Tearing down the press

The Bush administration has been at war with the media from Day One. Is its real goal to undermine the press itself -- and thereby eliminate inconvenient truths?

Topics: Fox News, Republican Party,

Tearing down the press

For the last four years the persistent story line about the White House’s relationship with the press has focused on the administration’s discipline, denial of access, and ability to stay on message. The Bush administration, according to this account, is expert at managing information, using secrecy, carrots and sticks, and carefully crafted talking points to control the news.

But in the wake of revelations about the aggressive and unprecedented tactics employed by the White House to manipulate the news, that relatively benign interpretation is being reexamined. Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts, and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing pseudo-journalist working under a phony name, have led some to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news, but is out to sabotage the press corps from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself.

The White House and its media allies, echoing a deep-rooted conservative antagonism toward the so-called liberal media, say they are simply countering its bias. But critics charge that the White House, along with partners like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, organizations whose allegiance to the Republican Party outweighs their commitment to journalism, is actually trying to permanently weaken the press. Its motivation, they say, is twofold. Weakening the press weakens an institution that’s structurally an adversary of the White House. And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts — the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.

“Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press,” says Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was granted unique access inside the White House in 2002 to report on the administration’s communication strategy. “For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it’s in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you’re able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks. Armstrong Williams and others are examples of that.”



Williams, the radio talk show host and conservative columnist who was paid by the administration to write allegedly independent, legitimate pieces supporting Bush policies, was among several pundits who accepted contracts from the administration while at the same time hyping White House initiatives. News in January of Williams’ contract was the first of many headlines this year to raise questions about the Bush administration’s attempt to undermine the independent press. “It’s basically gaming journalism,” says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “It shows withering contempt for journalism. What’s frightening is that it’s been done with total disregard, or lack of concern, about being exposed.”

According to David Brock, author of “The Right Wing Noise Machine” and CEO of Media Matters for America, a progressive, not-for-profit advocacy group, the White House’s ultimate aim is to raise doubts about the information independent journalists produce. “Their explicit goal is to get us to the point where there are blue [state] facts and red [state] facts,” Brock says. Eliminating agreed-upon facts has obvious political advantages for the White House. The most glaring example is Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD, the rationale for the war. No WMD were found in Iraq, a fact that was widely reported in all the mainstream media, but scarcely mentioned in Bush-friendly media organizations like Fox News. Polls consistently showed that remarkably high percentages of Americans, and extraordinarily high percentages of Bush supporters, believed that WMD were found in Iraq. Another example is the alleged connection between Saddam and al-Qaida; although the connection has been found to be nonexistent, many Americans — and particularly Fox viewers — have said they believe the two were connected. In similar fashion, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last December, coming on the heels of the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, found that 75 percent of Bush supporters thought the war in Iraq was going “very well.”

Of course, the public’s erroneous beliefs could be the result of simple ignorance or its increasing reliance on partisan media outlets, not a conscious plan by the White House. But the two are not mutually exclusive. And the Bush administration’s well-documented mastery of cold-blooded political hardball, its record of contempt for journalism, its cavalier willingness to cross ethical lines in dealing with the press, and its arrogant assertion that it alone creates and controls reality, make it difficult to dismiss outright the idea that its approach to the press is strategic, not just tactical.

The most egregious example of this almost metaphysical chutzpah appears in an October 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine, in which Suskind quotes a senior Bush advisor who dismissed reporters for living in the “the reality-based community.” The advisor said, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Separately, discussing the role of journalists, White House chief of staff Andy Card famously told the New Yorker in a Jan. 20, 2004, article, “They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.” At the time, Card’s blunt assessment was seen as a justification of the Bush administration’s policy of keeping the press at arm’s length. (Bush held the fewest first-term press conferences in modern presidential history.) It’s now clear that while most mainstream reporters were getting stiffed, members of the administration were simultaneously setting up propaganda projects by lavishing the Ketchum public relations firm with nearly $100 million in contracts to “communicate” White House initiatives — by hiring Williams, shipping out bogus video news releases, and other sleazy schemes — and waving into the White House an amateur journalist using an alias and working for a fake news outlet. (The bogus video news releases were subsequently slapped down as an illegal use of public funds by the General Accounting Office.)

Those revelations have led many observers to take a far darker view of the White House’s attitude to the press. “This is qualitatively beyond staying on message and controlling leaks,” says Larry Gross, director of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. “This is cynical manipulation and ‘What can we get away with?’”

The systematic effort to undercut journalists, to strip them of their traditional influence in national affairs, represents the Bush administration taking steps to “decertify” the professional press corps by “trying to unseat the idea that these people, professional journalists assigned to cover politics, have a legitimate role to play in our politics,” according to Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University. He views that effort, along with James Guckert’s (aka Jeff Gannon’s) ascension at White House press briefings, as being closely linked: “Creating ‘Jeff Gannon’ as a credible White House correspondent and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to decertify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort.”

One way to diminish the press is simply to refuse to deal with it at all. The Bush administration’s record of ignoring the media stands in stark contrast to previous administrations. “Of course people in the White House, no matter what administration, are always angry at the press,” says New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, who detailed the White House’s relationship with the press last year. “Nixon would actually call up owners of media companies and try to get reporters he didn’t like fired. But even Nixon and then Reagan and Bush and Clinton, they all felt the obligation to hold press conferences. The difference with the Bush people is they made the determination they didn’t have to talk to the press except in an election year. And that’s worrisome.”

The choice has been a conscious one, according to Suskind. “When I was at the White House in 2002, I had a variety of discussions with them about their newfangled message control machine, and their prized discipline. They made a clear decision: We will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let’s see if there’s any penalty for doing that,” he says. He notes that the position of Karen Hughes, Bush’s former chief communications advisor, was, “‘We’re not concerned; we don’t see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press.’ And there’s been none to date. ”

There’s certainly been no penalty imposed by the press corps itself. While the revelations about Guckert, a former male escort who spent his days cutting and pasting White House press releases and posting them as “news” stories, may have been embarrassing to the White House, officials were not castigated by the D.C. press, which generally turned away from the unpleasant story. ABC and CBS never even bothered to mention the three-week-running scandal. After three weeks of ignoring the story, both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal on Friday finally introduced readers to Gannongate, coming to the benign conclusion that there have always been eccentric reporters inside the White House briefing room, and that Gannon was simply part of that tradition. (Those who think the Times and the Journal were justified in ignoring Gannongate for so long because it didn’t qualify as news should note that for the week of Feb. 21, “Jeff Gannon” was among the “Top Ten Gaining Queries,” according to Google’s weekly tabulations.)

The Bush administration’s contempt for journalism, and its routine willingness to cross ethical lines, has shown itself in specific ways that predate the recent headlines about Williams, Guckert and company. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings recalled to the New Yorker that he “did a story on a senior figure in the Bush White House and was told in advance, ‘It better be good.’” Last year Pentagon managers repeatedly ordered the department’s widely read clipping service to omit articles critical of the military and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to the Washington Post. This year the Pentagon announced it was adding more Defense Department-run Web sites aimed at people in the Balkan region in Europe, as well as an audience in North Africa. Disguised as independent news outlets, the Web sites are written by freelancers hired by the DoD, but overseen by U.S. military troops trained in “information warfare.” During the election, Vice President Dick Cheney banned New York Times reporters from his campaign plane.

“Presidents like spin and secrets, journalists don’t, so this is a relationship fraught with potential discomfort,” Times executive editor Bill Keller told Salon last year. “But I admit we’re puzzled over what seems to be a more intense antipathy at this White House, especially since the campaign heated up.”

And when touring the country to promote the controversial PATRIOT Act, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to meet with print reporters; he only granted brief interviews to local television reporters, who generally ask less probing questions. Ashcroft’s spokeswoman justified the information clampdown by saying it was a matter of “explaining key facts directly to the American people and not having as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it.” This extraordinary statement not only made it clear that Ashcroft felt no obligation to answer pointed questions when he was discussing public policy, it essentially charged mainstream reporters — all of them — with bias.

Ron Suskind argues that the Bush administration has rejected the fundamental idea of debate and intellectual exchange. “Other administrations ceded to fact, and saw the benefit — the value — to meaningful public dialogue based on fact,” he says. “They understood that was one of their obligations, to engage with people who were there to ask pointed and pertinent questions and demand answers to them. They understood that’s how it worked and that that was the precedent. This administration has said, ‘What does that have to do with me?’”

The administration’s been blessed with good timing. With journalism scandals at the New York Times and CBS creating headlines, conservatives relentlessly charging that newsrooms have a liberal bias, and a wartime culture that historically makes reporters more docile, the administration has encountered little pushback.

Still, some media organizations — albeit outside the Beltway — have acknowledged the disturbing trend. The Chattanooga Times Free Press undressed the White House in a recent editorial, condemning it for its “unconscionable, contemptible, and frankly anti-democratic” attempt “to distort media coverage with paid agents, lies and outright propaganda.” Meanwhile, the consistently conservative Houston Chronicle chastised the White House for “setting up ringers to toss fawning questions to the president,” saying that was “another indication, if any were needed, that the administration prefers the media to be propagandists rather than independent inquisitors.” But as with so much that happens with the Bush administration, a dogged timidity continues to plague the press, even when the issue is the way it is being deliberately undermined by administration officials and their eager allies inside the press corps.

“If you look at the career of [Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes, his disdain for journalism is apparent,” says Brock. “He’s actively trying to undermine it at Fox.” The work of Fox and Sinclair and others is crucial because they help muddy the facts by deliberately spinning, or ignoring, stories to suit the White House’s needs — thus helping to create those red state and blue state facts.

One small example, the type that occurs almost hourly on Fox, came during the recent controversy over comments by CNN’s news president Eason Jordan about U.S. troops targeting journalists in Iraq. (The comments eventually led to his resignation.) On Feb. 14, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade interviewed Reese Schonfeld, one of CNN’s founders, who years ago left the company.

Schonfeld: “But remember that a U.S. tank [in April 2003] rolled up in front of the Hotel Palestine, which is where all the journalists were, turned the turret around, pointed its gun, and fired up at the building.”

Kilmeade: “That’s what CNN reported.”

Schonfeld: “No, that’s what is reported. The guy from Reuters was killed, and a Spanish journalist was killed. Nobody knows why. The U.S. Army has never completed its investigation into that incident.”

Schonfeld was correct on the facts regarding the Hotel Palestine incident, which are not in dispute. But the Fox host wanted to suggest the facts were in dispute, or subject to CNN’s bias, therefore making them easier to set aside. “They have an ability to confuse an issue and neutralize the facts that aren’t in their favor,” says Brock. “When a reader looks at a story and does not know what to make of it, then Fox has done its job.”

The consequences are enormous, says Auletta. “In a democracy, you need a common set of facts.”

Suskind notes, “If you believe there is no inherent value to public dialogue based on fact, then that frees you up to try all sorts of things other people in power wouldn’t have ever thought of. And we’re seeing the evidence of that now.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>