IT IS NOT TOO MUCH TO SAY
that the press has let the public down on every one of the big life-and-death stories of our time.
Begin with those unforgettable 35 days in Florida in 2000, when reporters let Republicans get away
with their chosen story line: Bush was the presumptive victor and Gore was trying to deprive him
of his due. NBC's Tim Russert again and again suggested that Gore be the statesmanlike gent
and bow out. Never once did I see a network bigfoot suggest that Bush do the graceful thing and step
aside. Bush was cast as president-in-waiting, Gore as the interfering usurper.
Then, from the moment George Bush walked into the White House, he was excused
from serious scrutiny. It would have seemed invasive, ungenerous, downright mean to inquire too
forcefully of a chief executive so, well, unchieflike. Anyway, this White House was known to slam
the door on overly feisty reporters.
In a remarkable piece three months into Bush's term, John F. Harris
of the Washington Post wrote that Bush "has done things with relative impunity that would
have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living
writing about those uproars.... Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton
if Democrats had been rewarding donors with special closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries?
GOP donors received just such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar, the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton's
'donor maintenance' coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries."
Bush received an even broader pass after September 11. At least until
American bodies piled up in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib revelations cracked through, journalists clearly
feared that seeming to cast discredit on the commander in chief would smack of insufficient patriotism.
(The New York Times' chief Bush watcher, Elisabeth Bumiller, commented on a Bush press conference
on the eve of the Iraq war: "I think we were very deferential because... nobody wanted to get
into an argument with the president at this very serious time.") Obsequious stenography
would protect the Washington press corps from cries of "liberal media." There wasand
remainsconsiderable reluctance to invoke what a Times reporter I spoke to called
"reportorial authority," which, as he put it, would require that "when the president
says the sun rose in the west, we take it upon ourselves to say no."
And so, White House talking points crystallized in the news as established
fact. NBC's Today show was just one of many to describe the creation of the Department of Homeland
Security and the federalization of airport security screeners as moves by "the Bush administration"
that were part of its "campaign to keep America safe"even though Bush had opposed
both. TV news regularly described the war in Iraq as the centerpiece of the "war on terror."
The run-up to the war saw a chain-reacting scandal of gullibility. When
the administration brandished Saddam's purchase of aluminum tubes as proof that he was developing
nuclear weapons, journalists snapped to attention and buried the intelligence agencies'
doubts. When Bush claimed that Saddam had shopped for uranium in Africa, journalists duly recorded
his words even though the claim had already been dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency
and it was obvious that the documents in question were forged. When Colin Powell flaunted a slide
show at the United Nations with then CIA director George Tenet posing behind him as a prop,
that was good enough to establish the "nearly encyclopedic" (the New York Times'
front-page term) nature of the secretary of state's case.
After the invasion, some news organizations played impressive catch-up
on the WMD issue and others (the failure to predict looting, the range of Iraqi opinion regarding
the occupation). But on other fronts, news departmentsoften emblazoned with flags and
gung-ho logosstrived to prove nothing except that they were on the team. Rather than seeking
the Iraqi side of the battles, they played along with the Pentagon's "embedding"
game and sanitized the war. News chiefs neglected pictures of civilian casualties that ran everywhere
else in the world. They hyped the takedown of the Saddam statue. They bent the Jessica Lynch rescue
into a distorted escape movie, as Pfc. Lynch herself later dared to point out. One has to wonder whether
the Abu Ghraib revelations would have splashed their way onto the front pages had whistleblowers
not supplied digital photos. Journalists on their own were simply not digging hard enough.