The United States government is currently run by a group of people for whom verifiable truth holds no particular privilege over ideologically inspired nonsense. For members of the mainstream media, trying to maintain a sense of self-importance and solemnity and to keep the wing nuts from crowing for more scalps, this requires a series of stratagems to keep up the scripted charade, no matter how foolish it makes them look or feel while doing so.
The easiest of these stratagems is simply to stack the coverage with political partisans and give them free rein to spout GOP propaganda. That’s what the cable news networks do, as Media Matters for America demonstrated. Consistent with cable inauguration coverage, for example, MSNBC offered viewers of its State of the Union commentary eleven right-wing pundits and just two Democrats or liberals in response.
A second technique is more often deployed on network television, where such naked partisanship is frowned upon, but executives are, if anything, even more worried about appearing unsympathetic to the red-state, red-meat offerings of George W. Bush. This is to ignore the substance and focus on the spectacle, the “feelings” and the atmosphere. CBS’s Bob Schieffer, on his best post-Dan Rather behavior, for instance, marveled, “One of the best-delivered speeches that I have heard President Bush make. He was confident, he was direct, he drove his points home.”
On ABC, Cokie Roberts found herself enthralled with a faux-dramatic–and most likely fully staged–embrace between an Iraqi woman seated next to Laura Bush and the mother of a soldier who died for Bush’s folly in Falluja, gushing, “To have that completely spontaneous hug was something that leaves you with goose bumps.” Tim Russert–who, like so many Democratic pols who transition to media megabucks, is committed to proving his bona fides by kowtowing to Republicans at every opportunity–professed, “You can feel…in this town” that Democratic “nerves are frayed.” Russert was reacting to a rare display of Democratic spirit during the speech–booing when Bush sought to mislead the country into dismantling the most successful government program ever attempted in America: Social Security. To Russert and much of the permanent Washington establishment, the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat–or at least one who’s willing to act that way.
The standard for this kind of contentless coverage is set, per usual, by the reporting of the New York Times. If the lead reporter of the newspaper of record can ditch the substance part, well then, so can everybody else. Reporter Todd Purdum marveled at Bush’s “penchant for thinking big, or speaking grandly.” He then referred to Bush’s “first State of the Union address three years ago…he stunned the world with his denunciation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil,’ and his warning that he would ‘not wait on events while dangers gather.'” Purdum failed to note what was obvious to any “reality based” observer: that the “axis” idea was logically incoherent, and the arguments vis-à-vis Iraq were based on evidence later deemed imaginary. Instead, Purdum explained that Bush “has long since proved both the extent, and the limits, of his ability to match his actions to his words,” which is an awfully nice way of saying that the man is full of it.