About a year ago, Salon’s Eric Boehlert and The Nation’s Eric Alterman argued in separate pieces that the Bush administration was waging “war” against the press. This week, Alterman revisits his thesis to include FBI efforts to inspect and sanitize columnist Jack Anderson’s papers before George Washington University catalogs and makes them publicly available. Over the weekend, the New York Times’ Adam Liptak gave credence to the idea of a war in his Page One Sunday piece about using leak investigations and other techniques to criminalize national-security reporting.
Boehlert, Alterman, and other administration critics assert a lockdown on and manipulation of information the likes of which we’ve not seen since the Nixon administration:
- The establishment of a White House press office that not only doesn’t say anything but doesn’t know anything.
- A mania for secrecy that has resulted, most recently, in the secret reclassification of declassified documents in the National Archives.
- The deliberate sowing of official disinformation about Iraq and the Iraq war.
- The tightening of FOIA restrictions.
- The production of video “news releases” that look like news but are government propaganda (“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting.”).
- And more, including, but not limited to, a laundry list of slights; pundits on the take (Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, and Michael McManus); gross insults (Chief of Staff Andrew Card telling The New Yorker, “I don’t believe [the press has] a check-and-balance function”); and other provocations (for example, a vice president who has removed himself from the information grid) directed at the press.
Let’s charge Bush with contempt of press and damn his secret ways, but do his offenses committed really constitute a war on the Fourth Estate? Or is the press using its stage to play the drama queen?
Last year, as the idea of a war on the press ascended, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz countered the notionby writing that the most grievous wounds were self-inflicted, citing the frauds of Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, of Dan Rather’s shoddy National Guard investigation. Kurtz continued:
Bush didn’t force the media to go overboard on Kobe and Michael. He didn’t force a CNN executive to make some ill-considered comments about the U.S. military targeting journalists. He didn’t force various journalists to keep engaging in plagiarism. He didn’t force Armstrong Williams to take $240,000 from the Education Department (though paying conservative pundits is one of the administration’s innovations). He isn’t responsible for declining newspaper circulation and network news ratings or the sinking poll numbers when it comes to trusting the media.
Bush also didn’t tell the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward to sit on his Valerie Plame information for more than two years. He didn’t advise the New York Times to publish an editorial encouraging the government to pursue the leakers in the Valerie Plame case, as the Times did on Oct. 2, 2003. Nor did he force Time magazine and the Times into their quixotic First Amendment showdown over the Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller grand jury subpoenas. Had Time and the Times succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to take the Cooper-Miller case, one extremely likely outcome would have been a decision more restrictive than the current precedent, set in 1972’s Branzburg v. Hayes. Would the war-on-the-press caucus have blamed that on Bush, too?
Rather than crying “war” over the Bush-press disputes, I subscribe to Jay Rosen’s more modest idea that the Bushies ambition was to “decertify” the press from its modern role as purveyor of news and portray it as just another special interest. (Rosen advanced his “decert” idea in late 2003 and then again in February 2005 and March 2005.) Bush’s preference for “unfiltered” news, received directly from his staff, is well-known. Disciplined and silent, as The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta put it, the administration has factored the press corps out of the equation.
The upsides of filling the president’s tanks with unfiltered and blunting the press corps are obvious. Limit the flow of information to the press—and the public—and you temporarily blind your critics and political foes, freeing you to execute your policies unimpeded. As journalist Ron Suskind told Boehlert, “For [Republicans], essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast.”
The downsides are less obvious. A starved press corps doesn’t necessarily wither away. In fact, a Machiavellian case for feeding the press corps with stories—even stories that reflect negatively on the administration—can be made. If properly fed such “scoops,” they will remain under the control of their feeders, which is what happened to the press corps orbiting Henry Kissinger during the Nixon-Ford administrations. Starve them and they may well go prospecting for news in the vast bureaucracy where White House feeders aren’t in control. The recent clandestine CIA prisons and NSA surveillance scoops by the Washington Post and New York Times illustrate the limits of White House control on information: Other, non-White House parts of the bureaucracy rebelled against Bush. Viewed from this end of the telescope, Bush secrecy “caused” the Post and Times scoops and may well cause many more, no matter who gets fired or prosecuted.
Another downside: As information theory instructs us, it’s never in the interests of a totalitarian regime to completely eliminate debate over—and knowledge of—controversial policies. Unless an administration is infallible—and Pope George W.’s certainly isn’t—it benefits from testing its policy ideas in some fashion with its critics, or even its allies, before deploying them. Public debate helps an administration build support for its plans, permits it to see the weaknesses of and retrofit its strategies, and if need be, abandon the ideas. Machiavellians might logically desire secret prisons for their enemies, but will they if the press discovers the prisons—which is to be expected—and the stories cause international incidents that outweigh the benefits of operating them? Right now, the political damage may seem slight. But combine the prison story with the NSA account, and add a third such revelation (these things always come in threes), and even Sean Hannity will abandon his lame-duck president. (Come to think of it, if the press is so cowed, where did the prisons and NSA stories come from?)
The hermetically closed universe in which the Bush administration operates contains the seeds of its own destruction. But that doesn’t mean reporters and others can’t nurture that germination and flowering. Tomorrow I’ll be back with a bundle of gardening tips.
A president should always be planted in manure-rich soil, pruned vigorously until the sap runs, sprayed heavily with insecticide, and yanked by his roots after four years. Send your gardening tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)