Journalists and their good friends in the White House

The wall between the government and the establishment media barely even exists in theory any longer.

Published August 20, 2008 12:01PM (EDT)

(updated below)

The Washington Post's White House reporter, Michael Abramowitz, was asked yesterday during a chat to name some of his "favorite people who work at the White House but who are not in the spotlight," and Abramowitz happily and easily offered a long list:

I like your question. One of the things you find in covering the White House is that many of the staff are extremely friendly and dedicated, and it's fun to get to know some of them. The truth is reporters tend to hang out with the people in the [White House] press office, so the names I might give you tend to be lower-level press aides, like Carlton Carroll, Stuart Siciliano and Pete Seat -- and spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. They are extremely helpful to me (and I don't mean this list to be all-inclusive.)

I also enjoy talking with deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan and deputy national security adviser Jim Jeffrey -- I wouldn't be surprised if Joel is one day a cabinet officer or a CEO somewhere. He has an interesting life story -- he joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard, then became a lawyer and is basically the top aide to Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

Of course, Joel and others I mention are extremely discreet, so it's not like anyone is really dishing on the president! You need to look elsewhere for that.

That sounds like a really fun and playful circle of friends -- just a great, great group of people -- and Abramowitz seems to derive much satisfaction from being able to be a part of it. Only a curmudgeon -- or some shrill, angry Leftist type that just doesn't understand How Journalism Works -- would begrudge Abramowitz his fun.

But, in theory at least, White House press officials are the principal impediments to a White House reporter's being able to do his job. The core function of the White House press officials with whom Abramowitz loves to "hang out" and of whom he is obviously so fond is to manipulate his reporting in favor of the White House, to conceal or distort facts that are incriminating of the President, to disseminate narratives that promote the Government's goals. That's true in general, and particularly so for the most secretive and manipulative White House in modern American history. For that reason, healthy "watchdog" journalism would dictate that such officials are viewed with suspicion, that the relationship would be far more adversarial than affectionate, that reporters would speak of such officials dispassionately rather than gushing with the kind of personal praise one generally reserves for one's dearest friends and closest colleagues.

That's not to say that reporters need to despise every government official with whom they interact. There's nothing wrong per se with civil interaction, even with those over whom one is supposed to be exerting adversarial scrutiny. Good relationships with government sources can assist a reporter in obtaining otherwise unavailable information that the Government wants to conceal. But Abramowitz, after hailing these White House press officials as good friends, then goes out of his way to emphasize, admiringly, how "extremely discreet" they are, how they don't actually give him any information about the President that they're not authorized or directed to give him. They're simply propaganda agents -- loyal and faithful ones -- and Abramowitz loves them for that and loves to "hang out" with them.

The reason why this mentality matters is reflected in a question that was asked thereafter of Abramowitz, presumably by a reader here who, in essence, copied verbatim a paragraph I wrote on Monday about The Washington Post's mindless, ongoing, government-subservient reporting in the anthrax case:

New York: When reading The Post's coverage of the Bruce Ivins anthrax investigation, it occurs to me that The Post's role has been and continues to be what the establishment media's role generally is -- to serve government sources and amplify their claims, not to investigate their veracity. That's how it was when Saddam Hussein who was the original anthrax culprit, followed by Steven Hatfill, and now Bruce Ivins. It's how Jessica Lynch heroically fought off Iraqi goons in a firefight, how Pat Tillman stood down al-Qaeda monsters until they murdered him, how Iraq possessed mountains of WMD, and now, how Russia has assaulted the consensus values of the Western World by invading a sovereign country and occupying parts of it for a whole week, etc., etc.

All of those narratives came from the government directly into the pages of The Washington Post, which then uncritically conveyed them, often (as in the case of the Jessica Lynch lies and WMD claims) playing a leading role in doing so. Thoughts?

Michael Abramowitz: I don't agree with your basic premise. The media clearly fell down in some of the areas you mention, but sometimes it takes time to get a complete, accurate picture of what happened in murky situations. To take just two of the cases you mention -- Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman: The media continued digging into these cases until the truth came out. It's not always possible to do that in the first day or two of a big story.

Of course Abramowitz doesn't "agree with the basic premise." Establishment journalists think that their profession works just great. There's no profession less capable of self-reflection than the establishment media. Even after the last seven years, they actually still perceive themselves as tenacious diggers for the Truth -- Newsweek's Richard Wolffe: "the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general" -- and false, government-subservient reporting is, to them, merely the rare aberration, confined to the small handful of Judy Millers among them. That (as Abramowitz's answer illustrates) is how large numbers of them actually think.

But just look at the list of profound journalistic failings which Abramowitz breezily dismisses as both insignificant and understandable. It's certainly true that reporters can't be expected to report on complex stories with complete accuracy on the first day. The cliché that reporters publish "first drafts of history" is true enough, and some inaccuracies are to be expected.

But these are all episodes where the establishment media didn't merely report some inaccuracies. They are instances where they aggressively and vocally spread pure, fundamental falsehoods. And not just falsehoods -- but extremely damaging falsehoods that were concocted by the Government and then passed along to the "watchdog press," which then published the Government falsehoods in full, and did so uncritically, without any meaningful investigation, examination, or skepticism -- not just for days, but for weeks, months and, in many instances, for years.

And one major reason (among several) why they did so -- why they still do so -- is because of the very mentality of which Abramowitz is so proud: they see the government officials whom they cover as their friends, colleagues, the people on whom they depend for their access, whose company they cherish and whose character they admire. Is it really any surprise that journalists who -- as Abramowitz puts it -- "tend to hang out" with their friends in the White House press office uncritically pass on what they're told as though it's Truth?

Recall the drippy, sycophantic paean which Politico's Mike Allen wrote to Bush Communications Director Dan Bartlett's Greatness once Bartlett announced he was leaving the White House (headline: "Bush's 'truth-teller' leaving president's side"). Bush's truth-teller recently parlayed his friendships with the press into a position as "political analyst" with CBS News. The wall between the Government and the establishment media barely even exists in theory any longer. Bartlett's move from Communications Director in Bush's White House to "political analyst" for CBS News is more of a lateral, in-house transfer than it is anything else.

It's actually difficult to find a news story of any significance that isn't shaped at its core by the incestuous, deeply affectionate relationship between the Government and the establishment media. Here's what Mikhail Gorbachev, ironically enough, complained about first and foremost in his New York Times Op-Ed this morning on how the Russia/Georgia conflict is being discussed in the U.S.:

The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.

The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader's deceptive statements.

A septuagenarian Russian recognizes joint government-media propaganda campaigns when he sees it, and the media's dissemination and amplification of Government narratives that they are fed by their good friends in Government ("I also enjoy talking with deputy chief of staff Joel Kaplan and deputy national security adviser Jim Jeffrey") is the core, defining (though not exclusive) function of the establishment media.

* * * * *

There are many revealing episodes during the Bush presidency illustrating how the media functions, but there is none more revealing than the disclosures from the Lewis Libby criminal trial. Documents prepared by former Cheney Communications Director Catherine Martin (wife of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin) boasted that Tim Russert's Meet the Press was the best venue for Cheney to answer questions because he was able to "control message." Martin also testified at trial that she "suggested we put the vice president on 'Meet the Press,' which was a tactic we often used. It's our best format" (Dana Milbank: "Memo to Tim Russert: Dick Cheney thinks he controls you"). Russert himself subsequently testified that "when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record" (Dan Froomkin: "That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable").

Just think about what that meant: the single greatest source of government disinformation and corruption in America -- Dick Cheney's office -- viewed Tim Russert as the most pliable and effective instrument for disseminating their propaganda to the country. That's not media critics or rabble-bloggers saying that. That was the view of Russert which Dick Cheney's office had -- and understandably so.

And yet -- or, more accurately, "therefore" -- it's the very same pliant instrument of government disinformation -- Tim Russert -- who was viewed more or less unanimously by the media class as being the embodiment of everything that a Good Journalist should be. The very same person who -- by Dick Cheney's own assessment -- served most eagerly as a propaganda tool for the political class was simultaneously viewed by his colleagues as the Consummate Journalist. If you wanted to prove how subservient our establishment media is to the Government, would it be possible to invent better evidence than that? As Lewis Lapham recently put it in his Harper's piece entitled "Elegy for a Rubber Stamp" (sub. rq'd):

[Russert's] on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity.

That is who was canonized -- by the media and, revealingly, by the Right -- as the Model of Great Journalism. That's because the core function of the establishment press is to obtain and then disseminate government claims. Those journalists (such as Russert) who can do that best and most effectively -- typically due to their close and amicable relationships with Government officials ("it's fun to get to know some of them. The truth is reporters tend to hang out with the people in the [White House] press office") -- become the most celebrated media stars. As David Halberstam said in 2006: "By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are." One could add to that observation that the more gushing affection and admiration you harbor for your "extremely discreet" Government-official/friends, the less of a journalist you are.

UPDATE: As often happens when this subject is raised, numerous commenters argue that the media's relationship to Government is different when there are Republican and Democratic administrations, citing the extreme animus and relentless investigations the media directed towards the Clinton administration as contrasted with its passivity and complicity with the Bush administration (my reply to that argument -- which I think is partially true, though only partially -- is here and here). Cernig has a very good post exploring the same issue -- i.e., whether the media's stenographic subservience to Government now inheres in what they do, or whether it depends upon a GOP administration being in power, here (though I think his analysis goes too far towards the other extreme in excluding partisan considerations from an analysis of media behavior; it's definitely a factor -- just not the sole or even primary factor).

By Glenn Greenwald

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