When George Bush is having a tough week, what does he do? Call Mom and Dad? Have a beer (hold the pretzels) with Karl Rove? Drop into the bunker for a one-on-one with Cheney? Nope, he calls the media. So, apparently, was the thought process behind the president's surprising appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday.
You'd think he'd stay away from that liberal media (as his cohorts are fond of calling it), but the fact is that more often than not, the media has helped Bush. When you compare his treatment to the way Al Gore and Bill Clinton were covered, it starts to raise troubling questions. On Sunday, by many accounts, Bush was given less than the usual Tim Russert treatment, as the NBC-TV host failed to ask follow-up questions on several of Bush's most suspect answers.
I'm no conspiracy theorist, and I think there is excellent journalism coming out all the time. Still, through a combination of being cleverly manipulated, allowing too much opinion to creep into reporting and trying to always be first with a story, the media has gone from being the referee to being a player in the game. This is a big problem, especially now with a severely divided nation. At precisely the time when we need truth to settle the big questions of the day, instead we're getting spin.
If this trend persists, what were once democratic elections will be reduced to contests between who has the more cunning marketing operation. If there is no informational authority, we will have informational anarchy. And it's already here; how else do you explain the alarmingly high number of Americans who believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11?
Which brings us to the strange case of George W. Bush. It's hard to argue the point that Bush has never had to stand up to the level of scrutiny -- and derision -- that Gore or Clinton did. Bill Clinton had to endure investigations over missing files, the suicide of a friend and a real estate deal in which he actually lost money. Bush has a hard time getting investigated for taking the nation to war under an apparently manufactured rationale -- something that could, in time, be viewed among the nation's most notorious scandals. Then there's Monica, which Clinton clearly deserved to be scrutinized for. But impeachment? Note how there's absolutely no coverage in the media about impeaching Bush for his alleged crimes. Remember, it's not about what you did; it's about lying about what you did -- if you're a Democrat.
Then there's the way Al Gore was treated in 2000. You'll recall the running joke about how stiff Al Gore was, and later how he thought he invented the Internet (snicker) and dreamed up that he was the basis for a character in the book and film Love Story. These stories were pushed by Republican operatives and Fox News, and Gore was pummeled over them. But most voters don't remember that, in fact, he did run the first Congressional investigation on amping up the Internet and he was the basis for a character in Love Story. Corrections, when they ran, were never as big as the story in the first place.
While Gore was trying to unstiffen himself, Bush was routinely referred to as "a guy you'd like to have a beer with" (whatever that means). He was a regular guy from Texas, just like you and me. The media rarely mentioned that his regular-guy connection to voters probably stopped at getting out of serving in Vietnam, getting three oil companies and a baseball team through his father's connections, easy entry to Ivy League schools, etc. Media pundits even determined that he won the presidential debates simply because he didn't screw up and for managing to pronounce foreign leaders' names correctly. The media saw a story it liked and swallowed the hook that was the carefully crafted myth of George Bush, regular guy.
Even when the curtain was lifted accidentally on the slick Bush publicity machine from time to time, the stories came and went quickly. Remember when he called a New York Times reporter a "major league asshole" into a mike he didn't know was turned on? And before a speech just before committing troops to Iraq, a camera caught him pumping his fist as if he just hit a home run, saying "Feels good."
There are a lot of theories about why Bush has been given such a pass by the media. Some say reporters identified more closely with Clinton and Gore, so they were more willing to criticize them. Something about fear, self-loathing and familiarity breeding contempt. And after 9/11, nobody wanted to seem unpatriotic. Ari Fleischer even blackballed Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, for raising unpleasant issues. And nobody wants Rummy to laugh derisively at his or her question -- that can be a career-killer.
But there are powerful conservative forces devoted to pressuring the media to blow up stories that help them while ignoring those that don't. This conservative media echo chamber starts with talk radio hosts, who often simply recite the GOP's daily talking points, it extends to conservative magazines and columnists and winds up on Fox News, where the jump to mainstream newspapers and TV isn't so far. There are no such forces being paid handsome salaries to produce similar results for Democratic causes.
And the trends persist. Now there are forces trying to get questions about Bush's National Guard service shoved aside. When the story was first revealed in 2000, it died on the vine after the Bush campaign denied it. Clinton endured weeks of questions in 1992 about his agonizing over military service as a young man. Is this fair treatment? Just ask yourself this question: If it was revealed that even the possibility existed that Clinton had dodged out on 18 months of National Guard duty, would the Republican spin machine have let it slide?
And many people believe the media played a huge role in running Howard Dean's campaign off the rails by replaying his "I have a scream" speech over and over and over...
So maybe the Democrats should fight fire with fire and develop a more potent political operation. I think that solution, again, leads to informational anarchy. More people trying to spin the American public would only make things worse. The real answer is for the media to reform itself and start doing its job. Here are a few suggestions.
License Journalists -- Just kidding -- sort of. With the First Amendment and all, licensing journalists the way we do with doctors and lawyers is likely illegal. So how about labeling them? TV weathercasters are accredited so you can know whether to trust them or not. If journalists and news organizations want to win that "fair and balanced" label, why not force them to live it and exhibit it in their work? Fox News, for example, might have to change its ways to earn accreditation, or it could remain purely as a purveyor of opinion. At least networks could label opinion-driven shows to people could distinguish them from journalism-driven content. We label all kinds of things, from food in the supermarket to CDs to movies, so why not label news?
With journalists and media outlets accredited, that would leave the pundits clearly in the opinion category. Keeping the two separate is an important step for the media to take. But to help consumers on this front even more, I'd recommend that statistics run along with the pundit as they appear -- kind of the way they show a baseball player's batting average when he comes up to bat. These guys are wrong a lot -- none of them predicted Kerry would win Iowa, for just one example -- but they continue to pontificate. Viewers would take it with a grain of salt if, say, the Purity in Punditry Council assigned scores for how often their predictions are right, how often they fudge the truth to make a point and how many of their opinions actually have facts to back them up. This would also improve the quality of punditry, as the crappy ones would get cut -- again, kind of like in baseball.
Fight the Spin -- As active members of the news business, reporters and editors should not be surprised to learn that there are a lot of forces at work trying to manipulate them. So why does it seem so easy to do just that? A good place for media organizations to start on the road to fair coverage would be to establish a position publicly known as a Fairness Editor. This person would be in charge of keeping score to make sure that no party or candidate is given an unfair advantage.
Behind the scenes, this person might better be called the BS Detective, charged with determining when his or her outlet is unwittingly doing the bidding of some interest group or another. Since most frontline journalists are too busy working on the day-to-day grind, the establishment of a BS Detective could also create a journalistic conscience for organizations that appear to need one.
Slow Down -- So far, the reporting on the Democratic primaries has seemed like a rush to decide who is the winner. Before a vote was cast, the story was "How can anyone beat Howard Dean?" Now it's "How can anyone beat John Kerry?" After every election, the media has gut-wrenching discussions about how their presidential coverage always devolves into the equivalent of calling a horse race. So when the next campaign rolls around, they promptly start with the horse-race stuff all over again. When the priority is to divine what's going to happen in the future rather than reporting on what actually did happen, issues are reduced to background noise.
This has been made worse by a 24-hour news hole to fill, and the competition for ratings (which is really about how much you can charge for ads). This rush also keeps reporters from doing their jobs -- explaining how candidates' plans may or may not be good for you. It's hard to get to such questions when you're constantly trying to figure out where candidates stand on, say, exposed breasts during Super Bowl halftime shows.
This all leads to the need to establish priorities. And as long as the top priority is ratings, we're all in trouble. It's a quaint notion, but part of the reason the public doles out broadcast frequencies is to provide a way for Americans to stay informed. Right now, if the Second Coming happens on the same day as a mongoose bites a man in his private parts, you can bet they'd cut the JC coverage to make time for that video.
So what can you do? Not much, but if a lot of people do a little, change could come. You can start by complaining. If you see something you think is unfair, fire off a strongly worded e-mail to the offending news organization. It's personally cathartic, and, believe it or not, the media is exceedingly thin-skinned.
You can find new sources of information and develop your own BS detection abilities, separating fact from fiction, partisanship from public service. There has been an explosion of informational sources on the Internet, but again it's almost exclusively opinion-driven, so caveat emptor.
Finally, you can hope that the Democratic nominee makes media coverage an issue. Along with other campaign failings, Gore blew it when he refused to fight back effectively when the media portrayed him unfairly. If a candidate seriously calls the media on clear transgressions, couching his critique carefully as a call for the media to rededicate itself to fairness and illumination instead of flashiness and manipulation, he could help the wayward press rediscover its mission. And perhaps get a nice bounce in the polls. (More on those poll results at 11.)