David Greenberg weaves an interesting essay about the Washington press corps and the Nixon and Clinton presidential scandals in his review of two new books about Nixon and Watergate. Greenberg, himself a Nixon biographer, finds that Woodward and Bernstein were glorified a little too highly for what they actually did [although their contribution was not unimportant], and thinks that the outcome of the two scandals had little to do with press attitudes towards the presidents involved:
While the acknowledgment of the power of the press is welcome, if not overdue, what's most surprising about its behavior in both the Clinton scandals and Watergate is its modest influence on the ultimate outcome. In both cases, a few journalists did heroic--even historic--work. Others performed their job creditably. Many more were suggestible and sheep-like. The difference between 1974 and 1998 was not the changes in the press corps, but the fact that Nixon had committed serious abuses of power. Nixon--not the press--brought himself down.
Greenberg's analysis is especially germaine in light of an article by Rachel Smolkin in the new issue of American Journalism Review, which reveals all in the headline:
Are the News Media Soft on Bush?
No one reading that will reflexively think, "No... no, I don't think so." It is a question that almost sets up a strawman all on its own, with no embellishment, and Smolkin lives up to the billing:
That pre-war press conference crystallized critics' frustration with coverage of Bush. While complaints about reporters' treatment of a president are as widespread as political polls, these protests cannot be dismissed merely as the howls of liberals stranded in the wilderness.
Reporters have handled Bush gingerly, particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks prompted a surge of patriotism. The administration skillfully capitalized on that sentiment, just as it excelled at controlling information, staying on message and limiting access to Bush from the nascent days of his presidency.
Bush and his allies also have benefited in press coverage from having a weak opposition party. Democrats foundered after 9/11; then the discordant voices of 10 presidential candidates diluted attempts at a unified message.