Thursday, March 05, 2009

Obama and the Establishment press, Weeks 5-6

I'm still surprised at myself that I find questions like the following from Glenn Greenwald sensible: "Is it even theoretically possible to have a worse, more deceitful and more moronic press than the one we have?"

But I do. That's from Glenn's 02/24/09 piece The "Americans want bipartisanship" myth Salon. The Establishment press crew is incredibly fixated on this whole "bipartisanship" fetish. Now, they tend to view bipartisanship as the Democrats bending over backwards to accommodate Republicans. But they can't let go of it, it seems.

Obama's administration is beginning to draw some reporters into sycophants, at least for now. Power has a way of drawing courtiers, especially the enormous power of the American Presidency. The profile of the White House chief of staff in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza, The Gatekeeper: Rahm Emanuel on the job 03/02/09, is probably the leading example of Obama administration hagiography so far.

This brings up the basic difference between the liberal criticism of the American press and the conservative one. The conservative approach is essentially opposed to the whole concept of journalism. They concentrate on "working the refs", trying to get all news to sounds like the Party propaganda on FOX News. The liberal media criticism, on the other hand, is aimed at getting journalists to do their jobs as journalists and taking a healthy, skeptical attitude toward power. Including Democrats and liberals.

As a partisan matter, Democrats of course will try to cultivate the press. And if they find adoring, cooperative reporters, they will generally try to maximize that benefit.

This is why Democrats and liberals/progressives should be viewing Obama administration hagiography with some critical distance. Just because major reporters and Big Pundits start pandering to some extent to the current occupant of the White House doesn't mean that the actual quality of their reporting has improved. And the media dysfunctions tends very much to favor Republican and conservative rather than progressive causes and interests. Even now, some of the media praise for Obama is based on the assumption that he will stand up the "the left" and those nasty hippie bloggers and such in the name of sacred bipartisanship. That kind of "good press" is very much a mixed blessing.

Robert Perry, one of the pioneers of online reporting, makes the argument in The American Media Misdiagnosis 03/02/09 that the major newspapers' financial troubles relates in significant part to the long-term decline in quality of their news reporting. I think there's a lot to this.

At the Web-only "Take Two" segment of Meet the Press for 03/01/09, David Gregory quizzed Dee Dee Myers about the current White House press secretary. Myers was formerly Bill Clinton's press secretary and is now with Vanity Fair; in that segment she looks a lot like Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (starts around 6:30 in the video). The excerpt is really amazing - if you assume that journalists should be in the news business as distinct from the infotainment business:

GREGORY: Dee Dee, this one is for you, and it's from Daniel Conklin, who writes, "Ask Dee Dee Myers how well Robert Gibbs is doing as press secretary. How hard is it to maintain, uh, continuity with the President when he is speaking in front of the cameras as much or more than his press secretary?" This is a good question.

MYERS: Hunh! Well, first of all, I think Robert Gibbs is doing a terrific job. He has two, I think, primary assets. One is that he's unflappable in the briefing room. He's, you know, he slows the game down, he's not easily ruffled, doesn't make any big mistakes.

But more importantly, he has a very close relationship with the President and everybody knows it. Which means two things. One, he's in the loop. And, two, he controo-ools access both information and interviews and all of that to the President. And so everyone in the briefing room takes what he says seriously and they also don't wanna mess with him. Uh-

GREGORY: It's so important. It's so good for the press corps and so good for the country to have a vary strong press secretary.

MYERS: Exactly. And I think he's as powerful as any new press secretary probably in the history of the country because of that relationship. [my emphasis i n bold]
And none of the high-end "journalists" in the segment seem the slightest bit embarrassed at this explanation that they would be reluctant to antagonize the President's press secretary because the press secretary has such great influence over their precious "access".

Gregory gushes over the thought: "It's so good for the press corps and so good for the country ..." For our Big Pundits, the two parts of this sentence are redundant. They assume that what's "good for the press corps" is "good for the country".

But will the national press as a whole be so fawning for the Democratic President as they were toward Bush and Cheney? That remains to be seen. Certainly we've seen some kissing up to the new power in town already. Jim Lehrer's softball interview with Obama on the PBS Newshour for 02/27/09 is a good example of this.

Of course, it should be assumed by all sides that the administration will try to take advantage of this inclination to deference toward the White House press secretary.

But if we had a healthy national political press in the United States, it would also be assumed on all sides that self-respecting reporters would try not to fall for that White House game. During either a Democratic or a Republican administration.

Instead, we have a press corps for which a situation in which the White House press corps "don't wanna mess with" the press secretary is considered "so good for the press corps and so good for the country". Sad. Very sad.

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