Progress Report: Media Think They Know Best

For six years, conservative domination of Washington created a drought of oversight and accountability. Now, as Congress finally begins to take action and shed light on the executive branch, establishment media figures are aghast. In recent weeks, reporters and editorial boards have repeatedly criticized members of Congress for investigating the White House or acting as counterweights to President Bush. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted, "Journalists are supposed to be, by definition, eager for investigations of government misconduct. That is supposed to be their purpose, embedded in their DNA." Yet time and again, media figures have ignored public opinion data and claimed that members of Congress risk severe political damage by carrying out their constitutional oversight responsibilities. Journalists have a critical responsibility to not be complicit in corruption, government malfeasance, and possible criminality. They shouldn't be mocking or criticizing efforts to hold the White House accountable; they should be furthering them.


MEDIA: AMERICANS DON'T WANT ACCOUNTABILITY: Speaking about the U.S. attorney scandal last week, CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood claimed that "[i]nvestigating the Bush administration is a lot easier than passing new laws," and cautioned that "[o]ne danger for Democrats is whether they look too political in exploiting this." The next day, NBC's Brian Williams "paraphrased" Harwood's comments, saying, "I can't help but wonder if the Democrats are finding it a little easier to investigate than legislate." Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel chimed in this weekend. "I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove, because it is so bad for them," he said, ignoring the fact that criticism of Rove and calls for him to testify have been bipartisan. "[I]t shows business as usual, tit for tat, vengeance," Stengel said. "That's not what voters want to see." In fact, public opinion data shows just the opposite. A USA Today poll conducted this weekend asked, "Do you think Congress should -- or should not -- investigate the involvement of White House officials in this matter?" An overwhelming majority, 72 percent, said it should. Sixty-eight percent said President Bush and his aides should "Answer all questions" rather than invoking executive privilege, and an equal number said Congress should "issue subpoenas to force White House officials to testify under oath" about the matter. This should come as little surprise. Last September, prior to the midterm elections, a CNN poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought it would be a good thing for Congress to "conduct official investigations into what the Bush administration has done in the last six years."


MEDIA: THE U.S. ATTORNEY PURGE IS OVERBLOWN: In mid-January, as early details of the administration's purge of U.S. attorneys began to trickle out, Time magazine reporter Jay Carney was already convinced the story was a dud. "[I]n this case some liberals are seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist," he wrote. To his credit, two months later, Carney acknowledged he was wrong. But many senior journalists continue to parrot this line, despite the serious wrongdoings and potential illegalities that have since been exposed. This past weekend, CBS national political correspondent Gloria Borger declared that members of Congress pursuing the attorney scandal merely "want to change the subject. ... They don’t want to talk about how they’re doing on the war in Iraq." MSNBC's Chris Matthews agreed. "They divide over the war and fund-raising, but this makes it simple. It's good for fund-raising." A March 22 Washington Post editorial stated that e-mails released by the Justice Department "for the most part suggest nothing nefarious in the dismissal process." (As Media Matters noted, "[W]hile the editorial referred to the 'e-mails that the administration has released,' it made no mention of the entire category of communications that the White House has said will not be released.") Roll Call executive editor Mort Kondracke claimed last week that there's "not a shred of evidence" that "there was a nefarious reason involved" in the firings. Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes agreed: "I'm still waiting to see some evidence of illegality or wrongdoing." Again, the American public is far ahead of the establishment media. Fully 58 percent, including 45 percent of Republicans, "say the ouster of the federal prosecutors was driven by political concerns."


MEDIA: CONGRESS SHOULDN'T BE MEDDLING WITH IRAQ POLICY: Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial titled “Do we really need a Gen. Pelosi?” attacking the House plan to set a time line for redeploying U.S. forces out of Iraq. Much of the editorial was spent arguing why Congress should voluntarily neuter itself. The Times said that Congress “must not limit the president’s ability to maneuver at this critical juncture,” and that “lawmakers have a duty to let the president try” his escalation strategy, rather than "meddling in military strategy." Last Friday, the same day the House voted to approve the Iraq legislation, the Washington Post editorial board (which in 2003 called the Iraq war “an operation essential to American security”) weighed in with an piece characterizing the House plan as “an unconditional retreat.” Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) responded on the House floor: "[T]he problem we have today is not that we didn’t listen enough to people like the Washington Post. It’s that we listened too much.” Indeed, a new Pew Research poll finds that a "solid majority of Americans say they want their congressional representative to support [the House] bill calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by August 2008. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say they would like to see their representative vote for such legislation." The same poll showed nearly three-quarters of respondents were frustrated with Congress's current efforts on Iraq, many because they felt it hasn't had enough of an impact on war policy.

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