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'Chilling' the Press

As long as the 'liberal media' charge carries weight in the public imagination, reporters are open to being blacklisted by powerful politicians seeking to avoid scrutiny.
 
 
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The story is one as old as the political arena itself. When one side feels it wields all the power, it loses a sense of proportion and limits on its behavior. We've seen countless hints of such likely abuses from the conservatives who rule the roost today, from a purge of those who offered sensible advice before our current misadventure in Iraq took place to an ill-fated attempt to give certain congressional staffers the police-state like power to examine the tax records of Americans at will. Together with this tendency to believe in one's political invulnerability is the notion that power is no longer accountable in the old-fashioned way; that the media are no longer to be treated as a necessary protection of the people's right to know, but rather as a nuisance to be neutered so that power may roll along merrily and unhindered by too many uncomfortable questions.

Disdain for the fundamental functions of reporting and the accountability it inspires has long been evident among many denizens of the Bush administration. Of late it has also filtered down the state level as well. We see it in Texas; we see it in New York; and most recently, we see it next door to the nation's capital in Maryland.

On Nov. 18, the press office of Maryland's Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich Jr., sent a memo to all state public information officers forbidding them from speaking to two Baltimore Sun reporters, State House bureau chief David Nitkin and columnist Michael Olesker. The governor was unhappy with some reporting critical of his administration the two had produced. He claimed they had engaged in "noncontextual innuendo" in writing about his administrations formula for evaluating Maryland's surplus public lands, including a charge that the governor was employing state-funded advertising for personal political gain. Nitkin was accused of authoring a story that included an incorrect map of state lands, while Olesker appeared to imply that he had been present at a state hearing that he had, in fact, failed to attend.

Ehrlich has seen little reason to defend his decision, and has so far refused to meet with representatives of the paper to outline his objections to their coverage, telling a local Baltimore radio station, "[The ban is] meant to have a chilling effect on them. They have no credibility. It's clearly meant to have not only chilling effect ... but a very serious effect on these two writers." 'Chilling,' indeed.

In order to defend itself from the charge of enforcing its own set of press ethics on employees of a respected news organization and seeking to control an ostensibly free press, Ehrlich's press secretary, Greg Massoni, authored an additional memo in which he charged Nitkin and Olesker with "failing to objectively report on any issue dealing with the Ehrlich-Steele administration." He added that their employer, the Baltimore Sun, suffered from that age old malady that conservatives detect in any news they would prefer to see go unreported: the dreaded disease of "liberal bias." 

Bias, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. So too, the journalistic goal of "objectivity." As the Sun has reported, "While the administration has complained that the articles have been 'unbalanced', nothing in them has been found to be inaccurate." The ban on its reporter and columnist, Sun editors maintain, "seeks to limit the Sun's ability to gather and report information. It also is designed to put the paper on the defensive and to plant seeds of doubt among readers about the veracity of the Sun's reporting."

Exactly. For more than three decades now, the right has been enormously successful at planting just such "seeds of doubt" in the public's mind, and has built a up a massive commercial and non-commercial information infrastructure to reinforce them. Without, people like Brent Bozell, and the late Reed Irvine, would have had to find honest work in the for-profit sector conservatives so frequently extol. And it's worked. As author Brent Cunningham noted in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) last year, the right's relentless attack on the media's alleged (and largely unproven) liberal bias has taken a powerful toll on the press' ability to do its job properly. In speaking of a redefined notion of objectivity, he wrote, "One result is a hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias, and it shows up everywhere: In October 2001, with the war in Afghanistan under way, then CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his foreign correspondents telling them to "balance" reports of Afghan "casualties or hardship" with reminders to viewers that this was, after all, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. More recently, a CJR intern, calling newspaper letters-page editors to learn whether reader letters were running for or against the looming war in Iraq, was told by the letters editor at The Tennessean that "letters were running 70 percent against the war, but that the editors were trying to run as many pro-war letters as possible lest they be accused of bias."

Accompanying this phony charge of bias we frequently find a willingness to use the power of office to try to intimidate reporters from looking too carefully at the actions of public officials who might not enjoy – or perhaps survive – such scrutiny. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was a master of this tactic, once telling a reporter who asked him a question he didn't like that the question had been "noted in the building." He even informed close White House ally, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, that his prediction that Al Gore would win the 2000 election had also been dutifully "noted." Perhaps Fleischer's most unsettling employment of this tactic was his famous September, 2001 response to some unfavorable comments by comedian Bill Maher, when he warned that all Americans had better "watch what they say, watch what they do."

Hamstrung by its commitment to objectivity and its desire to appear nonpartisan, the media have done a woefully ineffective job of defending themselves – and their constitutional responsibility to hold power accountable. In the end it is America's democracy that suffers most as a result. The blacklisting of two veteran reporters under Governor Ehrlich's watch provides just the latest example. By falsely terming the Sun "liberal," Ehrlich changes the topic from his own political decisions and gets himself off the hook from the kind of public scrutiny that would ensure the he carry out the people's business faithfully. And while a tactic this effective with the right's minions is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, employing it to deny reporters the ability to do their jobs crosses a new line in this decades-long campaign. It is one that all Americans have an interest in seeing the media defend vigorously and without compromise.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences." Paul McLeary is a New York writer.