How will the David Gregory theory of journalism apply to the Obama administration?

The NBC star again proudly touts the role the media played during the Bush era and in the run-up to the war, and promises more of the same for the Obama presidency. But what does that mean?

Published January 20, 2009 1:56PM (EST)

(updated below w/comments on the Inauguration)

David Gregory appeared earlier this week on The Colbert Report (video here), proudly touted what a tough and superb job the press did in "holding Bush's feet to the fire," and scorned anyone who disagrees as nothing but a blinded leftist ideologue.  In doing so, Gregory repeated his defense of the Bush-era press corps which he voiced shortly before being rewarded with the Meet the Press job:

COLBERT:  The press got a lot of razzing, from guys like Jon Stewart, for not holding the administration's feet to the fire.  Are you proud of the questions the press asked of the administration?  Because I'm proud of the questions you didn't ask.

GREGORY: (nervous, awkward, fake chuckling):  I actually do think that the right questions were asked, and I think -- this criticism is certainly out there of the press corps, and I tried to be thoughtful about it, reflective about it, but I do think the right questions were asked, and I think people view our job through their own ideological prism, and they've made some judgments along those lines.

In other words, only a leftist ideologue thinks that the press should actually report when government statements are false and baseless.  What a warped, leftist view of the media that is.  Good, solid, reasonable, post-partisan moderates and objective journalists know that the real role of a journalist is simply to report accurately what government officials say and leave it at that.  Colbert himself pointed that out in his 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner address, easily one of the best and most insightful American political speeches of the last decade:

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type.  Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

To David Gregory, that's not satire.  That's what he actually believes the role of the press is, which is certainly a significant reason why NBC gave him his new job (as Gregory himself put it during his dismissal of leftist ideologue Scott McClellan's complaints that the press was overly deferential to Bush:  "I think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role.").  That's why, when Colbert mocked the press's behavior towards Bush and the Iraq War, Gregory nervously chucked again and said:  "I think that's a misreading of the kind of questions that were asked" (indeed, Bush was undoubtedly cowering at the super-tough-and-adversarial questions Gregory asked of him at the White House Press Conference immediately preceding the invasion). 

Here is but one of the shining monuments to the press corps' tough, probing job of which David Gregory is so proud -- from a Washington Post/Gallup poll in September, 2003, 6 months after the U.S. invaded Iraq:

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe it is likely that ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, says a poll out almost two years after the terrorists' strike against this country.

Sixty-nine percent in a Washington Post poll published Saturday said they believe it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by al-Qaeda. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents believe it's likely Saddam was involved.

Any journalist with the most minimal amount of professional pride or integrity would be deeply ashamed of that, not self-satisfied and even boastful like David Gregory is.  

During World War II, George Orwell was unable to find a publishing house willing to publish Animal Farm, and several of them acknowledged that it was because they were uncomfortable with the provocative content (i.e., what they perceived as being criticism of Stalin at a time when the West considered the Russians a crucial ally).  In a proposed Preface to the book which he wrote years later, Orwell discussed those events and wrote (h/t Hume's Ghost):

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.

So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. . . . At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady.

Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

David Gregory explicitly and proudly defends the role of the press in the Bush era generally, and the role the press played in the run-up to the Iraq War specifically, and then gets elevated to one of the most visible and prominent positions at NBC News.  That's obviously not a coincidence.  Rather obviously, that's the kind of "journalist" which NBC wants -- the kind that respectfully refrains from scrutinizing and pointing out official state lies because to do so is "not their role," thereby ensuring that NBC and its various corporate appendages maintain good relations with high government officials, a vital goal for them for countless reasons.

During his Colbert interview, Gregory vowed several times that the press would be very aggressive with the Obama administration and will "hold its feet to the fire," prompting Colbert to remark:  "Shouldn't the supposed crimes of the Bush administration be paid for by Barack Obama?"

In fact, it remains to be seen what the media behavior will be towards Obama -- whether they will be guided by their hostility towards Democrats in power (as reflected by their bottomless obsession with the Lewinsky scandal, demands that Al Gore concede, campaign contempt for Gore and John Kerry, etc.), or whether their power-worshipping need to please those who successfully wield power -- what Jay Rosen describes as their reverence for "savviness" -- will lead them to treat Obama in much the same deferential, reverential way they treated Bush. 

Much of that likely depends on what Obama actually does.  The more he is perceived as perpetuating the Washington establishment and embracing its twisted norms, the more likely they are to treat him as one of their own -- the Leader of their realm -- and to lavish him with extreme, Bush-like deference.  Much of the positive press treatment thus far towards Obama -- and can anyone really deny that it has been oozingly favorable, especially (though not only) post-election? -- is grounded in the perception (rightly or wrongly) that Obama intends to celebrate and perpetuate the ways of the Beltway elite, rather than radically or even meaningfully "change" them. 

Conversely, the more he is perceived as undermining or threatening the Washington status quo (as Clinton, upon his arrival, was perceived as doing), the more hostile they will be to him.  "Journalists" like David Gregory are nothing if they are not desperate defenders -- loyal servants -- of the Washington establishment, and they venerate those who protect and defend it.

Whatever else is true, there isn't much need to debate the role which establishment journalists like David Gregory play in our political culture.  He's describing exactly what role they play and want to play -- their model, their template, is found in the role they played in the Bush era, during the run-up to the war.  David Gregory effusively praised the job the press did and then got promoted.  That tells you most of what you need to know about their intended function.

* * * * *

For some unknown reason -- perhaps it's all the change energy in the air -- I acted like a real blogger today and earlier wrote several posts on several different topics:  

*this one on the statements of Israel's government and Bill Kristol regarding the outgoing Bush presidency; 

*this one on the MSNBC discussion last night between Rachel Maddow and Jonathan Turley on what the effects would be of Obama's decision not to investigate and prosecute Bush crimes; and,

*this one on the latest, excellent Obama appointments to DOJ and the OLC.


UPDATE:  A small disptue erupted in the comment section between, on the one hand, those who find today's event moving and inspiring and, on the other, those who find it to be an empty and manipulative ritual that won't mean anything unless accompanied by actions.  My thoughts on that are here.

And in the update to the post below, I discuss the passage of the Inaugural Address which clearly seemed to provoke the most enthusiastic cheering.

By Glenn Greenwald

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