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.