Monday, May 01, 2006

The Press Corpse

Over the weekend Digby put up several excellent posts, including one on the constitutional crisis we find ourselves in due to the President's decision that "in a time of war" he has the ability to interpret the laws as he deems fit. At the end of his piece he reflects on the press corps' apparent eagerness to bash the Clinton administration endlessly on any subject no matter how minor or personal, while they seem unable to bring themselves to similarly attack the current incumbent:

"But you really have to wonder why they were so rabidly and openly anti-Clinton, to the point of trying to affirmatively help the Republicans drive him from office, while this time trying to extract promises that the Democrats won't hold Bush accountable for anything he has done."

Following is my take on this question, which I emailed to him:

Bob Somerby looked at this a while back, discussing Clinton biography "The Survivor" by the Washington Post's John Harris:

"Why did the mainstream press corps show so much disdain for Bill Clinton? He wasn’t ironic enough, Harris says—and they were jaded by Nam, of course, which had happened twenty years in the past! These explanations are amazingly bad—but they’re pretty much par for the course when members of the Washington press corps try to explain their own cohort’s misconduct. Weird explanations inevitably follow when reporters take on this vile task. (Links to examples below.)

Yes, reporters love to give strange “explanations” for their cohort’s misconduct. But there’s something they love even more at such moments—they love to make their group disappear. We weren’t there, they love to say, as they ignore their own cohort’s misconduct. And so it goes as Harris attempts to explain the Whitewater mess."

He never gets around to giving his personal opinion on why the press corps decided to (try to) torpedo the Clinton administration. In light of that, I have to give Harris' explanation (which Somerby considers "bad") credit for at least a little plausibility. I can easily believe that the Washington press corps could have become so insular that when the outsider Clinton arrived, replacing the much-beloved Reagan/Bush team that had governed for 12 years, that they would have felt some petty resentment and allowed that to color their reporting.

But beyond that, we have the Right-Wing Noise Machine constantly hammering away at Clinton's credibility and character; how many members of the mainstream media were regular listeners of Rush Limbaugh, even if only on drive-time radio? How many of them were closet conservatives or simply subscribed to the "where's there's smoke" line of reasoning that all these right-wing radicals couldn't possibly be making EVERYTHING up? And what was the role of the emerging consolidation of media into large conglomerates? Conglomerates run by people who might themselves be right-wing conservatives, or at least people sensitive to the endless and raucous charges of "liberal bias" if they attempted to defend the President? Was there pressure, subtle or otherwise, to emphasize stories critical of the President and downplay stories supportive of him? Was this a sort of "payback" for the destruction of Nixon, the Iran-Contra coverage which tarnished Sainted Reagan, the "Borking" of Bork and the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings?

It's all pieces of the puzzle. They didn't like Clinton the outsider, the uppity, arrogant hayseed from Arkansas. A new generation of reporters were replacing the Watergate era crew as those reporters advanced, retired, or moved on to other projects. They didn't like the fact that he was getting laid by interns and they weren't, or they simply knew that sex sells and lurid, illicit sex sells a lot. Perhaps they felt bad on some level for tarnishing earlier administrations, people they had known and worked with for 12 years. They lost sight of their ethical responsibility to REPORT the news, not CREATE the news (assuming they even knew that they had such a responsibility, and that blowhards like Limbaugh did not and were not in fact journalists). As a group, they simply decided they were going to punish Clinton and they proceeded to do it. And it was so much fun, and they did so much business because of it, that they decided to continue it with Al Gore (and for a short, critical time, Howard Dean).

Not only do we face a constitutional crisis; we face a crisis in the role of the press in society and the concept of jounalism itself. We have arrived at a time where we need to question just what it is that we are working towards as Americans, how our institutions should operate in pursuit of that goal of a more perfect union, and even what those institutions ought to be.

No comments: