Stirring the Pot

By Susan Q. Stranahan

Journalists are about to embark on an uncommon task in American politics: covering a president’s second term. As Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote recently, only eleven presidents have won a second term since the formation of the modern political party system in 1828.

Bill Clinton did it; so did Ronald Reagan. Now, as George W. Bush outlines his agenda and shuffles his cabinet in advance of Inauguration Day, it seems a good time to ask this question: Will the media, which belatedly conceded that they failed to adequately scrutinize Bush’s rationale for the Iraq war in his first term, take off the gloves in the next four years?

“History doesn’t give us much evidence of that,” says author Mark Hertsgaard. “Look at the Reagan era. The media certainly didn’t get tougher in his second term.”

In 1988, Hertsgaard wrote On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. “Even with all that eventually went wrong — the Iran-contra scandal, the stock market crash, the seemingly endless series of criminal investigations of former top White House officials — the overall press coverage of the Reagan administration was extraordinarily positive,” Hertsgaard concluded in his book.

Hertsgaard, currently a political correspondent for Link TV, a satellite channel, attributes part of Reagan’s second-term honeymoon to the effective public relations machine the president and his advisers created in the White House — an apparatus that has been replicated by the Bush administration. It succeeded in silencing critics, who were intimidated by the message and popularity of the president.

But another factor was at work: the lack of aggressive opposition on Capitol Hill. Absent that, journalists traditionally have shied away from injecting an issue into the news agenda, preferring instead to hang it on an “official” source.

“I think that basically press coverage of any president is only as critical as the opposition party is critical,” says Hertsgaard, who also wrote about the media and Reagan for The Nation shortly after the ex-president died in June.

Tom Rosenstiel, who heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agrees that the media take their cues from outside forces. “The press generally tends to be very reflective and reactive,” he says. “When it becomes more aggressive it’s usually because its sources become more aggressive.” Or at least available.

Washington is full of the disgruntled and ambitious, and so the second term offers an attractive opportunity for reporters.

“You have the president instantaneously becoming a lame duck,” Rosenstiel says. “You have factions that for the last two years or more were unified in working for the president’s re-election, and who are now vying for either their own candidacies to succeed him, or for their favorites to succeed him, or pre-eminence in policy-making or in the cabinet.” All are potential players in the source game.

There are others. “In a second term,” Rosenstiel adds, “you typically have more veterans of an administration who may feel free to talk to the press, either on or off the record. In the first term, that’s where some of the biggest stories from the administration came from.” He is referring to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who served as the main source for Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, a critical view of decision-making in the Bush White House, and former anti-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, whose book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror accused the administration of focusing attention on Iraq and away from al Qaeda.

Among the most sought-after sources during Bush’s second term may well be outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose relations with the president and his closest aides were rocky. Once he leaves the administration, Powell may be inclined to air his disagreements to salvage his legacy, as Sidney Blumenthal wrote earlier this week in Salon.

Still, Carl M. Cannon, who covered Bill Clinton and now Bush, first for the Baltimore Sun and now for the National Journal, doesn’t think information will be falling from the trees in the second term. “Bush is solidifying his group. He’s weeding out the outsiders,” he says. “It’s hard to think that things will be different.”

Beyond Powell, there are plenty of others on the receiving end of the “weeding” process who may prove accessible to reporters. Consider the recent purge at the CIA. Knight Ridder’s Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, who consistently found sources within the intelligence community during the first term, recently detailed administration efforts to silence those who disagree, an apparent attempt to prevent leaks during the second term.

Bush’s fellow Republicans may prove a gold mine as they jostle in advance of the 2008 campaign. “Second terms are harder for presidents,” says Rosenstiel. “The president may think he has the political capital to do more, but he’s swimming against some historical precedents. The factions within the GOP were united for the re-election and now they want their just desserts.” (Consider, for instance, the likelihood of a showdown between the religious right and moderate Republican lawmakers, like Arlen Specter and John McCain, over issues such as abortion and stem-cell research.)

And amid the squabbling over their share of the victory pie, “the press is usually the beneficiary.”

Can the Democrats be counted on to stir the pot? Hertsgaard and Cannon doubt it. The party is too caught up in its own post-election soul-searching to turn into pit bulls. “It’s hard to imagine they’ll be very outspoken against the president,” says Hertsgaard. “But we’ll see. Events could change all that. If the economy continues to go south and Iraq continues to go south, and the public is getting very tired of it, you can begin to see the press getting more critical. But I don’t count on it. They [the media] tend to take their views from what goes on inside Washington.”

Neither Rosenstiel nor Hertsgaard hold out much hope that the media will single-handedly deliver a blockbuster. “There are cases of the press on its own historically rising up and challenging an administration,” says Rosenstiel. “But these are very rare.” (Watergate is the best example.) “They almost always require the traditional stimulus — opposition members of Congress to give voice to this.”

The media has changed dramatically in the thirty years since Watergate. And none of it offers much reason to be optimistic that journalists will once again dig hard enough to expose and topple a president. (Recall that the ongoing disclosures about Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades came largely from Republicans, not the media acting on its own.)

The changes began in the Reagan administration. “Ronald Reagan and his people decided that they could stage events and communicate to the American public over the heads of the media,” says Rosenstiel. “They were masters at using the press as a conduit rather than a constituency. You didn’t need to win over the hearts and minds of the press. You went directly to the people.”

That process has accelerated with the rise of cable news and the Internet. “Cable is the talk radio of TV. It’s the new journalism of assertion as opposed to the old journalism of verification,” Rosenstiel explains. “You just assert it and figure it will sort itself out in the media marketplace. There’s no assumption that before we put these people on we need to see if they’re telling the truth.”

In this environment, according to Rosenstiel, the operative rule is this: “If we get both sides on, we’ve done our jobs.” (Regular readers of CJR Daily’s predecessor Campaign Desk will now be mouthing the words “he said/she said journalism.”)

So, will the second term produce anything for the journalism history books? Predictions are always dangerous. Past conduct, however, is illustrative.

Hertsgaard, writing in The Nation, described the responsibility of the press: “In the American system of checks and balances, it is not the media’s job to be for or against any president, but it is their job to make the reality, rather than the spin, of the president’s policies clear so citizens can decide intelligently whether to support them.”

Not a high threshold, to be sure, but one the press too often still fails to clear. There can be no excuses for not surpassing it in the next four years.

Correction: The above has been corrected to note that Ron Suskind, not Paul O’Neill, authored The Price of Loyalty, with O’Neill serving as a source.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.