Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind tells Salon that he saw and heard firsthand how the Bush administration laid out plans to silence the media. He was given a lot of access to the White House when President Bush first took office in 2001. The press handling strategy he saw emerging then was to weaken the credibility of the media. That would make it easier to get out an unquestioned partisan messages. He calls the Payola Pundit scandal and others signs of that.
The Salon article argues that the White House has a two-fold purpose in diluting news coverage:
“Weakening the press weakens an institution that’s structurally an adversary of the White House. And it eliminates agreed-upon facts, the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.”
On the first point, the purpose of a strong press is to question government and other public institutions to keep them honest.
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute once pointed out to me that no country with a free and agressive press has ever seen a famine. He said the reason was that the media keeps the bean-counters honest — so there are enough beans to go around. If the media’s own honesty is called into question, those governmental institutions can get away with a whole lot more.
And by muddying the water on facts, political philosophy can be converted to “sound science,” partisan attacks can be framed as “truth,” or “patriotism.” There are no indisputable facts — such as “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Everything is reduced to opinion.
The problem with shooting the messenger is that politicians may shoot themselves in the foot. Damaging an institution like the press — so important it was the only business protected in the Bill of Rights — for short term political gain can hurt your causes later on. Once damaged, the institution with weakened credibility in questioning the Bush administration would be just as weak if there is a Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Kerry administration in 2009. And in less of a position to question dismantling the current administration’s gains.
The GOP might want to hope for good press in the next election — instead of none at all.
[Crossposted at Watching Washington]