Monday, May 15, 2006
The political media and its critics
For the last week, the Republican Party has been the victim of a barrage of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations by [a Democrat] and his partner-in-mud-slinging, [a big media outlet]...[The Democrat] appears to have turned over the franchise for his media attack campaign to the editors of [the big media outlet], who have shown themselves every bit as sure-footed along the low road ... as [the Democrat]. (Giveaway references have been deleted.)
So? Was it Laura Bush blaming the media for her husband's awful poll numbers? Was it any one of the righties who blogswarmed Times reporter James Risen for getting "illegal leaks" in breaking the N.S.A. story? Was it Tony Snow showing off his new chest-thumping podium style?
Nope. It was Robert Dole. In 1972.
Dole, then the Republican National chairman, was attacking The Washington Post for its Watergate reporting and accusing the paper of being in cahoots with the George McGovern campaign. You can find the quote on page 162 of All the President's Men.
The reason I bring this up is to make a point. All the GOP assaults on the press right now -- the blaming of the media for not reporting good news in Iraq or good economic news at home; Snow's attacks on the press, etc. -- are drawn from a Republican arsenal that's been in use for over a generation. And this is worth a moment's reflection. When Richard Nixon's men resorted to this strategy, the country and the media were in a vastly different place than they are today. There was something to the idea of a delineated "silent majority" that was prepared to believe that the coasts harbored a McGovernite and traitorous media elite. This was partly because many understood little about the new mass media then transforming Presidential campaigns and partly because of the growing aggressiveness of coverage of the Vietnam War. Today things are very different. The media is far more scrutinized. The news consumer is far more sophisticated. And the professionalism of the news media has improved in many ways (please, hold the tomatoes, it's the truth).
So as we watch the interaction of media and politics, one interesting question going forward will be: Is the ground far less fertile for such attacks from the right than they were a generation ago? You'd think, given the shifts in the landscape, that the answer would be Yes. But I'm not so sure -- in part, paradoxically, because of all the ongoing change. The decades-long buildup of an infrastructure for right-wing media criticism has partly achieved its end of making the big news orgs terrified of being branded liberal, and hence more willing to adopt GOP frames and spread conservative misinformation with less scrutiny (though Bob Somerby would probably ascribe this more to sheer stupidity than outside pressure). It's true that the rapid growth of sophisticated media criticism from the left at sites like Media Matters is diluting this somewhat, but let's face it -- there's still tons of work to be done. What's more, the growth of alternative media (blogs, cable) has of course weakened the hold the big news organizations have over the public, and weakened their credibility.
All this suggests a challenge for would-be liberal media critics. Right now, because of the new media environment, liberalism needs the big news orgs more than ever. It needs them to be stronger and better and have more credibility, not less; it needs them to better punch through the increasing clamor of cable and increasing sophistication of Swift-Boat-style attacks and deliver the truth more effectively, not less.
The challenge for liberal media criticism, then, is not merely to push the MSM into doing better journalism with criticism, which of course is important, but also to help it do better journalism, by offering assistance and support -- both reportorial and moral. Plenty of people are begining to do this -- and with a little luck and effort this little blog will contribute a bit, too -- but man, oh, man, is more ever needed. Because while Bob Woodward may be a shadow of what he once was, there's a new generation of would-be Woodwards out there with big bright targets on their backs, and the political descendants of those who attacked Woodward and The Post are stronger and better-armed than ever.
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