One problem with trying to write critically about this year’s election coverage is that by choosing any single aspect of its manifold failures, one automatically does an injustice to the full scope of its immense, almost stupefying awfulness. When I wrote What Liberal Media? I could not have imagined more irresponsible coverage than the “Gore’s a liar, Bush is a dope”-athon to which we were treated in 2000. But given that most of the mainstream media have been performing like trained seals in a Karl Rove-produced traveling circus, Sam and Cokie’s giggling about an Al Gore grimace on This Week four years ago would be the equivalent of Pericles’ funeral oration today.
Consider the saturation coverage of the Dan Rather/CBS documents mishap. The network made a stupid mistake in rushing to broadcast a story about Bush’s refusal to complete his National Guard training. They compounded the error by serving as a go-between for a source and the Kerry campaign. It was inexcusably bad journalism and everyone involved ought to be suitably embarrassed, and a few–including possibly Rather–disciplined and dismissed. After attempting to defend the story unsuccessfully for a while, CBS relented, apologized and appointed a surprisingly hostile Republican-led investigative team.
Now look at the Alice in Wonderland discourse the CBS screw-up has inspired, along with the assumptions that underlie it.
Worse Than War: When the New York Times ran its May 26 admission that it gullibly swallowed the Bush Administration’s deception about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, which helped win support for a ruinous war, the story was, according to the invaluable Media Matters, reported thirty-eight times in US newspaper and wire reports during the following forty-eight hours and seven times on cable news. It was entirely ignored on Fox News Channel. By contrast, in the forty-eight hours following CBS’s admission that it “should not have used” memos critical of Bush’s military service because of questions regarding their provenance, the story was reported 167 times in US newspaper and wire reports and fifty-seven times on cable news broadcasts. Every single Fox News Channel program devoted itself to the story.
Lectures From a Traitor. Robert Novak convulsed the world of journalism recently when, alone among six selected journalists, he played patsy for the Administration’s dirty tricks and willingly blew the cover of a CIA agent in order to discredit her husband. Novak–who once told me he “admired” Elliott Abrams for lying to him in the service of a conservative cause–then helped to erode the profession’s First Amendment protections and encourage the courts to threaten other journalists with jail rather than give up the source of his black-bag operation. (Novak has not personally been threatened with jail time, which leads many to conclude that he may secretly be cooperating with the authorities.) And yet this right-wing warrior, employed by CNN and carried faithfully by the Washington Post, felt no compunction about demanding on Capital Gang that Rather reveal his sources. “I’d like CBS, at this point, to say where they got these documents from,” he exclaimed to his co-panelists, not one of whom called him on his hypocrisy.
“I’ll Do the Lying Around Here, Punk.” Times columnist William Safire has played a powerful role in misinforming the paper’s readers about a meeting he alleges took place between Al Qaeda terrorist Mohamed Atta and the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in Prague, in April 2001. The meeting, to which Dick Cheney also often refers, is, according to all available evidence, entirely made up. The 9/11 Commission dismissed it, and no compelling countercase has ever been put forth. Meanwhile, neither the Times nor Safire has apologized or corrected his lie that the meeting was an “undisputed fact.” (It is nothing if not “disputed.”) This same propagandist employs his influential perch at the Paper of Record to accuse CBS employees of “crimes” and to demand a criminal prosecution.
Looking back over Clinton-era reporting, the high dudgeon of right-wing pundits vis-à-vis CBS seems even more absurd. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons offers this:
I saw pundit Andrew Sullivan on CNN clucking over CBS’ mistakes. In 1994, when Sullivan edited The New Republic, it ran a cover story accusing Bill Clinton of corruptly enriching his wife’s law firm by changing Arkansas usury laws as governor. In fact, the deed was done by public referendum under Clinton’s Republican predecessor. On Dec. 19, 1995, ABC News’ “Nightline” aired a deceptively edited video clip of a Hillary Clinton press conference about Whitewater. It accused her of lying about the very information electronically deleted from her remarks. No consequences followed. On May 4, 1996, The New York Times published an article with a deceptive Associated Press byline stating that an FBI agent’s trial testimony described a $50,000 windfall to Whitewater from an illegal loan. As the actual AP article stipulated, the agent gave no such testimony. Many accusatory editorials and columns followed, helping Kenneth Starr to prolong his fruitless investigation of Bill Clinton’s finances for years. The Times has never acknowledged its blunder.
CBS’s slip-up was such big news because it fit the right-wing script designed to shield the Bush Administration from democratic accountability. Bowing to pressure that blew the story out of all sensible proportion, the network announced that it would withhold until after the election a major investigative scoop. That story involves the Administration’s efforts to mislead the nation into war using false claims that Iraq attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger–which just happens to be the story by which Robert Novak carried its dirty water. Bush was also off the hook for shirking his cushy National Guard service, and John Kerry’s hard-hitting speeches about the Iraq quagmire were buried beneath the rubble. Overall, the drama–like the entire election narrative–could hardly have played more effectively for the Republicans if it had been scripted by Karl Rove. Hmm…