Here we are, five and a half years into the Bush Administration, and the press corps still hasn’t figured out how to handle the White House’s primary tactic of media management: lying.
During George W. Bush’s first term, reporters had a powerful confluence of motivations for their difficulty in calling the President to task. First was tradition; mere journalists lacked the authority to call a President a liar. Second, post-9/11 they were intimidated by Bush’s McCarthyite with-us-or-ag’in-us rhetoric as well as by a bloodthirsty right-wing punditocracy. (New York Times White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller admitted that she and her colleagues found it “frightening to stand up there,” and “no one wanted to get into an argument with the President at this very serious time.”)
Finally, though much of what Bush said during his first term was laughable, it was not easily disprovable in a normative sense. Would the poor and the middle class be the primary beneficiaries of tax cuts designed almost exclusively to enrich the extremely wealthy? Could right-wing church groups and ideology factories replace the services provided by traditional government health and welfare agencies? Does abstinence-only education based on disinformation reduce teen pregnancy? Were WMD-infested, bin-Laden-loving Iraqis eager to be “liberated” by a power that instructs them that our God is bigger than their God? “Well maybe,” replied most reporters. “Time will tell.”
Because the mainstream media make a fetish of a particularly brainless form of objectivity, the Bush Administration has been able to deceive the American public on a dizzying array of issues, from war to economics to science to, well, you name it. Lying has usually damaged the Presidents who do it, as I argued in my book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. But the media proved so timid in the face of this Administration’s deceptions that the reckoning was delayed long enough for Bush to squeak into a second term.
Now the results are in–and reporters, under siege from several directions, are still trapped in self-eviscerating sanctimony. Jim Lehrer explained the peculiar form of “objectivity” he and his colleagues practice to CJR Daily‘s Liz Cox Barrett not long ago: “I don’t deal in terms like ‘blatantly untrue,'” he averred. “That’s for other people to decide…. I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism.” As Todd Gitlin pointed out on TPM Cafe, Lehrer’s interview sounded an awful lot like Rob Corddry lecturing a befuddled Jon Stewart, “I don’t have ‘o-pin-i-ons.’ I’m a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called ‘objectivity’–might wanna look it up someday.”