the accused are routinely denied due process and traditional rules of evidence are deemed irrelevant. Exactly two members of Congress, both sworn to secrecy, are being briefed by the CIA on these programs. The rest of Congress, the media and the public are given no information to judge the legality, morality or effectiveness of these extralegal machinations, some of which have already resulted in officially sanctioned torture and possibly even murder.
The issue of “lies” has been the most consistently clouded by the Administration’s supporters in the conservative media, who refuse to report facts when they conflict with White House spin. It’s true, as I show in my book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, that many presidents have demonstrated an almost allergic reaction to accuracy. Still, the Bush Administration manages to set a new standard here as well, reducing reality to a series of inconvenient obstacles to be ignored in favor of ideological prejudices and political imperatives–and it has done so virtually across the entire executive branch. As Michael Kinsley noted way back in April 2002, “What’s going on here is something like lying by reflex…. Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven’t bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they’d try that too.”
Rather than regurgitate that fruitless debate over the war–the deliberate untruths told by the Administration have been delineated ad nauseam–consider just two recent examples of its deception on matters relating to scientific and medical evidence:
§ Mercury emissions: When the EPA unveiled a rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants, Bush officials argued that anything more stringent than the EPA’s proposed regulations would cost the industry far in excess of any conceivable benefit to public health. They hid the fact, however, that a Harvard study paid for by the EPA, co-written by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists, found exactly the opposite, estimating health benefits 100 times as great as the EPA did. Even more shocking, according to a GAO investigation, the EPA had failed to “quantify the human health benefits of decreased exposure to mercury, such as reduced incidence of developmental delays, learning disabilities, and neurological disorders.”
§ Nuclear materials: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that government scientists apparently submitted phony data to demonstrate that a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain would be safe. As with the EPA and mercury emissions, the Interior Department found unsatisfactory the results of a study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory concluding that rainwater moved through the mountain sufficiently quickly for radioactive isotopes to penetrate the ground in a few decades, so it just pretended it hadn’t happened.
In these two emblematic cases, as it has done so many times before, the Administration simply issued its own pronouncements, ignored reality and went its merry way, damn the consequences both for the reality of its policies and for its own credibility. Those found guilty of deception did not mind the one-day story that would result demonstrating them to be liars any more than Vice President Cheney minded the fact that a videotape existed of him claiming on Meet the Press that the alleged Prague meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official had been “pretty well confirmed” when he twice insisted, also on videotape, that he “never said that.” And the political calculation turned out to be a good one. It was left to The Daily Show to run the two tapes of Cheney together. Reporters may have been angry at being lied to, but they returned the next day to swallow some more.
The Bush Administration has invested untold millions in video “news releases” that disguise themselves as genuine news reports and are frequently broadcast by irresponsible local news programs. In three separate opinions in the past year, the Congressional Government Accountability Office held that government-made news segments may constitute improper “covert propaganda” even if their origin is made clear to television stations. Yet the Administration has rejected these rulings, fortified by a Justice Department opinion that insists that the reports are purely informational. Of course, the Administration’s idea of “purely informational” is sufficiently elastic to stretch all the way from the White House to Ahmad Chalabi’s house. As the New York Times reported, a “jubilant” Iraqi-American chanting “Thank you, Bush. Thank you, USA” is deemed to fall into this category, as is a report of “another success” in the Administration’s “drive to strengthen aviation security” in which the “reporter” called the effort “one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history.” A third segment, broadcast in January, described the Administration’s commitment to opening markets for American farmers. The reports are clearly designed to simulate legitimate news programming. A now-infamous report narrated by PR flack Karen Ryan for the Department of Health and Human Services praising the benefits of the new Medicare bill imitated a real news report by having her sign off as “Karen Ryan, reporting” and by not identifying the story’s source. The Clinton Administration made use of video “news releases” as well, but now the government’s investment in them appears to have nearly doubled, as has its brazenness.
These phony news reports have much in common with stage-managed “public” presidential events that bar all potential dissenters and script virtually every utterance. In March, for instance, three people found themselves kicked out of a Bush Social Security event because of a bumper sticker on their car in the parking lot that read No More Blood for Oil. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said a volunteer asked the three to leave “out of concern they might try to disrupt the event,” but, of course, no evidence of any potential disruption could be found save the “thought crime” of coming to the event with an antiwar bumper sticker on a car. This was not, recall, a Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign event but a presidential forum to discuss the future of Social Security. (Previously citizens had been kept out of Bush events because of clothing deemed inappropriate or for reasons unexplained, as when most of a group of forty-two, barred from an event in Fargo, North Dakota, later discovered that what they had in common was membership on a Howard Dean meetup.com list.)
In addition to creating its own mediated version of reality, the Administration has also invested considerable resources in corrupting members of the media with cash payments, in what George Miller, ranking Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, has termed a “potentially criminal mismanagement of expensive contracts.” These include hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to right-wing pundits Armstrong Williams ($240,000), Maggie Gallagher ($21,000) and Michael McManus ($10,000), the conservative author of the syndicated column “Ethics & Religion,” who, like Gallagher, was paid to help promote a marriage initiative. And yet the resulting scandal has benefited the Administration’s war on the press by damaging journalism’s public image and reinforcing the false belief that everyone in the media is somehow “on the take.”
Undoubtedly the Administration’s most bizarre effort to manipulate the media was its embrace of former gay prostitute James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, who showed up at the White House under a phony name and worked for a right-wing shell operation that acted less like a news organization than an arm of the Republican National Committee, publishing articles like “Kerry Could Become First Gay President.” Gannon’s ostensible employer, Talon News Service, employed an editor in chief, Bobby Eberle, who served as a delegate to the 1996, 1998 and 2000 Texas Republican Conventions and to the 2000 Republican National Convention and enjoyed many direct connections to Republican and right-wing organizations. Press secretary McClellan would often call on Gannon when he wanted to extricate himself from a particularly effective line of questioning. The words “Go ahead, Jeff,” signaled that the press corps could be getting into an area that might embarrass the White House–or could be discovering a nugget of genuine news. Gannon’s ploy might have continued indefinitely had the President not helped make him famous by calling on him at a January 26 news conference in order to be served up a softball that mocked Democrats for being “divorced from reality.” Once exposed, Gannon resigned and Talon folded up shop like a rolled-up CIA cover-op. As James Pinkerton, an official in both the Reagan and Bush I White House, admitted on Fox News, getting the kind of clearance Gannon did in this security atmosphere must have required “an incredible amount of intervention from somebody high up in the White House,” that it had to be “conscious” and that “some investigation should proceed, and they should find that out.” As Frank Rich observed, “Given an all-Republican government, the only investigation possible will have to come from the press.”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this war against the media has been the fact that members of the media have largely behaved as if it is just business as usual. In fact, much of the success of the effort derives from the cooperation, both implicit and explicit, of the press. No one, after all, forces local TV stations to run official propaganda videos in lieu of their own programming, or without identifying them as such, and no one forces CNN Newsource, among others, to distribute them. And why did the curious mystery of “Gannon,” despite its obvious newsworthiness–and sex appeal–receive so little critical coverage and virtually no outrage in the mainstream press? (Washington Post media critic and CNN talking head Howard Kurtz even went so far as to blame the scandal on “these liberal bloggers, [who] have started investigating his personal life in an effort to discredit him,” and the National Press Club invited Gannon to be an honored guest on a panel on blogging and journalistic credibility.) Mike McCurry, White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, says he marvels at the willingness of the press corps to swallow the various humiliations offered them by Bush & Co. He told a recent gathering of Washington reporters and editors, “I used to think that if I ever tried to control the message as effectively as the current White House did, that I would have been run out of the White House press briefing room. But clearly I misjudged the temperament that exists.”
The media’s failure to resist this assault is perhaps understandable. Members of the profession are under siege from so many directions simultaneously they may feel they can hardly keep up with each incoming salvo. Not only is much of the traditional media controlled by multinational corporations that view their operations not as a public trust but as profit centers to be squeezed, but newspapers are facing an alarming decline in readership (and more than a few are admitting to having padded those numbers all along). Broadcast news has been steadily losing audience share for decades. In a vicious cycle, the results of such declines are more declines, as resources are cut to match reduced profits and pressure escalates from above to do more with less. Meanwhile, more and more “news” programs are succumbing to the tabloid temptation, and the lowering of quality has been ac-companied by a proliferation of factual errors, plagiarism and outright fiction proffered as reportage, further undermining public respect for the field. As Philip Meyer recently wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review, there is a sense that journalism itself “is being phased out. Our once noble calling is increasingly difficult to distinguish from things that look like journalism but are primarily advertising, press agentry, or entertainment.” Throw in the nonstop ideological assault from the self-intoxicated section of the (mostly conservative) blogosphere, from (even more conservative) talk-radio and cable loudmouths like Limbaugh and O’Reilly, plus the fact that members of generations X and Y seem more likely to commit acts of terrorism than pick up a newspaper or watch a news broadcast, and it seems almost a luxury to worry about the Bush Administration’s attack as well.
Another reason for the press’s complacency is that many of these tactics are nothing new. Reporters have always engaged in a complex push-me/pull-you relationship with the President, alternately sucking up and pulling down as the political tides rose and fell. More than thirty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in Commentary that “in most essential encounters between the Presidency and the press, the advantage is with the former. The President has a near limitless capacity to ‘make’ news which must be reported…. The President also has considerable capacity to reward friends and punish enemies in the press corps…. Finally, a President who wishes can carry off formidable deceptions.” What’s unprecedented is the degree to which this Administration has employed these efforts to undermine the journalist’s democratic function.
His formidable deceptions notwithstanding, George W. Bush has charmed many in the press personally, and his Administration, in the person of Karl Rove, has impressed them with its political perspicacity. Media insiders believe Bush/Rove to be a tougher political combination than most but have trouble believing they are seeking to effect a fundamental transformation in press-presidential relations. Media insiders appear to like Bush a great deal more than the public does and frequently overestimate his popularity (in fact, in early April, Bush’s approval rating had fallen to the lowest level of any President since World War II at this point in his second term, according to the Gallup organization).
What’s more, for journalists to admit they are being deceived, or even manipulated, contradicts their sense of self-importance as “players” in a perpetual game of good governance. To read ABC News’s “The Note”–which has developed into a kind of Pravda for the “Gang of 500” who cover national politics every day–is to enter a world in which the President and his advisers are treated in a manner not unlike the way US Weekly treats “Brad and Jen.” Its affectionate tone speaks, too, to Washington reporters’ coziness with the subjects they’re ostensibly covering, their sources. McCurry notes that unnamed sources are such a problem today in part because reporters are frequently more eager to grant anonymity than officials are to demand it. “I have had probably thousands of conversations with reporters in twenty-five years as a press secretary, and I’d say 80 percent of the time I am offered anonymity and background rather than asking for it. I rarely have to ask for it and don’t ask for it because I prefer to keep on the record as often as I can.”
While individual reporters and even news organizations are undoubtedly vulnerable to White House retaliation if they refuse to play ball–former White House officials spoke openly of their desire to punish CBS and Dan Rather–if these organizations were to unite on behalf of their constitutional charge and collective dignity, they would likely find a White House that knows when it’s beaten. Alas, reporters, like Democrats and cats, are maddeningly hard to organize. When some recently tried to map out a collective response to the White House’s secrecy obsession, it got few takers. Knight-Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, walked out of an anonymous briefing last term to be followed by exactly no one. Len Downie, executive editor of the Washington Post, has ruled out the possibility of participation in any such action. “We just don’t believe in unified action,” he explained in a note to former Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, “and would find a discussion aimed at reaching agreement with others on ‘practicable steps’ or even agreement on when not to agree to various ground rules uncomfortable and unworkable.”
The net result of this one-sided battle is the de jure destruction of the balance that has characterized the American political system since the modern, nonpartisan media began to emerge a century ago. And unless journalists find a way to fight back for the honor, dignity and, ultimately, effectiveness of their profession, the press’s role in American democracy and society will continue to diminish accordingly, to the disadvantage of all our citizens. Bush adviser Karen Hughes has explained, “We don’t see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press.” And there’s been none to date. Speaking to Salon‘s Eric Boehlert, Ron Suskind outlined what he sees as the ultimate aim of the Administration upon which he has reported so effectively. “Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press,” he warns. “For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it’s in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you’re able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks.”
“Two cheers for democracy,” wrote E.M. Forster, “one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.” But the aim of the Bush offensive against the press is to do just the opposite; to insure, as far as possible, that only one voice is heard and that no criticism is sanctioned. The press may be the battleground, but the target is democracy itself.