The Washington press corps—the thousands of reporters working within a two-mile radius of my M Street NW office—deserves every ugly thing written about it. Taken collectively, they kowtow, fawn, and grovel to the powerful. They allow their sources to compromise their independence. They’re glib. They’re lazy. They possess no sense of history and little sense of scale. They often get the story wrong.
Eric Boehlert’s new book Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush amply catalogs the Washington press corps failings in reporting Plamegate, the Iraq war run-up, Hurricane Katrina, the “Swift Boat” campaign, Bush’s military record, and more. His thesis is that “the mainstream news media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power.”
It’s such a preposterous and overreaching thesis, I refuse to buy it. Hell, I can’t even bring myself to look at the price tag.
First, a little disclosure: Boehlert has been a friend and respected colleague of mine for 15 years, although I never met him in the flesh until a couple of weeks ago. I admire his reportorial skills, his ability to spot a lie and strafe it, and his devotion to accuracy, which he demonstrates here as well as in his work for Rolling Stone and Salon. He mentions me once by name in the book, non-critically, and alludes similarly to my work or Slate’s elsewhere. End of disclosure.
The mainstream media that Boehlert pummels usually turns out to be TV news and the various barking-head commentary programs. The Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly puppet shows deserve all the abuse that Boehlert rains down on them, as do many of the right-wing bloggers he derides. I’ll take his word for it—and Media Matters for America’s, upon whose research he says he draws—that some network bookers favor Republican faces over Democrats. I disdain, as he does, the journalistically compromising friendships between Ted Koppel and Colin Powell, Gwen Ifill and Condoleezza Rice, and Bob Schieffer and the Bush family. But I resist the simple arithmetic that states bad TV news coverage and stupid TV commentary equals a “timid D.C. press corps.”
Any convincing critique of the mainstream media, or MSM, must take down the two biggest dogs, the New York Times and the Washington Post, which throw more reporters at the political coverage than any other news organizations and provide most of the press corps its marching instructions. On this score, Boehlert doesn’t even try. Critiquing the MSM’s coverage of Bush’s war record, Boehlert knocks the “agenda-setting New York Times” for not pushing hard enough on the story in 2000. Wouldn’t that argue against calling the Times a lap dog? Bush wasn’t the master yet, just a candidate! Additional exoneration for the Times appears elsewhere in the book: Boehlert credits the Times with a “lengthy and admirable investigation” into the Swift Boat attack campaign in 2004, when Bush was in the White House.
In the book’s preface, Boehlert anticipates the criticisms from people like me who will find examples of tough reporting on the Bush administration to undermine the lap-dog charge. In it he writes, “[J]ust because an article or television report seems on the surface to be asking sharp questions of the administration does not necessarily mean it disproves the basis of my book,” he writes. If such reports can’t disprove his argument, what can?
Every politician except Dick Cheney adores press toadies, so Boehlert is right to criticize some reporters for attaching themselves to sources and sucking hard for continued access. But the long-term effect to reporters who allow propaganda-pitching Bush administration sources to run them is a reputation as a pathetic suck-up. Very few daily reporters win promotions or awards, find their reputation elevated, or jump to a more prestigious newspaper by kissing Washington ass. This isn’t to suggest that nobody in the business puckers for powerful Republicans. Many do, and Boehlert collects their names. But it’s not in the long-term interests of an ambitious daily reporter to do so. (Repeat after me: Judith Miller.)
Discussing the Valerie Plame case, Boehlert tries to make hay by noting that “special prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] had supplanted the timid D.C. press crops and become the fact finder of record.” Any comparison between the fact-finding abilities of prosecutors, who have subpoena power, and reporters, who don’t, is ridiculous. Also, he’s right that the MSM didn’t aggressively seek to expose the Bush administration source who leaked Plame’s covert identity, but he neglects to acknowledge that very few journalists make a practice of reporting the sources of leaks of classified information to their competitors. The law that may have been broken in the Plame case—Fitzgerald has never said it was—is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, an ugly piece of legislation. Will Boehlert also denounce the MSM for not finding the sources behind James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s series on NSA surveillance in the New York Times (Dec. 16, Dec. 21, and Dec. 24)? Felonies may have been committed in the reporting of that story, too, but outside of Commentarymagazine nobody is scorning the press for not assigning I-Teams to out the Times’sources.
I’ll keep this book on my desk and thumb it whenever I need a solid example of Bush-era press perfidy. But I don’t have additional use for a book that defines MSM hackery as broadly as Lapdogs. For instance, Boehlert disparages former Clinton brain-truster and current ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos—not exactly your standard MSM stooge—for telling C-SPAN in 2003 that the Bush military story had deadened.
Press Box Bonus: Brent Staples’ Echo Effect
The first sentence from his June 5, 2000, “Editorial Observer” in the New York Times:
The University of Maryland Baltimore County has grown dramatically since it opened 34 years ago in a former cow pasture not far from downtown.
The first sentence from his “Editorial Observer” today’s (May 25) New York Times:
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, opened for business in a former cow pasture not far from downtown just 40 years ago.
Why must I be like that? Why must I chase the cat? Send your favorite George Clinton lyrics (I’m talking to you, David Mills!) to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. No mail from earthlink.net addresses will receive responses unless you promise to turn off your anti-spam protection.)