Saturday, June 10, 2006

Watchdogs of Democracy? A Book Review

Watchdogs of Democracy? is Helen Thomas's new book. The subtitle, a long one as is common these days for political books, runs like this:

The waning Washington press corps and how it has failed the public.

This is not well written, you know.

So I was a little bit worried when I started reading the book. I feared that it was thrown together too quickly, because most political books coming out these days strike me as having been thrown together too quickly. That's the dilemma for those who want to get something into print post-haste.

Well, there is some of that about this book, too. The language could have been less choppy and some transitions look like the stuff on my blog: skipping and jumping to something totally different.

Those are the bad news about the book for me. The good news are that it's quite interesting. Helen Thomas is a veteran Washington reporter and she has actually lived through a lot of the history that we only read about in textbooks. By reading the book we can tap the memory and expertise of someone who Was There. Now that is quite rare.

And what does Helen's memory and expertise offer us? In short, a walk through the history of the Washington press corps and an explanation which allowed me at least to put the current administration's battles with the press into a timeframe and a perspective. The perspective is not one which would make excuses for either the Bush administration or the journalists who are not supposed to be its sycophants, quite the reverse. But Thomas shows us how the tools for managing news and the media were created over time and were there for the wingnuts to grab.

She points out that presidents have tried to "manage" news for a long time, at least since John F. Kennedy's era, and that journalists are fully aware of this "managing". What is different in our current era is the journalists' reaction to the administration news management. Instead of combatting it, instead of nosing out the real news and instead of adopting an adversial position in all this, the journalists recording the deeds of the Bush administration have mostly just gone along with the news management, writing down the government's propaganda messages and then forwarding them to us, with perhaps a meek paragraph or two about alternative interpretations tacked to the very end of the article.

It's a game gone out of balance, and the real losers in such a game are all of us. So what pushed it off balance? Thomas gives us most of the usually mentioned reasons: the concentration of the media into few hands and the consequent reduction in the number of good jobs available for journalists who are now much more dependent on their employers and the opinions of these employers, the loss of the Fairness Doctrine in media during the Reagan administration and the imperative of the profit motive over any secondary goals about truthful and full reporting, which has lead to reduced resources for news production, fewer foreign offices and reporters and increased emphasis on stories which sell (those about disappearing white brides eaten by sharks), the feverishly fast news cycle which makes it hard for reporters to be both first and right. (What a horrible sentence that is.)

But the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back was the public patriotic sentiment after 911 massacres and what this did to news reporting. It gave the administration news managers a great weapon to use: journalists criticizing the U.S. government were labeled as "unpatriotic traitors", journalists criticizing the Iraq war were labeled as "not supporting the troops" and anyone who dared criticize George W. Bush was guilty of attacking "a war president".

And as anyone who lived through the events of 2001 can remember, "we, the people" didn't really want critical reporting then; we wanted to grieve and to heal. Neither did we want politicians who deviated from the "unity against our enemies" sentiment of that time. Hence all those Democrats who voted for the Iraq war. We may find their acts contemptible but it's good to remember what was in the air that year. In short, "we, the people" are in many ways as guilty as the press. We let the administration manage the news.

Now, Helen Thomas doesn't blame the public in her book. But she does blame the current batch of journalists in Washington. Here she talks about the way the reasons for the Iraq invasion were covered:

No weapons. No ties to terrorists. No threats. No apologies. No explanation. No remorse. Under those circumstances, Americans were told they were fighting a war in Baghdad for liberty and democracy throughout the Middle East. Bush could shift the rationale in the blink of an eye with no apparent qualms.

And, of course, it was important to support the troops in Iraq. Reporters were left to follow the administration's lead. Anything less would have been seen as "unpatriotic". The nation paid a heavy price for the media's blind trust. The administration which never lacked for chutzpah, rode out the storm with its credibility in the tank and few reporters daring to push President Bush on his flimsy reasons for invading Iraq.

My concern is why the nation's media were so gullible. Did they really think it was all going to be so easy, a cakewalk, a superpower invading a third world country? Why did the Washington press corps forgo its traditional skepticism? Why did reporters become cheerleaders for a deceptive administration?

Could it be that no one wanted to stand alone outside Washington's pack journalism?

Probably. The watchdogs of democracy have been defanged by commercial interests, a government too powerful to resist and the desire to be in the top layers of the watchdog hierarchy, closest to the hand that doles out treats. Who wouldn't sit and stay on command in this pack configuration?

And we, the public, are also to blame for this malaise. There aren't enough of us who want real news, real facts, real reporting. Rather the opposite; many Americans want a press corps that fawns on the administration because that is seen as patriotic and something that makes us feel good in a weird patriotic sence. Is the American patriotism so fragile that only good news can be allowed? It's beginning to look like that.

Thomas's book urges journalists to fulfill the watchdog role better, to be more idealistic and stronger in their determination to get at the truth. I'd like to see the rest of us work to change the system so as to make this easier. We could begin by not supporting those media which offer shallow and warped coverage of important news and by lobbying for the return of the Fairness Doctrine in Media.