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.