Sunday, February 19, 2006


Philadelphia editor says MSM should abandon White House and start digging for stories


03/19/2004 02:46 PM EST

Posted on Sun, Feb. 19, 2006

Center Square | Take bull by the horns

By Chris Satullo
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dick Cheney despises me. Well, not me in particular - though I'm confident he would if he got the chance. He despises my type - mainstream journalist. His settled opinion is that we are slimy barnacles on the Good Ship United States, vicious parasites of no redeeming value, lower than the belly of a snake in a wagon rut, lower even than a bucket of whale puke on the ocean floor. We are, in sum, senseless blots on the escutcheon of humanity.

In the wake of last weekend's hunting accident, people keep harrumphing that the vice president erred in not issuing a statement on the night of the mishap. Actually, he issued a very blunt statement. His silence said to the national press: "You are scum, and I don't have to tell you anything." The norm for an elected official in such a circumstance used to be: Round up your press people, give them the facts you have, let them rustle up the other needed info and issue a prompt statement in your name to the usual outlets: Associated Press, etc.

But as Jay Rosen notes on his excellent media criticism blog, PressThink, the reason Cheney didn't do that wasn't distress or embarrassment. It wasn't a mistake. It was, Rosen argues, a considered decision: "Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it."

The Bush White House views the press as a noisy, noisome special interest group out only to inflict wounds and make dough. It scoffs at reporters' self-flattery that they play a constitutional watchdog role for the republic. Not only does Cheney reject the press as stand-in for the public, he doesn't believe he owes voters any account of what's he doing, in private or public time, beyond what he deems they need to know. When he finally deigned to appear on Fox News (natch!), he dismissed the furor over his stonewalling as elite pique that he broke the news to a local paper that "understands" hunting. (Even in distress, the guy knew how to speak in red state/blue state code to The Base.)

The vice president sought to provoke and David Gregory of NBC News played into his hands. Gregory's rude outburst at White House evader-in-chief Scott McClellan provided new grist for the liberal-media-bias mills that grind 24/7 on the Internet.

When is the national press corps going to get the message from Cheney et al.? OK, you despise us. You are never going to tell us squat, never going to play by the old rules. You wish we'd go do something anatomically impossible to ourselves.

So, reporters, why keep playing along with staged rituals like the White House press briefing? Why cram yourself into rows like schoolchildren, raising your hand to ask questions that a press secretary or president will evade with weary condescension, leaving you only the option of theatrical crankiness to show you're "tough"? Face it, the only real value these rituals have is to provide fodder for Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. They have as much to do with real journalism as a Harlem Globetrotters game has to do with the NBA Finals.

And they are a trap. This absurd play-acting is all most Americans see of the practice of journalism. The setting is designed to make reporters look churlish and impotent. This bolsters the conservative view that reporters are impudent hacks, and the liberal delusion that if only reporters asked the really tough questions, W. would break down like a suspect on Law and Order, sobbing, "Yes, yes, I lied and people died!"

Never going to happen. So, press corps, why not meet unprincipled disdain with principled disdain? Don't even bother showing up. Don't play your debilitating role in the farce. Leave the questions to the planted sycophants; pick up the obligatory spin-quote from the C-Span feed. Spend that time doing the real reporting that many of you do when the cameras aren't on. Go out and uncover, for example, the connection between the savaging of the student loan program and the political largesse of Sallie Mae. Explain why FEMA still can't tie its shoes, how politics hijacked the faith-based initiative.

Actually, those stories have been well-reported in print in recent days. But most Americans didn't see them. Instead, they were invited to believe that the high farce of David vs. Scott is what watchdog journalism is about. And that does journalism, and the nation, no good.

Chris Satullo was named editorial page editor of The Inquirer in March 2000. He's been with the paper 15 years, previously working as deputy eitorial page editor and deputy suburban editor. He is the founder and director of the paper.s Citizen Voices program, an effort to engage readers in deeper political dialogue. He has won more than 25 awards for columns, editorials, newswriting and newspaper design. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he is a graduate of Williams College and spent a year teaching in France on a Fulbright Fellowship. Contact him at (215) 854-4243.

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