Something quite odd is going on with media coverage of this war. Critics on all sides of the political equation have historically attacked the media for bias in one direction or another, but rarely were willing to admit that they were doing so on behalf of biases of their own. Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes did just that, however, in a recent cover story celebrating top journalists' willingness to throw the old objectivity rulebook out the window as a result of the attacks of September 11.
Barnes does not have all his facts straight. He seems to think that the media have reached a new low in the eyes of the public. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that just the opposite is true; 77 percent of those surveyed rate the media's coverage as excellent or good. Barnes also calls Geraldo Rivera a "liberal media icon" when, in fact, he is a "liberal media" joke.
Nevertheless, Barnes is quite understandably excited about Dan Rather's post-9/11 appearance on the David Letterman show, when the anchor declared: "Wherever [the President] wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call." Given that Presidents routinely lie about matters of war and peace, Rather is volunteering here to be a mindless propagandist rather than a thinking journalist. Rather also explained to Letterman that the terrorists attacked us because they're evil, and because they're jealous of us. Such anti-intellectual pronouncements may warm the cockles of right-wing hearts, but they signal the death of a journalist's commitment to the ideal of objectivity.
A second source of Barnes's glee is no less instructive. During a recent class at the Columbia Journalism School, ABC News president David Westin was asked whether he considered the Pentagon to be a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies. Westin replied, "I actually don't have an opinion on that…as a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." As a lesson in the pretense of objectivity, Westin was right on point, if not exactly credible. No further questions on this topic were asked.
Thanks to a C-SPAN broadcast, however, Westin soon found himself chewed up and spat out by the nation's vast, right-wing media food chain. Brent Baker of the Scaife-funded Media Research Center sent it out on a daily "CyberAlert." There, it was picked up by Rupert Murdoch-funded Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume, then rereported by the Murdoch-funded New York Post and later trumped by Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh, who spent about an hour on it on his radio show. While Limbaugh was still on the air, Baker received a call and an e-mail from Westin containing what Barnes accurately terms Westin's "total capitulation." "I was wrong," he wrote. "Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification."