Saturday, November 12, 2005
Ex-Post editor describes failure of press-government relationship
FROM THE NATION MAGAZINE:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a
reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers, magazines and television.
Over the past two decades, he has persistently challenged mainstream
thinking on economics.
For 17 years Greider was the National Affairs Editor at Rolling Stone
magazine, where his investigation of the defense establishment began. He
is a former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, where he
worked for 15 years as a national correspondent, editor and
columnist. While at the Post, he broke the story of how David Stockman,
Ronald Reagan's budget director, grew disillusioned with supply-side
economics and the budget deficits that policy caused, which still burden
the American economy.
He is the author of the national bestsellers One World, Ready or Not,
Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People. In the award-winning
Secrets of the Temple, he offered a critique of the Federal Reserve
system. Greider has also served as a correspondent for six Frontline
documentaries on PBS, including "Return to Beirut," which won an Emmy in
Greider's next book will be The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to A
Moral Economy. In it, he untangles the systemic mysteries of American
capitalism, details its destructive collisions with society and
demonstrates how people can achieve decisive influence to reform the
system's structure and operating values. Raised in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb
of Cincinnati, he graduated from Princeton University in 1958. He
currently lives in Washington, DC.
All the King's Media
By WILLIAM GREIDER
[from the November 21, 2005 issue]
Amid the smoke and stench of burning careers, Washington feels a bit like
the last days of the ancien régime. As the world's finest democracy, we do
not do guillotines. But there are other less bloody rituals of
humiliation, designed to reassure the populace that order is restored, the
Republic cleansed. Let the perp walks begin. Whether the public feels
reassured is another matter.
George W. Bush's plight leads me to thoughts of Louis XV and his royal
court in the eighteenth century. Politics may not have changed as much as
modern pretensions assume. Like Bush, the French king was quite popular
until he was scorned, stubbornly self-certain in his exercise of power yet
strangely submissive to manipulation by his courtiers. Like Louis Quinze,
our American magistrate (whose own position was secured through court
intrigues, not elections) has lost the "royal touch." Certain influential
cliques openly jeer the leader they not so long ago extolled; others
gossip about royal tantrums and other symptoms of lost direction. The
accusations stalking his important counselors and assembly leaders might
even send some of them to jail. These political upsets might matter less
if the government were not so inept at fulfilling its routine obligations,
like storm relief. The king's sorry war drags on without resolution, with
people still arguing over why exactly he started it. The staff of
life--oil, not bread--has become punishingly expensive. The government is
broke, borrowing formidable sums from rival nations. The king pretends
nothing has changed.
The burnt odor in Washington is from the disintegrating authority of the
governing classes. The public's darkest suspicions seem confirmed.
Flagrant money corruption, deceitful communication of public plans and
purposes, shocking incompetence--take your pick, all are involved. None
are new to American politics, but they are potently fused in the present
circumstances. A recent survey in Wisconsin found that only 6 percent of
citizens believe their elected representatives serve the public interest.
If they think that of state and local officials, what must they think of
We are witnessing, I suspect, something more momentous than the disgrace
of another American President. Watergate was red hot, but always about
Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon. This convergence of scandal and failure
seems more systemic, less personal. The new political force for change is
not the squeamish opposition party called the Democrats but a common
disgust and anger at the sordidness embedded in our dysfunctional
democracy. The wake from that disgust may prove broader than Watergate's
(when democracy was supposedly restored by Nixon's exit), because the
anger is also splashing over once-trusted elements of the establishment.
Heroic truth-tellers in the Watergate saga, the established media are now
in disrepute, scandalized by unreliable "news" and over-intimate
attachments to powerful court insiders. The major media stood too close to
the throne, deferred too eagerly to the king's twisted version of reality
and his lust for war. The institutions of "news" failed democracy on
monumental matters. In fact, the contemporary system looks a lot more like
the ancien régime than its practitioners realize. Control is top-down and
centralized. Information is shaped (and tainted) by the proximity of
leading news-gatherers to the royal court and by their great distance from
people and ordinary experience.
People do find ways to inform themselves, as best they can, when the
regular "news" is not reliable. In prerevolutionary France, independent
newspapers were illegal--forbidden by the king--and books and pamphlets,
rigorously censored by the government. Yet people developed a complex
shadow system by which they learned what was really going on--the news
that did not appear in official court pronouncements and privileged
publications. Cultural historian Robert Darnton, in brilliantly original
works like The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, has mapped the
informal but politically potent news system by which Parisians of high and
low status circulated court secrets or consumed the scandalous books known
as libelles, along with subversive songs, poems and gossip, often leaked
from within the king's own circle. News traveled in widening circles.
Parisians gathered in favored cafes, designated park benches or exclusive
salons, where the forbidden information was read aloud and copied by
others to pass along. Parisians could choose for themselves which reality
they believed. The power of the French throne was effectively finished,
one might say, once the king lost control of the news. (It was his
successor, Louis XVI, who lost his head.)
Something similar, as Darnton noted, is occurring now in American society.
The centralized institutions of press and broadcasting are being
challenged and steadily eroded by widening circles of unlicensed "news"
agents--from talk-radio hosts to Internet bloggers and others--who compete
with the official press to be believed. These interlopers speak in a
different language and from many different angles of vision. Less
authoritative, but more democratic. The upheaval has only just begun, but
already even the best newspapers are hemorrhaging circulation. Dan
Gillmor, an influential pioneer and author of We the Media, thinks
tomorrow's news, the reporting and production, will be "more of a
conversation, or a seminar"--less top-down, and closer to how people
really speak about their lives.
Which brings us to the sappy operetta of the reporter and her influential
source: Scooter Libby, the Vice President's now-indicted war wonk, and
Judith Miller, the New York Times's intrepid reporter and First Amendment
martyr. What seems most shocking about their relationship is the intimacy.
"Come back to work--and life," Scooter pleaded in a letter to Judy, doing
her eighty-five days in jail. "Out west, where you vacation, the aspens
will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots
connect them." Miller responded in her bizarre first-person Times account
by telling a cherished memory of Scooter. Out West, she said, a man in
sunglasses, dressed like a cowboy, approached and spoke to her: "Judy,
it's Scooter Libby."
Are Washington reporters really that close to their sources? For her part,
Miller has a "tropism toward powerful men," as Times columnist Maureen
Dowd delicately put it. This is well-known gossip in court circles, but
let's not go there. Boy reporters also suck up to powerful men with
shameful deference, wanting to be loved by the insiders so they can be
inside too (shades of the French courtiers). The price of intimacy is
collected in various coins, but older hands in the news business
understand what is being sold. The media, Christopher Dickey of Newsweek
observed in a web essay, "long ago concluded having access to power is
more important than speaking truth to it."
The elite press, like any narcissistic politician, tells a heart-warming
myth about itself. Reporters, it is said, dig out the hard facts to share
with the people by locating anonymous truth-tellers inside government.
They then protect these sources from retaliation by refusing to name them,
even at the cost of going to prison. That story line was utterly smashed
by this scandal. Reporters were prepared to go to jail to protect sources
who were not exactly whistleblowers cowering in anonymity. They were Libby
and Karl Rove--the king's own counselors at the pinnacle of government.
They were the same guys who collaborated on the bloodiest political
deception of the Bush presidency: the lies that took the country into war.
So, in a sense, the press was also protecting itself from further
embarrassment. The major media, including the best newspapers, all got the
war wrong, and for roughly the same reason--their compliant proximity to
power. With a few honorable exceptions, they bought into the lies and led
cheers for war. They ignored or downplayed the dissent from some military
leaders and declined to explore tough questions posed by anyone outside
the charmed circle. The nation may not soon forget this abuse of
privileged status, nor should it.
Leaks and whispers are a daily routine of news-gathering in Washington.
The sweet irony of President Bush's predicament is that it was partly
self-induced. His White House deputies enforced discipline on reporters
and insiders, essentially shutting down the stream of nonofficial
communications and closing the informal portals for dissent and dispute
within government. This was new in the Bush era, and it's ultimately been
debilitating. It has made reporters still more dependent on the official
spin, as the Administration wanted, but it has also sealed off the king
from the flow of high-level leaks and informative background noises that
help vet developing policies and steer reporters to the deeper news.
The paradox of our predicament is that, unlike the ancien régime, US
citizens do enjoy free speech, free press and other rights to disturb the
powerful. In this country you can say aloud or publish just about anything
you like. But will anyone hear you? The audible range of diverse and
rebellious voices has been visibly shrunk in the last generation. The
corporate concentration of media ownership has put a deadening blanket
over the usual cacophony of democracy, with dissenting voices screened for
acceptability by young and often witless TV producers. Corporate owners
have a strong stake in what gets said on their stations. Why piss off the
President when you will need his good regard for so many things? Viewers
have a zillion things to watch, but if you jump around the dial, with luck
you will always be watching a General Electric channel.
How did it happen that the multiplication of outlets made possible by
technology led to a concentration of views and opinions--ones usually
anchored by the conventional wisdom of center-right sensibilities? Where
did the "freedom" go? Where are the people's ideas and observations? Al
Gore, who found his voice after he lost the presidency, recently expressed
his sense of alarm: "I believe that American democracy is in grave danger.
It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public
discourse." The bread-and-circuses format that monopolizes the public's
airwaves is driven by a condescending commercial calculation that
Americans are too stupid to want anything more. But that assumption
becomes fragile as other voices find other venues for expression. This is
an industry crisis that will be very healthy for the society, a political
opening to rearrange access and licensing for democratic purposes.
For the faltering press, the bloggers will keep sharpening their swords,
slicing away at the established order. This is good, but the pressure will
lead to meaningful change only if the Internet artisans innovate further,
organizing new formats and techniques for networking among more diverse
people and interests. The daily feed of facts and bile from bloggers has
been wondrously effective in unmasking the pretensions of the big boys,
but the broader society needs more--something closer to the democratic
"conversations and seminars" that Gillmor envisions, and less dependent on
partisan fury and accusation.
As an ex-Luddite, I came to the web with the skepticism of an old print
guy. Against expectations, I am experiencing sustained exchanges with many
far-flung people I've never met--dialogues that inform both of us and are
utterly voluntary experiences. This is a promising new form of consent.
Democracy, I once wrote, begins not at election time but in human
Establishment newspapers like the New York Times face a special dilemma,
one they may not easily resolve. Under assault, do editors and reporters
align still more closely with the establishment interests to maintain an
air of "authority," or do they get down with folks and dish it out to the
powerful? Scandal and crisis compelled the Times to lower its veil of
authority a bit and acknowledge error (a shocking development itself). But
while the Times is in my view the best, most interesting newspaper, it
always will be establishment. For instance, it could be more honest about
its longstanding newsroom tensions between "liberals" and "neocons." What
the editors might re-examine is their own defensive concept of what's
authoritative. It is not just Bush's war that blinded sober judgment and
led to narrow coverage. In many other important areas--political decay and
global economics, among others--the Times (like other elite papers) seems
afraid to acknowledge that wider, more fundamental debate exists. It
chooses to report only one side--the side of received elite opinion.
Readers do understand--surprise!--that the Times is not infallible. A
newspaper comes out every day and gets something wrong. Tomorrow, it comes
out again and can try to get it right. In essence, that is what people and
critics already know. They are more likely to be forgiving if the
newspaper loosens up a bit and makes room for more divergent
understandings of what's happening. But as more irreverent voices elbow
their way into the "news" system, the big media are likely to lose still
more audience if they cannot get more distance from throne and power.
What will come of all this? Possibly, not much. The cluster of scandals
and breakdown may simply feed the people's alienation and resignation. The
governing elites, including major media, are in denial, unwilling to speak
honestly about the perilous economic circumstances ahead, the burgeoning
debt from global trade, the sinking of the working class and other
threatening conditions. When those realities surface, many American lives
will be upended with no available recourse and no one in authority they
can trust, since the denial and evasion are bipartisan. That's a very
dangerous situation for a society--an invitation to irrational angers and
scapegoating. It will require a new, more encompassing politics to avert
an ugly political contagion. We need more reliable "news" to recover
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