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Media, myth and presidential power

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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.

And as voices from the right saturate radio and cable talk shows, the media have become increasingly sensitive to the venerable conservative shibboleth of liberal bias, a development that also favors the first Republican president in eight years.

These factors softened the adversarial coverage that defined Bill Clinton’s presidency–at least until July, when 16 words from Bush’s January State of the Union address sparked the first sustained negative coverage of the president since the terrorist attacks.

Smolkin uses loaded phrases that clearly indicate the direction of her views: “these protests cannot be dismissed merely as the howls of liberals stranded in the wilderness”; “Reporters have handled Bush gingerly”; “The administration skillfully capitalized… excelled at controlling”; “voices from the right saturate radio”; “the venerable conservative shibboleth of liberal bias”. She especially has it in for Fox News:

Frank Sesno, former CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief, says the rising influence of Fox News Channel and concerns about allegations of liberal bias also have shaped coverage. “American journalism has been Foxified essentially, especially television,” Sesno says. “The combination of the Fox influence, and the overhang from 9/11, and the overall presumption in America that the media have leaned terrifically left, have made it harder for tough questions to be asked.”

The presumption came from somewhere, and it predates Fox News – I would say that the presumption birthed both Fox News and the talk radio “saturation” of conservative voices, and are responsible for its success. And the answer from the mainstream media is not a clear-eyed assessment of itself, but a reflexive attack to protect the status quo. The skepticism of the media is not aided by things like the current flap over columnist Robert Novak releasing the name of a CIA operative, and whether he got the information from someone in the Bush administration – the media has swarmed like maggots on roadkill to a story that could damage the Bush administration, screaming for an official investigation, yet at the same time vehemently supporting Novak in not releasing any of his notes or personal knowledge. (About which noted First Amendment scholar and law professor Eugene Volokh – no flaming conservative himself – opines that legally Novak should have to testify.)

It’s easy to draw comparisons between coverage of this latest scandal wannabe and Greenberg’s assessment of the media. He notes that while the media did do a yoeman’s job in many ways during the Watergate scandal, they did not always or even usually cover themselves in glory:

Nonetheless, to credit “the press” for investigative tenacity in Watergate is too generous. In the first stage of the scandal, a mere handful of reporters joined Woodward and Bernstein in their pursuits. In the later stages, starting in April 1973, a multitude of others jumped on the bandwagon. Although this swarming coverage did help rivet public attention on the scandal, we often forget that it also had its unseemly side. In this respect, it foreshadowed the press’ sometimes inglorious behavior during real and imagined scandals of later years…

“The documentation makes untenable the charge that liberal politicians and a liberal media drove Nixon from the White House,” Olson asserts. Yet it’s also true that in the hothouse environment, critically minded reporting often gave way to a simple hunt for lies and misdeeds. Zeal encouraged errors. In May 1973, Walter Cronkite opened the CBS Evening News erroneously charging a Bethesda bank run by Pat Buchanan’s brother with Watergate money-laundering. The AP incorrectly reported that John Ehrlichman was present at a key cover-up meeting. ABC’s Sam Donaldson had to apologize for implicating former White House aide Harry Dent in Nixon’s campaign sabotage efforts. Other news outlets overplayed trivial items, as The New York Times did by placing on the front page a three-column story–ultimately inconsequential–about the possibility that Nixon’s campaign had received gambling money from the Bahamas…

Even during its heyday, then, the press corps showed itself capable of–if not structurally hard-wired for–the kind of collective prosecutorial mentality that frequently substitutes for tough-minded investigation.

Contrast that with this critique from Smolkin, about a study that she notes is from the “nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government”:

The study also found that although Bush was covered more favorably after 9/11, overall coverage of his administration became more critical. But the report, which purports to be objective because it crunches numbers, does not distinguish between appropriate skepticism–the role of an engaged press corps–and unjust negativity.

This rather sneering tone – “purports” – is intended to cast into doubt the study’s conclusion that Bush’s coverage is no more or less negative than that of either Reagan or Clinton. Clearly Smolkin has decided that someone was the object of appropriate skepticism (Bush?) while someone else (Clinton?) was slammed with unjust negativity. Of course, “crunching numbers” is precisely what a study is all about, and is one aspect of that “objectivity”. Defining what is “appropriate” and what is “unjust” is not a task for a number cruncher, unless those terms can be clearly defined in both identifiable and mutually exclusive ways, thus rendering them both countable and crunchable. She could have made her point that the “negative” coverage was not categorized using value judgments without impugning the objectivity of the study as a whole.

It’s a good example of how Greenberg and Smolkin differ in their analyses – not in their conclusions, necessarily, but in their approach to their topic. Smolkin goes in with a point to prove, which is that the media is too soft on Bush, using primarily liberal or (supposedly neutral) media sources, along with a token conservative (Tucker Carlson). I don’t discount Smolkin’s premise out of hand – there may be some truth to what she says – but her piece is uneven, swinging from dispassionate recounting to open hostility, like bursts of journalistic Tourette’s. Greenberg is more evenhanded, building a case and drawing conclusions from his presented evidence. That isn’t to say that others wouldn’t disagree with his conclusions, but they would be hard-pressed to find personal malice in his discussion.

I recommend you read both pieces, for contrast as well as content. I think it would be well worth your time.

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About Susanna Cornett

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting, thanks S!