The Media's Own Innocent Bystander Fable

As anyone who has read my columns, blog posts or book knows, I have a mild obsession with the Innocent Bystander Fable - the one whereby political actors pretend they have no power or even minor role in the arenas they are elected or hired to participate in. This fable has been most prevalent in the Democratic Party's posture toward the Iraq War and the bailout - they claim, rather idiotically, they have no power to stop the war or fix the bailout. But now, as I am three-quarters of the way through Newsweek's 7-part story on the gossip, innuendo and palace dramas behind the presidential campaign, I see that this Innocent Bystander Fable may be just as powerful inside the media itself.

If you read the piece, you might have noticed that the Newsweek reporting team is constantly referring to "reporters" and "the press" and "the media" - as if Newsweek reporters aren't a part (and a leading part) of those things - as if they are innocent bystanders. More broadly, the way they portray it, candidates and political operatives are larger than life heroes or villains who make Big Decisions and Face Consequences, while the media is a herd of lobotomized automatons that are so mindless and innocent and pure, that they cannot be held culpable for anything at all. Indeed, according to Newsweek, the entire political media is an innocent bystander to politics. And Newsweek creates this portrayal as if somehow the reporters writing their story have nothing to do with "the press" they are writing about.

The best example of what I'm talking about is this excerpt:

On the campaign trail, McCain was asked about Davis's "race card" remarks. McCain looked uneasy and tepidly endorsed his campaign manager's remarks, but said that the campaign needed to return to debating the issues. After a brief kerfuffle, the press let the matter drop. Reporters are as uncomfortable as the politicians they cover about discussing race.

So here you have one of the largest magazines in the country insulting readers by devoting only a single sentence to the widespread racial bias in the media (see Chris Matthews for some choic examples) - as if that's merely a trifling factor in a presidential campaign involving the first African American nominee in history. Worse, it's as if Newsweek correspondents are pretending not to be the "reporters" they are referring to. And the sum of the article ends up being a subtle - and perhaps unconscious - attempt to absolve the media of any responsibility to facts in a democratic society. That is, an attempt to forward the Innocent Bystander Fable.

If it wasn't that, and the piece was honest, then its coverage of the media would have said, "Newsweek reporters and the rest of the media are as uncomfortable as the politicians they cover about discussing race," and then devoted a little space to exploring this topic.

But no, we are expected to believe that the innocent bystanders perfectly report what they see, and that when they stampede off on silly, mindless, substance-free stories, there's no one to blame. While candidate and party decisions all come with responsibility, media idiocy is just a force of nature with no culpability whatsoever.

None of this is new. We all remember New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller justifying her sycophantic worship of George W. Bush by saying she was too afraid to ask the president questions before the Iraq War. Look, she effectively said, I was just an innocent bystander.

Now it's Newsweek depicting "reporters" as passive, disinterested observers with no responsibilities whatsoever - and certainly no faults. Indeed, we see the Innocent Bystander Fable alive and well inside the very media institutions that increasingly humiliate themselves and undermine our system of checks and balances.