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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Lapdog journalism

The history of political reporting in the United States can adequately summarized in three phases: lapdog, watchdog and junkyard dog. The evidence is overwhelming we are deeply in a lapdog phase and as Michael Massing documents in the New York Review of Books, we're not getting out soon.

The foibles and peccadilloes of presidents were nobody's business during the first lapdog era. FDR's polio and the mistresses of FDR, Eisenhower and Kennedy were well known in the press corps, if not in the public. The need for access, in this instance to simply be admitted to the White House -- and the code of "gentlemen" kept those sorts of things out of the papers.

The watchdog era began when the press grew tired of the military's "Five o'clock Follies" in Vietnam, when reporters knew they were being lied to. That deception, aided by whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, led to a greater disbelief in the words and deeds of the Johnson and Nixon administrations and the dawn of the watchdog era.

The high watermark of watchdog journalism was Watergate, where two young police beat reporters locked onto a "third rate burglary" in the offices of the Democratic National Committee and rode it to the impeachment and eventual resignation of a president.

But it is crucial to remember that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were cop shop reporters. The national reporters who covered Congress and the White House didn't break the story. They tagged along when the young bloods ferreted out the details.

Perhaps because of embarrassment, but more likely because of hubris, the tone of coverage changed after Nixon's resignation and Ford's decision to pardon him. Welcome to the junkyard dog era, where everything was on limits -- and the careful sourcing used by Woodstein slowly slipped away as a standard.

Political reporting, as popularized by Teddy White, made process the king over substance. The need to be in the room when decisions were made was more important than the decisions -- and their implications. That need for access put the handlers in the driver's seat and really ushered in the rise of spin.

For those on the outside looking in, the total domination of handlers bred resentment and the need to expose the Potemkin's Village of the campaign. So we were treated to a look at Gary Hart's sex life, Michael Dukakis in a tank and other trivia. Iran-Contra slipped by most noses, as did the savings and loan scandals because those after all, were about policy not politics. Bill Clinton's sexual peccadilloes were front page news, as was his dissembling. The junkyard dogs were in their glory.

While all this was going on, the Theocons were in full-throated cry with their challenge to their "liberal media" as purveyors of junk who don't respect government or our leaders (unless of course they don't respect the leaders, in which case they aid and abet the scandal machine. Time for another shift.

Welcome back to lapdog journalism. Cowed by the attacks from the right, fearful of the charges of treason and being unpatriotic, and now owned by large corporations, the media have retreated in the face of the most secretive administration since Richard Nixon.

The Qatar briefings during the Iraq War had all the feel of a high tech Five o'clock Follies. Being the only show in town, short of embedding with the troops and facing bullets directly, reporters signed on (No disrespect to those who did see the war up close and personal. But by it's very nature, that reporting was one-sided.)

So the Bushies got what they wanted -- a docile coverage of the war that ignored Iraqi civilian deaths, that did not highlight US military casualties and of course accepted at face value claims about WMDs, a Saddam-Osama connection and the concocted stories about Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman.

The media also bought in to the greeted a liberator's line and the "coalition of the willing" propaganda that ignored the fact that world outrage over those same tactics.

Now we are led to think that perhaps the worm is turning again, back to the watchdog era -- coverage of New Orleans' heartache, renewed life in the White House pressroom, the Plame leak investigation.

It's too early to say for sure, but alas I don't think the signs are real. There is still too much attention to polls, not enough to substance beyond things like the economic numbers that give lie to those sentiments, as Massing points out so well in the piece that got me started on this.

I'm just not sure who will win this dog show yet, but I am rooting for the watch dog.


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