Among the biggest lessons, as far as they're concerned, is that the Nixon presidency was brought down by the "liberal" news coverage of the Vietnam War and Watergate. In intervening years, the right has conducted a lamentably successful campaign to establish a conservative media network and to demonize any media that isn't part of the Big Brother Broadcast (Fox News, A.M. talk radio, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, etc.)
To hear the Rovewellians tell the tale of the Nixon years, the only thing wrong with the Vietnam War was that the press turned the public against it, and hounded Tricky Dick out of office for doing things that were really no big deal.
They won't bother to tell you that the people who lost the Vietnam War were bad politicians and bad generals who misled the public about progress of the conflict for a decade. They won't mention that it was the Nixon administration, not the press, that committed a felony crime when it broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters during the 1972 presidential campaign, then committed further felonies by obstructing the investigation of the break in. And they'll never bother to remind you that the media were every bit as critical of Democrat Lyndon Johnson's presidency as they were of Nixon's.
Play it Again, Sam Donaldson
Today, we're in the middle of a bad war initiated on fuzzy pretexts and run badly by bad politicians and bad generals, and we have a president who has broken laws, unilaterally abrogated treaties, and violated the constitution. Miraculously, however, much of the American public has the perception that the bad politicians and bad generals haven't done anything bad. It's all the media's fault.
And the media have been perfectly willing to take the blame.
This week, Mister Bush took to the road to sell his war in Iraq on its third anniversary before televised Town Hall style encounters with "real folks" asking "spontaneous" questions. These events, covered by the very media the Bush administration scapegoats, were no more genuine than a zirconium engagement ring, but I didn't hear a single commentator question if maybe it wasn't all just another staged propaganda event.
I don't buy for a minute that Bush's handlers actually let him loose in uncontrolled environments. All those "hard ball" questions he fielded on Monday by "average citizens" in the Cleveland City Club sounded as though they were read from scripts, and Bush's answers sounded as scripted as the question.
The grand production on Wednesday in West Virginia was downright embarrassing. Speaking before a crowd of 2,100, made up largely of military families, Mister Bush came off as the darling of the American people. From the transcript:
Q: Mr. President, I have a son that's special forces in Iraq. And I have another son -- (applause.) I have another son that's in the Army. He left college to join the Army. He's out in Hawaii. He's got the good duty right now. (Laughter.) But I thank God that you're our Commander-in-Chief. And I wouldn't want my boys -- (applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thanks.
Q: Again, I thank God you're our Commander-in-Chief. You're a man for our times. And I'm supporter of yours. And I think it's good that you come out and tell your story. And I think you need to keep doing more of it, and tell the story and the history of all this. And God bless you. And I thank you for your service.
Q: Sir, thank you for being in West Virginia. I'm the recruiting commander of the West Virginia Army National Guard. And there are a lot of National Guardsmen here with you in Wheeling today. West Virginians are a proud and very patriotic people. I'd like for you to share with us what you would say to a young person today who would like to join the National Guard, and maybe give some encouraging words in that respect.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thanks--kind of doing your job for you. All right. (Laughter and applause.) My statement to all Americans is serve your country one way or another. I--and service can be done by wearing the uniform. Wearing the uniform is a fantastic way to say, I want to serve my country. A lot of people have chosen that way, and it's a rewarding experience to wear the uniform. If you want to go to college, it's a good way to gain some skills to help you in your education.
Q: President Bush, I'm a professional firefighter here in Wheeling, West Virginia.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, sir. (Applause.)
Q: And back during 9/11, I lost over 300 of my brothers in New York. And I was glad that you were our President at that time and took the fight to the terrorists…
Here's the kicker: I've seen it replayed twice on MSNBC.
Q: I have a comment, first of all, and then just a real quick question. I want to let you know that every service at our church you are, by name, lifted up in prayer, and you and your staff and all of our leaders. And we believe in you. We are behind you. And we cannot thank you enough for what you've done to shape our country. (Applause.)
This is my husband, who has returned from a 13-month tour in Tikrit.
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. Thank you. Welcome back. (Applause.)
Q: His job while serving was as a broadcast journalist. And he has brought back several DVDs full of wonderful footage of reconstruction, of medical things going on. And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus -- (applause) --
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, hold on a second.
Q: They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don't agree with you and what you're doing, when they don't even probably know how you're doing what you're doing anyway. But what can we do to get that footage on CNN, on FOX, to get it on headline news, to get it on the local news? Because you can send it to the news people -- and I'm sorry, I'm rambling -- like I have --
THE PRESIDENT: So was I, though, for an hour. (Laughter.)
Q: -- can you use this, and it will just end up in a drawer, because it's good, it portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict.
Bush came back with coo-noise about the importance of a free press.
No Good News
There's no way of proving whether administration stage managers gave this woman in West Virginia a script, or if she's fallen under the spell of the "no good news" mantra. That she clumped CNN and FOX together could have been part of FOX's "fair and balanced" brainwash strategy, or it may be that the woman honestly can't see what FOX News is really all about.
Whatever the case may be, the designed message got out. Whatever criticism of Bush and the war in Iraq that appears in the media is unfair, but Bush is a good old guy who just lets that kind of thing roll off his back.
That an outlet like MSNBC ran the clip multiple times goes to show just how severely the mainstream media has allowed itself to be cowed by Rove's liberal press bashing strategy.
It may be that MSNBC ran the clip because the West Virginia woman didn't mention them as part of the "no good news" network. And comments made by MSNBC's Don Imus in the last two days may support that theory.
On Wednesday, Imus castigated White House press corps stalwart Helen Thomas for being disrespectful to Mister Bush during the previous day's press conference. What journalistic sin had Helen committed? She asked Bush why he'd decided to invade Iraq, and persisted in seeking a straight answer to her question when Bush didn't give her one.
Imagine, flaying a journalist for asking the president of the United States the most critical political question of our day and insisting on a coherent reply. You'd think that sort of thing should be encouraged, not condemned. The last thing America needs is for one media icon to blast another one for holding a politician's feet to the fire.
Imus continued to echo the "no good news" mantra today when he slapped around MSNBC's Iraq correspondent Richard Engel for the media's lack of reporting stories favorable to the administration's agenda. To his credit, Engel held his ground and stood up to Imus's assertions, and did so in a way that showed more respect and dignity than Imus and Mister Bush combined deserve. Young Engel, by the way, is the only television network news correspondent to have covered the entire Iraq War II from Baghdad.
What's Fair or Balanced About "Fair and Balanced?"
As CBS journalist and commentator Andy Rooney said in 2000:
The trouble with news now is money. Most of the decisions being made in television news are not about news, they're about money. Corporate America was late discovering there was profit to be made with news, and it's trying to make up for its slow start…
I wish someone fabulously wealthy like Bill Gates would buy a network and say to the news department: 'Here's a couple of billion dollars a year. Do it right. I'm not going to interfere. I'll get my money back from the entertainment division.
The bad news, perhaps, is that in the 2006 24/7 news network environment, news and entertainment are the same thing. The outrageous absurdities portrayed in the 1976 film Network are readily accepted complacencies in the contemporary information age.
If criticism of itself will lead to ratings and profits, the mainstream media will more than happily tout it, even if that leads to abject loss of objectivity in the pursuit of ratings and readership enjoyed by Rush, the lowbrow Bill (O'Reilley), the high brow Bill (Buckley), the in-between Bill (Kristol), Ann, Laura, Shawn, Neil, Cal, Tom, Suzanne, Gordon, Pat…
Just once, I'd like to see a Murrow or Cronkite class journalist stand up and say something like this:
You've heard a lot lately about how the mainstream media doesn't report enough of the good news about Iraq. As a prominent figure in the mainstream media, I will freely admit to you that assertion is true. Let my tell you why.
Being "fair and balanced" isn't about giving equal weight to all sides of a story, and certainly not about the story of a war. The truth is that there's no amount of good news about our woebegone excursion in Iraq or our equally misfired Global War on Terror that balances or justifies the bad news about them.
I for one am happy to know that little girls in Afghanistan are going to school. But I'm unconvinced that that compensates for the fact that the Taliban have made a comeback in that country, or that subsequent to our incursion in Afghanistan it has become the world's leading exporter of heroin, or that one of its citizens currently faces the death penalty for converting to Christianity.
I am also happy to know that electrical power, clean water, and other services are being restored in some portions of Iraq. But there's no clear evidence that these quality of life utilities have improved over the levels they existed at during Saddam Hussein's regime, or even come back up to those levels. And even the Bush administration has yet to claim that we invaded Iraq for the purpose of improving its peoples' hygiene and indoor climate control.
In the meantime, Iraq, the Middle East, and the rest of the world are less stable than they were before we invaded Iraq.
If, as an American citizen, you wish to be presented with a view of your world distorted through a thick, rose-colored lens, please exercise your freedom to patronize a news outlet other than this one.
If a major media source puts out a message like that, we might just get our republic back.
What are the odds?
Good night and good luck.