Understanding The Media's 'Patriotic' Narcolepsy

The release of Andrea Mitchell's new book Talking Tough to Presidents, Dictators, and Other Scoundrels has brought with it the admission by Mitchell and some of her colleagues that they -- the press and your Fourth Estate -- gave President Bush and his administration a free pass from 9/11 through Hurricane Katrina. This stands repeating. Members of the media have confirmed they made a conscious effort not to challenge the Bush administration for exactly four years, through and including the 2004 presidential election, until just this past month when it temporarily grew a vestigial spinal column.

“I think there has been self-censorship since 9/11 or after 9/11 -- there was sort of a rallying around -- an understandably patriotic effect and I think that reporters were less challenging, and it’s been very interesting to see my colleagues . . . all of these correspondents and anchors . . . and they have been taking on local and state and federal officials in a way – an impassioned way that we have not seen in many years.” NBC News' Andrea Mitchell on “Real Time with Bill Maher” -- 9/23/05

“Understandably patriotic effect,” she said. Understandably? Mitchell expects us to understand and perhaps forgive the press for being asleep just because it was behaving “patriotically” after 9/11? Years after 9/11 no less. Long after the very last car-window-flag fluttered onto a highway median somewhere. Truth is, the only way which the press should be expressing its patriotism is to grapple onto the faces of our political leaders like those spidery pupa creatures from Alien. If they want to impregnate a chest-burster into the gullet of one or two, so be it. Whatever gets the job done.

The press’ tenacity in this regard can’t be tempered with this silly “fair and balanced” standard, either. Newsworthy events, by the very nature of the universe, are unfair and imbalanced. For example, if the Republicans are engaged in large-scale corruption while ruling every branch of the federal government, how can anyone possibly find a story of equal gravity amongst the ranks of the minority Democrats?

If George W. Bush has done something ridiculous (you do the list), he ought to be challenged relentlessly and without hesitation. Even when he hasn’t done anything wrong, he probably has. So the press ought to find out what the hell that is and what he’s up to. Then, when a Democrat eventually takes over the White House, the press can exercise their compulsion for balance by going after him or her with similar zeal, especially if the actions of the subsequent administration are comparably ridiculous. That’s fair and balanced. But to counter a negative news story about George W. Bush with regards to Katrina or the war by similarly grilling leaders and names of far lesser influence is not balance. That is unless Nancy Pelosi or Aaron Broussard or Ronnie Earle have miraculously acquired the powers of the Executive.

There are quite literally thousands of important news stories which the press has ignored or refused to cover adequately for the sake of their misguided attempts at patriotism or balance or ratings or all three. And they can’t use the excuse that they’ve run out room for all those lost news items (mercury contamination, Darfur genocide, and election fraud here and in Iraq to name a few). Well, they actually have run out of room chiefly because of non-news. That is unless you can divine actual news by forming mad-lib sentences with the little blurbs in the lower left corner of Tucker Carlson’s show. I once assembled: “Whores of Rove in the French Quarter of Kate Moss’ Porn. Giant squid!” Try it sometime. Makes for an hilarious drinking game. But it’s still not news.

I’d be temporarily sated if the networks replaced their masturbatory “We rocked the hurricane coverage so effing hard! We covered the shit out of it!” recap promos with, I don’t know, a few moments of daily airtime for coverage of environmental issues or -- here’s one just for me -- airtime each day in which a White House reporter repeatedly asks the president, “Why do you smirk and grin when discussing serious events like the war?” Okay. Yeah. Not the most investigatory question, but his reply would be so poetic -- you know he’d answer by launching into his talking points on the gravity of the war… whilst smirking and grinning.

David Brock’s Media Matters, authors Eric Alterman and Mark Crispin Miller, and much of the progressive blogosphere have been documenting the press’ collective narcolepsy for years now. So Mitchell’s recent admission isn’t breaking news for those of us who have been following the day-to-day sensual massages exchanged between the press and the Republicans (McClellan? Strangely declines “happy endings”). The accumulated record confirms that the press has been detrimentally passive during the tenure of an administration which prides itself on its disciplined secrecy, propaganda, closed-door policy-making, and propaganda. I wrote propaganda twice because they like propaganda. What better time to have had the press on the case.

But for once -- just for once -- it would be nice to not have to watchdog the press. And it'd be nice if the press wasn’t the story. That’d free up some space in which to cover more real news, no? How pathetic is it that when we recount what’s gone wrong so far this century, we have to include the phrase, “The press? Slept through it.” And at this point, we're still not sure whether they're awake yet.

POST SCRIPT: I have this crazy theory that Republican strategists (Rove) have manipulated the MSM by engaging in Helen Kushnick style intimidation. If you recall, Kushnick was Jay Leno's manager when he first took over The Tonight Show. Author Bill Carter reported that she used the media to help force the retirement of Johnny Carson. But her most infamous deed, according to Carter's accounts, involved Kushnick coercing guests not to appear on other late night shows for fear of being banned from The Tonight Show.

Similarly, it's possible that elements of the MSM have been manipulated into softball reporting on the Republicans, and an already secretive White House, under threat of losing their access. It's already been verified that the administration manipulates the news via paid propagandists. How could a simple threat of losing access be so hard to believe -- especially when there's so much competition?

Game it out. Rove, at a White House or GOP shindig, hints to a writer from a major publication that they're considering giving FNC exclusive access to Dick Cheney during the war unless the writer's paper, say, treads lightly on the lead-up to the war. Competition for access during major news event like that would be fierce, so wouldn't it benefit the reporter and the reporter's editors to go easy on the administration -- however irresponsible and dangerous? Crazy theory or plausible reality: you decide.

ONE MORE THING: MSNBC's David Shuster has some interesting observations with regards to FNC in Sunday's Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Times. Here's the meat:

"At the time I started at Fox, I thought, this is a great news organization to let me be very aggressive with a sitting president of the United States (Bill Clinton)," Shuster said. "I started having issues when others in the organization would take my carefully scripted and nuanced reporting and pull out bits and pieces to support their agenda on their shows.

"With the change of administration in Washington, I wanted to do the same kind of reporting, holding the (Bush) administration accountable, and that was not something that Fox was interested in doing," he said.

"Editorially, I had issues with story selection," Shuster went on. "But the bigger issue was that there wasn't a tradition or track record of honoring journalistic integrity. I found some reporters at Fox would cut corners or steal information from other sources or in some cases, just make things up. Management would either look the other way or just wouldn't care to take a closer look. I had serious issues with that."