Eric Boehlert on Creepy Stories, Navel-Gazing and the Fear Factor

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert has been a senior writer at Salon since 2000, covering politics, media, news and culture. Prior to joining Salon, he worked for four years at Rolling Stone as an associate editor and later a contributing editor. His first journalism job was as a reporter for Billboard magazine.

Susan Q. Stranahan: Armstrong Williams, Rathergate, Fox News, Bill O’Reilly, Bernie Kerik. This has been a banner few months for a liberal commentator. How do you pick what you write about, and are there any common themes here?

Eric Boehlert: All of those struck a chord for me, except the O’Reilly sex suit (subscription required), which I found to be alternately creepy/boring. I wish people had paid more attention to O’Reilly’s phony crusade last month to “save” Christmas from secularists than to his ill-advised workplace advances.

I suppose the common theme to a lot of what I write about is the enormous role the press plays in society, and specifically in regards to our political discourse, and how the coverage — unfairly, I think — often tilts in favor of Republicans. Just look at how the press played two of the most contentious issues of the 2004 campaign: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and President George Bush’s service in the National Guard. I can’t say I was surprised that, in the end, both stories broke Bush’s way. Even without the CBS debacle, the press had made it clear it was not going to ask the hard questions about Bush’s sporadic Guard service.

SQS: How is the traditional media covering these events, and what makes your voice different?

EB: Well, the mainstream press is certainly devoting more hours of the day to writing and talking about itself. I’m not sure if it’s because all these stories deserve more attention, or because newsroom navel-gazing has reached epic proportions. I suspect it’s a combination of both.

One of the things I continue to be amazed about while working at Salon is how easy it is to find a voice that’s different from the rest of the press pack. It’s actually sort of depressing that so few other national publications are looking at these issues with a fresh perspective. Why was nobody else in the press willing three weeks ago to point out that Bush’s approval ratings for a newly re-elected president were already at an historic low? Before the Kerik nomination [to head the Department of Homeland Security] imploded, why did so few people think it was relevant that he’d been running around during the election telling people a Kerry win would mean more terrorist attacks for America? And did nobody else think it was odd last summer when the New York Times ran a savage review of President Clinton’s autobiography on page one?

Truth is, in my nearly five years at Salon and a few hundred bylines, I’ve never once had to abandon a story I was working on because my editors and I thought that someone else had beaten us to it, or had explored the same angle, which is odd. The bad news is that’s driven by an incredibly timid brand of journalism. The good news is that it provides Salon with all sorts of operating room.

SQS: Do you attempt to change people’s viewpoints, or simply clarify the issues for them and focus their anger?

EB: I suppose a bit of all three. Although the days of changing people’s minds about politics and the press seem to be fading pretty quickly. It’s like choosing a favorite sports team when you’re young. Everyone has their team/political perspective and they’re sticking to it. So more and more it’s to help clarify issues and to clarify facts — and yes, to some degree during the election, it was to focus anger. Or maybe a better word is “frustration.”

SQS: How do you think history will judge George Bush, and who will have played the most important role in shaping that perspective?

EB: I think he’ll be seen as a transforming figure, even more so than Clinton. Consider the extraordinary gains Bush has overseen in terms of Republican election wins, as well as the radical agenda he’s pushing. Not to be flippant, but I’d say Osama bin Laden has played the most important role in shaping that perspective. I can’t imagine how Bush would have won re-election without 9/11, and the fear factor it allowed him to play off. I mean, even after being thrust into the politically enviable role of wartime president, Bush is barely able to maintain a favorable rating among 51 percent of Americans. (Although the press still treats him as if his approval ratings were 10-15 points higher than that.) Without al Qaeda, I think the story of 2004 would have been how Bush 43 was unable to avoid the same mistakes of Bush 41.

SQS: Who’s your favorite conservative and why?

EB: Armstrong Williams. He’ll always return your call. Even now.

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.