Wonder why it took ex-Republican Jim Jeffords to alert the national media to the fact that the Bush Administration is run out of the extremist end of the GOP? Writing from inside the belly of the beast not long ago, the Washington Post‘s White House correspondent John Harris helped crystallize an increasingly unavoidable proposition: “The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton.”
The argument over whether reporters are “liberal” is tired and stale. It’s also irrelevant. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to believe that liberals get more generous coverage. Harris focuses on the structural part. “There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president…. the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist.” What he does not say is that in the press itself there is no liberal equivalent to nakedly biased news sources like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and The McLaughlin Group, which dictate punditocracy discourse and cable schmoozathons.
Add to this the rapid decline of what constitutes verifiable “news” among our most high-minded journalistic institutions. Harris gingerly notes that his colleagues “may have fallen a bit out of shape at the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they go about making the decisions that affect national life.” Oh yeah, that. Now throw in the natural tendency of Beltway reporters to write for sources rather than for their readers. At least before the Jeffords switch, those sources were almost exclusively Republican and conservative.
Consider the news coverage of the China “crisis,” as has an intelligent examination in the Columbia Journalism Review. The media wanted inside “ticktock” coverage, and the White House complied. Harris’s Washington Post presented readers with a twenty-six-paragraph, front-page analysis replete with inside anecdotes designed to make the President appear somehow simultaneously in charge and comfortable with delegating details. He “peppered” his advisers with questions about Bibles and exercise. Bush “grilled” Condoleezza Rice. He set “redlines” for negotiators regarding possible concessions. Never mind that no Post reporters were there during the events they so breathlessly reported as fact. To question the official version handed out by the President’s propaganda machine is no longer part of the job description. (And let’s not even go into why these aides wanted to portray their boss, as the Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland observed, as “a know-nothing, fundamentalist fitness freak.”)
An equally egregious example can be found in the media coverage of the alleged vandalism perpetrated by Clinton aides before their departure from the White House. Washington Post gossip Lloyd Grove originally broke the nonstory, as Bush officials pretended to pooh-pooh it while privately stoking it. What began as a few missing W’s on keyboards soon mushroomed into–according to a page-one Post report by Mike Allen–“sliced phone and computer lines, obscene messages left in copy machines and champagne flutes missing from an Air Force jet.” Lurid reports were aired by Tom DeFrank in the New York Daily News, Andrea Mitchell on NBC News, Matt Drudge, Tony Snow, Fred Barnes, Paula Zahn, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, William Kristol, Tom Schatz, Oliver North and Brit Hume on Fox.
Apparently, no one thought to ask the Bush White House if there was any evidence for these claims. When GSA investigators looked into the matter, they found, “The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy.” The GAO also looked into it and found “no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the employees of the Clinton administration.” Not surprisingly, this news went buried or unreported. Mitchell’s employer, NBC, ignored it; the Post ran a wire service report on page 13.
Mike Allen and Andrea Mitchell did not return my call seeking their reaction to the news. Tom DeFrank told me he is “deeply puzzled” and plans to do more reporting on it. The respective reputations of Matt Drudge and Fox News speak for themselves. But you get the point. At least until Jim Jeffords upset its applecart, the Bush Administration, and the conservative movement supporting it, controlled its press coverage so effectively, it owned just about all the marbles in the game. And as every kid knows, it’s the guy with the marbles who gets to decide the rules.
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Did former New York Times executive editor and anti-Communist hysteric Abe Rosenthal squash an article that shed light on the guilt of the Rosenbergs for fear of offending the judge who sent them to their deaths? Ronald Radosh makes this shocking claim in his memoir, Commies, citing as his source Ed Klein, then editor of the Times magazine. Radosh’s article, commissioned by the magazine and written with Sol Stern, concurred with the judgment that Irving Kaufman had illegal ex parte communications with the likes of Roy Cohn during the trial. But Kaufman had been promoted to the US Court of Appeals, which heard many First Amendment cases, so Rosenthal killed the piece, insisting that the Times “could not afford to run a piece that might inflame Kaufman to vote against the paper in an important press case.”
Rosenthal did not (surprise, surprise) return my call, but Klein informs me that the Radosh version is “flat-out false.” There was no “shocking late-night call” from Klein to Radosh and no admittance that “Abe killed it.” (Indeed, even if true, what editor would be stupid enough to admit such an order to a writer?) Unfortunately, much of Radosh’s memoir appears to exist only in his imagination. Conspiracies abound, wild charges are tossed about and the public record is contradicted sans evidence. A great many of Radosh’s failures in life are blamed on a large and powerful pro-communist conspiracy controlling virtually every important cultural institution in America. Who knew?