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Call It By Name: Press Corruption

That's what the national press corps has become: vain camera hounds selling their professional integrity for the next on-camera shot, the next exclusive, the next moment of attention from Scottie.
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Call it by name. The national press has been corrupted, by a combination of inducements and threats. Like many cases of corruption, it happened in such small increments that most of them don't realize themselves that they've been corrupted. But then, that's how it usually works in the real world. All this is well known, but it hasn't been named yet. This phrase should enter the public dialog: "press corruption."

The Merriam-Webster definition of corruption is as good as any:

1 a : impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle : DEPRAVITY b : DECAY, DECOMPOSITION c : inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery) d : a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.

The core moral principles of journalism are fearless dedication to the truth and a willingness to challenge the powerful in pursuit of that truth. Who can disagree that those principles, and the "integrity" and "virtue" that support them, are seriously "impaired" in today's media? Or that the talking heads on cable TV or the editors at the Washington Post aren't a "departure from the original" model of journalism represented by John Peter Zenger or Emile Zola?

Corruption doesn't always come in the form of million-dollar checks or lavish parties, Ambramoff/DeLay style. It can come in a thousand small inducements - "we'll make your life easier, friend" - and a thousand small threats. We can do this the easy way, or ...

That's exactly how it came to the Washington Press Corps. The media don't skew facts toward the Bush Administration because they're ideologically right-wing. They do it because they know that the cabal in power is ruthless and cruel when you make it angry, but indulgent (if patronizing) when you appease it. Play ball and the President will give you a nickname. Refuse, and Scotty will never call on you again.

The fact that dollars haven't changed hands doesn't mean the press isn't corrupt. It just means it can be bought cheap - for a good seat at the press conference, for the occasional exclusive, for not being frozen out like Helen Thomas.

There is no more clear-cut example of the press's corruption than than the spectacle of the scripted presidential press conference, where reporters repeat lines scripted by Rove for no greater reward than seeing their own faces on live television. That's what the national press corps has become: vain camera hounds selling their professional integrity for the next on-camera shot, the next exclusive, the next moment of attention from Scottie.

We get so damned angry every time the corruption shows its face again, as it did recently with the Washington Post, when Deborah Howell repeated lies about Democrats and Abramoff and editor Jim Brady pretended the real issue was surly commenters on the paper's blog. (And the sample of deleted comments in Jane's latest post are a powerful indictment of the Post's behavior.)

Occasional appearances of something resembling "spine" don't mean the press isn't still corrupt. It just means that when the President's popularity falls they sense weakness. Opportunism isn't courage, and refusing a mob boss because he's not in charge anymore isn't integrity.

I use the word "corruption" more out of sorrow than anger. My anger at each separate incident has given way to a recognition of the underlying problem. As one who's always valued the role of journalism in our society, these are sad days.

No point belaboring the obvious more than this - except to say that next time this corruption shows its face don't get mad, get organized. Those of us who respect the power of words - as the press once did - know that if you want something identified and changed, you must first give it a name.

Recognize each case like the WaPo incident as the symptom of an underlying disease - corruption - and call it by name. Do it again and again until the public begins to recognize that America has a corrupt press corps.

Then, and only then, will public perceptions begin to change.

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