Scott McClellan on the "liberal media"

If Bush's own press secretary mocks the American media as excessively "deferential" disseminators of right-wing government propaganda, isn't it time to retire forever the myth of the "liberal media"?

Published May 28, 2008 11:12AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

In a minimally rational world, this extraordinary passage, from the new book by Scott McClellan, would forever slay the single most ludicrous myth in our political culture: The "Liberal Media":

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq.

The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. . . . In this case, the "liberal media" didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.

Just consider how remarkable that is. George Bush's own Press Secretary criticizes the American media for being "too deferential" to the Government. He lays the blame for Bush's ability to propagandize the nation on the media's uncritical dissemination of the Republican administration's falsehoods. And most notably of all, McClellan actually uses cynical scare quotes when invoking the phrase which, in conventional political discourse, is deemed the most unassailable truth of all: The Liberal Media.

How much longer can this preposterous myth be sustained when even the White House Spokesman not only mocks the phrase but derides the media for being "too deferential" to the right-wing Government "in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during [his] years in Washington"? If one were to set about with the goal of debunking the "Liberal Media" myth -- as Eric Alterman specifically did four years ago and other media critics have more generally done before that -- one couldn't dream up evidence more conclusive than McClellan's admissions.

Blindingly conclusive evidence which would -- for any rational person -- forever negate the "Liberal Media" myth has been piling up for years. The extraordinary (though woefully incomplete) 2004 mea culpa from The New York Times acknowledged that not just Judy Miller, but the paper as a whole, re-printed pro-war government claims that were "allowed to stand unchallenged." The Washington Post's own media critic, Howard Kurtz, documented that anti-war views were systematically buried at that paper. The NYT recently exposed that network and cable news shows for years continuously allowed Pentagon-controlled operatives to masquerade as "independent analysts" spouting the pro-government line with virtually no challenge. And the media's pathological fixation on the Clinton sex scandals -- which led to his impeachment -- stood in stark contrast to the widespread indifference among the citizenry.

Beyond all that, are there any reporters left who deny that the campaign-covering media in 2000 was gushingly enamored of George Bush and oozing with contempt for Al Gore? Identically, their intense affection for John McCain is something they openly proclaim; as they shamelessly acknowledge, they're his "base." And while some journalists undoubtedly harbor admiration for Barack Obama, the non-stop coverage of one anti-Obama narrative after the next -- Jeremiah Wright, lapel pins, patriotism "questions," "Bittergate," "problems" with Jewish and white voters -- simply has no parallel in any coverage of McCain.

Beyond that objective evidence, just look at the claims which "Liberal Media" complainers make to support their grievance. As examples of "liberal" journalists, they'll cite people like Chris Matthews -- who voted for George Bush, and did more than anyone to prop up his image as our Great War Leader and demonize Bush critics. One of the leading examples of a biased "liberal" journalist is therefore someone who actually went on television in late 2005 and said this:

I like [Bush]. Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left -- I mean -- like him personally.

Or they'll point to "liberal" Tim Russert -- Tim Russert -- about whom Cheney press aide Cathy Martin said: "I suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used. It's our best format, as it allows us to control the message." That's the same "liberal" Tim Russert who confessed that he operates by the defining law of the Government propagandist: "When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy -- our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission." Those are the examples proving that we have a "liberal media."

Or look at the recent "controversy" reported by the Associated Press over whether NBC News' reputation as an objective news outlet is being tainted by virtue of the "liberal" commentators MSNBC features. Nobody questioned whether CNN's objectivity was imperiled by featuring the likes of Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, nor, for that matter, did anyone raise these questions about NBC when, for years, MSNBC shows were hosted by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough and Michael Savage.

But a single unapologetic Bush critic appears on the TV -- Keith Olbermann -- and this rarest of occurrence suddenly leads to controversy over whether the "respectability" of television news can survive while allowing a single "liberal" voice to be heard. The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner just wrote that he's been watching MSNBC "for the novelty of seeing outspoken liberals on television." What rational person can sustain the "Liberal Media" myth when seeing real liberals on the TV is a "novelty"?

The primary reason why this preposterous myth persists is because the media generally refuses to engage in any self-examination. The media blackout on the "military analyst" scandal continues; they still refuse to tell their viewers about what they did. To the extent they admit that there was any media problem at all concerning war coverage under the Bush administration, they'll dismiss it all as a "Judy Miller problem" -- the malfeasance of a single bad reporter whose flaws were singular and isolated.

And just watch how McClellan's mockery of the "deferential" press -- piercing and humiliating as it is -- will be ignored by media coverage of his book, consigned to the same dustbin where the "military analyst" story is kept. Already today, The New York Times and The Washington Post both trumpet the fact that McClellan made statements harshly critical of Bush. But they completely ignore McClellan's far more significant indictment of their "deferential," Bush-enabling conduct. Isn't it rather self-evidently newsworthy that Bush's own press secretary blamed the American media for allowing Bush to get away with all sorts of falsehoods because of how "deferential" they are?

Press secretaries of all types instinctively view the media as adversaries and typically feel besieged by what they perceive to be the media's unfair hostility. So if even Scott McClellan recognizes the mythical nature of the "liberal media" cliche and sees political journalists as meek little handmaidens for government propaganda, how much longer can this myth be maintained?

UPDATE: In her NYT article on McClellan's book, Elizabeth Bumiller does note, in passing, in the second to last paragraph, that McClellan "calls the news media 'complicit enablers' in the White House's 'carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval' in the march to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003." Bumiller, who covered the White House, should know, as this is what she said about the Liberal Media's behavior in the run-up to the war:

I think we were very deferential because . . . . it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.

There are many things one could call a news media that is "very deferential" and too "frightened" to "get into an argument with [the right-wing] President" marching the country to war. "Liberal" isn't one of them.

UPDATE II: More on our stalwart, intrepid Liberal Media here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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