Media for a Post-truth Society
The United States government is currently run by a group of people for whom verifiable truth holds no particular privilege over ideologically inspired nonsense. For members of the mainstream media, trying to maintain a sense of self-importance and solemnity and to keep the wing nuts from crowing for more scalps, this requires a series of stratagems to keep up the scripted charade, no matter how foolish it makes them look or feel while doing so.
The easiest of these stratagems is simply to stack the coverage with political partisans and give them free rein to spout GOP propaganda. That's what the cable news networks do, as Media Matters for America demonstrated. Consistent with cable inauguration coverage, for example, MSNBC offered viewers of its State of the Union commentary 11 right-wing pundits and just two Democrats or liberals in response.
A second technique is more often deployed on network television, where such naked partisanship is frowned upon, but executives are, if anything, even more worried about appearing unsympathetic to the red-state, red-meat offerings of George W. Bush. This is to ignore the substance and focus on the spectacle, the "feelings" and the atmosphere. CBS' Bob Schieffer, on his best post-Dan Rather behavior, for instance, marveled, "One of the best-delivered speeches that I have heard President Bush make. He was confident, he was direct, he drove his points home."
On ABC, Cokie Roberts found herself enthralled with a faux-dramatic – and most likely fully staged – embrace between an Iraqi woman seated next to Laura Bush and the mother of a soldier who died for Bush's folly in Fallujah, gushing, "To have that completely spontaneous hug was something that leaves you with goose bumps." Tim Russert – who, like so many Democratic pols who transition to media megabucks, is committed to proving his bona fides by kowtowing to Republicans at every opportunity – professed, "You can feel ... in this town" that Democratic "nerves are frayed." Russert was reacting to a rare display of Democratic spirit during the speech – booing when Bush sought to mislead the country into dismantling the most successful government program ever attempted in America: Social Security. To Russert and much of the permanent Washington establishment, the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat – or at least one who's willing to act that way.
The standard for this kind of contentless coverage is set, per usual, by the reporting of The New York Times. If the lead reporter of the newspaper of record can ditch the substance part, well then, so can everybody else. Reporter Todd Purdum marveled at Bush's "penchant for thinking big, or speaking grandly." He then referred to Bush's "first State of the Union address three years ago ... he stunned the world with his denunciation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an 'axis of evil,' and his warning that he would 'not wait on events while dangers gather.'" Purdum failed to note what was obvious to any "reality-based" observer: that the "axis" idea was logically incoherent, and the arguments vis-Ã -vis Iraq were based on evidence later deemed imaginary. Instead, Purdum explained that Bush "has long since proved both the extent, and the limits, of his ability to match his actions to his words," which is an awfully nice way of saying that the man is full of it.
Times editors might have taken a lesson from the Boston Globe, a paper with whom they share a common owner, which provided a presidential "fact check" demonstrating Bush's willingness to mislead the nation in the service of his ideological obsessions. In the Knight Ridder newspapers – a chain whose coverage of the leadup to war, by the way, puts to shame that of almost every other paper, particularly that of the Times's credulous correspondent Judith Miller – Kevin G. Hall had the honor and honesty to report that the president was seeking to destroy Social Security on the basis of calculations that were transparently phony. He wrote, "President Bush's warning that Social Security faces a looming financial crisis is based on the assumption that the U.S. economy will grow by only 1.8 percent each year, on average, for most of the next 75 years. Since 1950, the U.S. economy has grown, on average, by 3.5 percent per year." However, he noted, "If the economy continued to grow over the next 50 years at a rate anywhere near the past pace, Social Security wouldn't face a financial crisis, though it would require small adjustments to balance its income and costs." (Perhaps this is the kind of reporting of which the oh-so-smart folks at ABC's The Note complain, "Can we stop reading those repetitive, boring, and incomplete journalistic Q&A's on how private accounts would work, blah blah blah, how the system is currently funded, blah blah blah, what the [p]resident is proposing, blah blah blah?")
Of course, journalism is by definition a process of selection and omission, so it can be a little unfair to single out what reporters failed to report about Bush's speech. But the unhappy fact is that almost everything this administration tries to sell to Americans is snake oil, and the mere act of reporting it without comment implicates the media in the fundamental dishonesty that is this president's modus operandi. When he says "freedom," he means the freedom of the United States and its allies to jail and torture anyone they choose. When he says "liberty," he means the liberty of other governments to profess to share the alleged aims of U.S. foreign policy and then – like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Egypt – jail and silence all critics without inconvenient criticism from the United States. (If you play the game right, you can even provide weapons to anti-American terrorists and fund anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda on behalf of the terrorists, all the while remaining a close friend of Bush & Co.)
This is apparently what NBC's Andrea Mitchell had in mind when she spoke of the administration's "democracy agenda that Condi Rice is going to be bringing to Europe and the Middle East." Or perhaps she meant an American invasion of Iran; or the destruction of Social Security. It's hard to know in a post-truth society what anything means anymore, except more nonsense and lies, dutifully reported.