Dogs of journalism beginning to howl again
   by Gene Lyons       Wednesday, February 11, 2004

If President Bush appeared wary and confused at times during his recent
"Meet the Press" interview, he had reason. He found himself confronting
a strange new environment. In the wake of 9/11, journalistic skepticism
had gone out of fashion. Even during the shameless propaganda campaign
leading up to the Iraq war, pundits routinely praised Bush’s steely resolve
and kingly bearing. Yet here was NBC’s Tim Russert, doing a passable
imitation of his famously prosecutorial interviewing style. If Russert failed
to air embarrassing video clips or to badger Bush in his trademark manner,
it was surely out of respect for the presidency. The same viewers who
succumbed to the vapors over Janet Jackson’s ludicrous Super Bowl stunt
would have lit up the network’s switchboards had Russert treated Bush as
disrespectfully as, say, a Democratic presidential candidate. Even so, Russert
asked most of the big questions: Had the White House cried wolf over Iraq’s
fabled weapons of  mass destruction? How on earth did the administration
arrive at its federal budget projections, and was a Ouija board involved?
(OK, I made up that last bit.) Had Bush ever explained his long ago vanishing
act from the Texas and/or Alabama Air National Guard?

The national press even fact-checked some of Bush’s more preposterous
responses. A front-page story in The New York Times juxtaposed the
president’s assertion that Saddam Hussein "could have developed a nuclear
weapon over time" to Senate testimony by recently resigned arms inspector
David Kay that Iraq did not have a "reconstituted, fullblown nuclear program."

Elsewhere, the Times editorialized that Bush "is going to have to show the
country that he is capable of distinguishing real threats from false alarms,
and has the courage to tell the nation the truth about something as profound
as war. Nothing in the interview offered much hope in that direction."

Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank’s account of the president’s
"Meet the Press" appearance all but called him a liar. Bush even tried to
blame runaway budget deficits on his predecessor. "If you look at the
appropriations bills that were passed under my watch," he claimed, "in
the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15
percent, and ours have steadily declined." Not so. "Federal discretionary
spending has grown by more than 25 percent in the past two fiscal years,"
Milbank wrote, "following average annual increases of 2.4 percent in
discretionary spending in the 1990s, according to figures from congressional
budget panels." Bush’s alibi was sheer make-believe. So what’s going on here?
Is the nation’s allegedly liberal press simply reacting to Bush’s sinking poll
numbers and going in for the kill? Partly, yes. After all, there’s nothing new
about this administration’s preference for theory over reality, only the media’s
willingness to confront it. The Post’s budget numbers even made it to Paula
Zahn’s CNN broadcast on Monday evening, a sure sign that factual
journalism has grown newly fashionable.

Even some conservatives are alarmed. "The president," wrote Andrew
Sullivan in The New Republic, "doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or
he’s lying, or he trusts people telling him lies. But it is undeniable that this
president is not on top of the most damaging part of his legacy—the
catastrophe he is inflicting on our future fiscal health."

The fawning over Bush had to end some time. Partly a function of its disdain
for Bill Clinton, then Al Gore, partly a reaction to Bush’s tragedy-influenced
post-9/11 poll numbers, so pure a convergence of the White House’s political
goals and the media’s needs couldn’t possibly last. The press’ inherent need
for novelty and conflict eventually takes precedence over all conflicting loyalties.

But can we out in the hinterland count on the Washington press to keep its
newfound zeal for what the old Superman TV program called "truth, justice
and the American way"? Before growing overly trustful, it’s worthwhile taking
a look at a devastating article in the current issue of the New York Review of
Books by Michael Massing, former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Titled" Now They Tell Us," it documents in embarrassing detail that among the
truest believers in Iraq’s WMDs were the editors and reporters of The New
York Times, The Washington Post and the establishment press generally. Only
the newspapers of the Knight-Ridder chain—the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami
Herald and Detroit Free Press—appear to have been properly skeptical of what
one analyst called the Bush administration’s" faith-based intelligence. " The rest,
Massing shows, repeatedly ignored or buried what reporters and editors ought
to have known about bitter conflicts within the intelligence community about the
poor quality of the administration’s evidence and its handling of dissenters. Some
journalists admit muzzling themselves to protect their own careers—worth
remembering now that they’re all growling and snapping at Bush like yard dogs
behind a chain-link fence.

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.

back to

Privacy Policy
. .