Enough Bread, Bring on the Circus

We rarely agree with Brent Bozell, who comes from that school of press critics that believes there is no greater threat to the republic’s well-being than liberal media bias — not the bias towards sensationalism and conflict, not the bottom-line-driven cost cuts that have decimated newsrooms of talent, not the mindless rush to go to print with underprepared news reports. No — in Bozell’s mind, it’s all about ideology. Nonetheless, we’ve managed to find some common ground with the good Mr. Bozell, who released a statement this week declaring that “The Newsweek story is the same CBS/National Guard ‘gotcha’ journalism story all over again.”

He’s right — but to a greater, and a different, degree than he realizes.

Let’s begin with the basics: in each case, corporate news outlets, in their desire to break a story, ran with assertions on the basis of insufficient evidence. In each case, the bias for what Karl Rove has called “oppositional” journalism combined with mania for the scoop resulted in a premature presentation of an undercooked meal. In each case, the driving motive was mistakenly labeled liberal bias — most laughably in the Newsweek case, where Michael Isikoff, the man who for years pursued Bill Clinton with the relentlessness of a timber wolf, from the Paula Jones scandal up to and through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was all of a sudden painted as an anti-military liberal stooge. Finally, and most importantly, in each case — CBS and Newsweek — the White House used those journalistic lapses to deftly obscure larger issues. The press served up a pair of hanging curveballs, and the White House hit them out of the park.

In the Newsweek case, the White House’s motivation is obvious: They would rather talk about the purported harm done by six inaccurate words in a Newsweek brief than talk about, for example, the 10 Guantanamo Bay interrogators who have already been disciplined for abuse of prisoners. Along the way, the White House managed to obscure the fact that Newsweek only retracted a statement about what a source expected an upcoming government report to say — the magazine has taken no stance, now or then, on the question of whether or not any desecration of the Koran by interrogators took place. (Some eyewitnesses say yes.)

The CBS “Memogate” controversy evolved in a strikingly similar fashion. The White House went hard at CBS for relying on memos that the network didn’t (and still can’t) properly authenticate, and the press followed, opting to focus on CBS’s rush to go public with an unverified source instead of on the question at hand — Bush’s National Guard service. As James Goodale, the former lead lawyer for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers uproar, pointed out in the New York Review of Books:

Lost in the commotion over the authenticity of the documents is that the underlying facts of Rather’s “60 Minutes” report are substantially true. Bush did not take the physical exam required of all pilots; his superiors gave him the benefit of any doubt; he did receive special treatment and Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer, was unhappy with the loss of [Air National Guard’s] investment in him when Bush informed Killian he was leaving for Alabama. Before the broadcast, Mary Mapes, the CBS producer of the program, confirmed the facts in the documents with retired Major General Bobby Hodges, who had been Killian’s superior in the ANG. Later Hodges told the panel he did not think the documents were authentic, but did not disagree that the facts were substantially correct.

We can understand Keith Olbermann’s frustration when he writes, in reference to the Newsweek controversy, “Whenever I hear this White House talking about ‘doing to damage to our image abroad’ and how ‘people have lost lives,’ I strain to remember who it was who went traipsing into Iraq looking for WMD that will apparently turn up just after the Holy Grail will — and at what human cost?”

But White House operatives, in each of these cases, had clear, and, in their minds, justifiable reasons to shift focus of attention: The Memogate controversy could help Bush get re-elected by casting doubt on the questions about his Guard service, and the Newsweek dustup could shift the focus from the ethics of government interrogators to those of journalists — and, as a side benefit, further damage the credibility of another mainstream media bastion. To us, the White House’s Machiavellian tactics are much easier to understand — and even, from their lights, to justify — than are the dubious motivations of editors and reporters covering the story about the story who so willingly ceded control of the process.

Both Newsweek’s and CBS’s journalistic lapses, of course, deserve to be covered, and covered thoroughly. Both outlets made serious and substantial errors, and the public should be aware of them. But in a media environment in which news outlets are willing to cede countless hours and inches to a Jennifer Wilbanks, it’s astounding that our press has such a hard time covering Memogate without abandoning the National Guard story and covering Newsweek’s fumble without continuing to get to the bottom of abuses at Guantanamo.

Bozell is all too right when he says that the Newsweek dustup is the Memogate scandal all over again — but not in the way he imagines. Once again, the media have allowed the White House to parlay a journalistic sin into an opportunity to shift attention away from what ought to be central public issues.

Thus do the media give away their authority, and then gladly go along, helter-skelter, for the ensuing ride.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.