Pundits Race to the Bottom

While often annoying, punditry is an honorable and necessary corollary to media in search of the holy grail of objectivity. But the business has fallen into a pathetic state in recent times, as is clear from three scandals, the reactions to which are no less indicative of how low we now go.

The first and best-known of these transgressions is that involving Robert Novak, who, alone among professional journalists, proved willing to play patsy for the Bush administration and endanger U.S. national security by deliberately revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson. Shameful as they were, Novak's actions were nevertheless predictable in a career defined by his eagerness to serve right-wing politicians and causes. While he occasionally exploited his political connections for personal financial gain – in the form of high-priced, off-the-record briefings for wealthy executives featuring high-profile Republican officials – Novak mostly exploits his access for fame. Washington Post editors and CNN executives allow him his transgressions, and the Washington establishment continues to embrace him because he is so embedded in the city's corrupt journalistic/political culture that he can no longer be separated from it. Even the spectacle of two journalists, Time's Matthew Cooper and The New York Times's Judith Miller, facing prison in the Plame case when it is clearly Novak who is at fault seems to have done nothing to shake his employers' confidence.

Ironically, although CNN has parted company with Tucker Carlson and has announced that it will cancel Crossfire, with its new chief, Jonathan Klein, endorsing Jon Stewart's now-famous indictment that the show's "partisan hackery ... is hurting America," the far more offensive Novak remains in Klein's good graces. Carlson is a talented conservative journalist who, like almost every other television pundit, has allowed himself to become a sitcom-style caricature as fame and (Washington-level) riches beckoned. A moderate right-winger by contemporary standards, Carlson complained that he was often expected to take the administration's position even when he disagreed with it, demonstrating the fundamental dishonesty of the entire setup.

It is not an accident that the two sides on Crossfire were divided between political professionals on one side and hack journalists on the other. In the far-right-dominated culture of cable TV, no liberal journalist has been invited to rise to the level of a Carlson or a Novak, an O'Reilly, a Limbaugh, a Scarborough, etc. Even PBS has largely thrown in the towel on inviting liberals on the air, cutting back the post-Bill Moyers NOW to a half-hour and following it with a show for Carlson and another for the extremist, self-described "wild men" of the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. Carlson is about to get his own show on MSNBC, where, like Scarborough and CNBC's hapless Dennis Miller (rating, 0.1), he will chase the O'Reillys and the Hannitys of Fox for a part of the right-wing-audience pie. The mercy killing of Crossfire, while welcome on many levels, removes just about the only opportunity for cable viewers to hear the liberal perspective at all. On Fox and MSNBC, viewers are given only Alan Colmes-type faux liberals. On the Sunday shows like Meet the Press, the split is most often between the fire-breathers like Novak or William Safire and center-right conservatives like David Broder. Liberals need not apply.

If you were wondering where the line that cannot be crossed by conservative pundits doing the administration's bidding is, Armstrong Williams, a 45-year-old black conservative who is a favorite on all these shows, discovered it. As USA Today reported, Armstrong accepted payments totaling nearly a quarter-million dollars to pimp the administration's position on the No Child Left Behind law on both radio and TV. The arrangement, which came at taxpayer expense, throws into sharp relief just how closely entwined conservative pundits have become with this administration and with the conservative movement in particular. ("The conservative press is self-consciously conservative and self-consciously part of the team," Grover Norquist explains. "The liberal press is ... conflicted. Sometimes it thinks it needs to be critical of both sides.")

Washing the $240,000 through a public relations firm in which he is a partner, Armstrong put his newspaper column and his TV and radio appearances at the service of the administration. The contract stipulated that a public relations firm hired by the Education Department would "arrange for Mr. Williams to regularly comment on N.C.L.B. during the course of his broadcasts," that "Secretary Paige and other department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests" and that "Mr. Williams shall utilize his long-term working relationships with 'America's Black Forum'" – a black news program – "to encourage the producers to periodically address the No Child Left Behind Act." Williams explained that while he knew he was in rough waters journalistically, he took the cash because the law "is something I believe in." (Memo to Mr. Rove: For a cool mill, I'll believe you found Saddam's WMDs.)

Williams has been fired by Tribune Media Services, which distributed his column, but I'd be surprised if he's kept off the cable networks very long. MSNBC has invited a known plagiarist, Mike Barnicle, to host a show there. Pat Robertson agreed with Jerry Falwell that America got what it deserved on 9/11, but CNN still uses him as an expert commentator on Middle East affairs.

The Williams episode also raises the question of how many other conservative propagandists are on the receiving end of administration payola. We know that local TV stations have shown the administration's fake news reports, distributed by CNN and featuring Karen Ryan, to promote its lousy new Medicare law. The Office of National Drug Control Policy used the same tactic to help stations fool viewers with illegal "covert propaganda" programs, according to the GAO. The revelation of these tactics forced CNN to change its policies to disallow their use. Good for them. And good for them for canning Crossfire. But what, for goodness' sake, Mr. Klein, about Novak?


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