HERTSGAARD ON MEDIA: Washington Court Press

The night Bob Dole announced he was leaving the Senate, Ted Koppel and Newt Gingrich, oozing mutual self-regard and insider status, were mulling over the day's events on Nightline. During the entire conversation -- one could hardly call it an interview -- the closest Koppel came to an adversarial remark was his declaration, "It is amazing how quickly things change in this city." Well, maybe. As Koppel noted, Gingrich is no longer called the prime minister of American politics, as he was a year ago, and the presidency is no longer considered irrelevant. But to me, as the author of a book criticizing the cozy relationship between Washington's politicians and its journalists, what is truly striking is how much never seems to change in Washington. When my book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency was published, in 1988, it criticized the Reagan White House for running a propaganda operation that misrepresented Reagan's policies and debased open, democratic government. But my fundamental point was a castigation of the U.S. news media as a stenographer to power that "abdicated its responsibility to report fully and accurately to the American people what their government was really doing." The past eight years, it seems to me, have only been more of the same. I made this argument to the Washington correspondent of a major U.S. newspaper not long ago, and he was taken aback. To him, it seemed plain that the press has been much less fawning toward Clinton than toward Reagan. Which it has. But that shift is not because of the abundant shortcomings of Clinton's P.R. apparatus, much less any self-improvement on the part of the news media. No, coverage of the Clinton presidency has been mixed for the same basic reason that coverage of Reagan was adulatory: The Washington press corps is a creature of official Washington and, as such, reflects the views of its contending factions. I call it a palace court press because its conception of "fairness" and newsworthy sources makes it a hostage to the often blinkered debate within the Washington political elite. Independent voices are shortchanged in deference to the latest round of Democrats versus Republicans. And coverage of the White House tends to be only as adversarial as the opposition party is. This was a most satisfactory arrangement for Reagan, for he faced no real opposition party. Indeed, in interviews for On Bended Knee, many journalists argued that if Reagan did get off easy, it was the Democrats' fault, not theirs. Democrats often agreed with Reagan's policies outright, and when they didn't, they were too afraid of his (much exaggerated) popularity to criticize him very much. Star Wars was the exception that proves the rule. A significant portion of the national security elite, including such stalwart friends of the Pentagon as Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, had serious concerns about a missile defense system, which is why Star Wars received some skeptical coverage while, say, Reagan's economic policies mostly did not. Clinton hasn't been so lucky. To be sure, he didn't help himself by getting drawn into the gays-in-the-military issue his first week in office or by then running off in fourteen different policy directions at once; two cardinal rules of the Reagan P.R. apparatus were (1) talk about the issues you want to talk about and (2) repeat the same message over and over, as advertising does. But the primary reason for Clinton's media difficulties is that he has been confronted by an impassioned opposition party that has eagerly drawn distinctions with his philosophy and has attacked whenever possible. Health care reform, the centerpiece of Clinton's first term, was subjected to fierce, relentless assault by Republicans and their corporate backers. Again, the Clinton crowd did a poor job of selling the initiative, but what most muddied the waters of public perception were the ceaseless Republican charges that it was socialized medicine. A nonsensical complaint, but duly and repeatedly amplified by news organizations on grounds of fairness and neutrality. A truly independent press might have broadened the public debate by offering a fair portrayal of Canada's excellent public health system. But nobody was pushing that idea hard enough on Capitol Hill for it to register within the palace court mindset. (This mistake is being repeated today with the minimum wage. News accounts cast the issue as a choice between Republicans' $4.25 an hour versus Democrats' increase to $5.15 an hour. Since no Washington power bloc is demanding more than $5.15, news stories almost never mention that even $5.15 will leave a family of four below the poverty line.) If, on the other hand, enough political clout coalesces around a given position, even the most dubious idea can garner respectful coverage. Take Senator Al D'Amato's marathon hearings on Whitewater. It's much ado about little, especially compared with the profound constitutional dangers embodied in the Iran/contra scandal that finally roused the press from its Reagan-era slumber, but today's press is more than happy to play along. "I think in the last fifteen years some of the spine has gone out of a lot of journalists," Dan Rather told The New York Times earlier this year. More and more reporters, he added, now choose to "stick with the middle, move with the mass." Rather ought to know. In the early 1980s, he went along willingly enough when CBS management ordered that coverage of the Reagan Administration be made less critical. But such overt censorship is rarely necessary; the conventions of the palace court press make sure of that. Despite a Democratic President, Republicans in the Clinton era have succeeded in shifting the political and intellectual center of gravity in Washington to the right. Under such circumstances, to "stick with the middle" is in fact to veer to the right. All in the name of neutrality, of course.

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