Reportage Lite?

Book cover
Lapdogsby Eric Boehlert

Free Press. 333p $25


Although the Bush administration has been in a snit about The New York Times’s recent revelations of government spying on Americans and the surveillance of the banking records of presumed terrorists, the president has actually had an easy time of it with the Fourth Estate, according to Eric Boehlert’s Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.

In a disturbing account of how Americans obtain their news, the award-winning journalist provides a vivid and detailed review of the major media publications and transcripts of network and cable news programs. One of Boehlert’s claims is that the mainstream media (noted throughout his book as the MSM) became timid not because of 9/11 or the war on terror but because its tilt to the right has been building for decades from a deep-pocketed Republican media noise machine.

The press haters, for example, have railed against the MSM in an attempt to dismantle the pressan essential public information institution vital to democratic governanceby questioning journalists’ motives, creating an echo chamber of the same, repetitious message and dodging issues by replacing serious debate with ad hominem attacks.

The press haters also demand that news be balanced, since the knee-jerk liberal press is automatically deemed unfair to Republicans. In reality, says Boehlert, fairness to the party out of power goes wanting. By comparison, the MSM provided more incisive reporting and critique during the Clinton years from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky than it has during the Bush years, where embarrassments like the war with Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Downing Street Memo, the Abramoff scandal and the planting of reporters among the White House Press Corps have been conveniently brushed aside.

Boehlert shows how the MSM favored George W. Bush in 2000 by emphasizing his affability, as it simultaneously trashed Al Gore for his supposed woodenness. Once Bush was in office, news choreography and information control commenced as journalists became mere secretaries taking dictation. The somber effect of this dynamic occurred in early 2003, when the White House succeeded in convincing 82 percent of Americans that terrorists might strike our shores at any moment.

The MSM also succeeded in helping the administration not only to sell the war but to make the president look as though he were ably fighting terrorism at every turn, even as his approval polls plunged to 30 percent in 2006. For instance, the White House obtains coverage from cable networks by calling a press conference wherever the president goes. The network then breaks away from its programming only to cover the president talking to friendly crowds about issues other than the war.

Although the White House has succeeded in manipulating the press, much of the MSM’s dysfunction is of its own doing, says Boehlert. The 24/7 news cycle, for example, has pressured the MSM to produce more for less. Meanwhile, newspapers are losing millions of readers each year and television networks are filling their programming with low-budget reality shows and a spate of eye-catching breaking news items. Newsroom cutbacks limit press coverage, and local outlets are owned by corporations more interested in making money through glitz and glamour than in providing the public with essential information during these critical times. Journalists feel their own job security threatened, which in turn creates a follow the leader mentality, in which news is safely and efficiently shared by reporters rather than analyzed from different angles by different people.

Access also depends on journalists’ cordiality toward administration officials. The longtime queen of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas, lost favor with the president by asking him too many difficult questions. During Bush’s six years in office he has rarely called on her at presidential news conferences, even though tradition has afforded her the first question. Dan Rather suddenly retired after airing an unflattering piece on Bush’s National Guard service just before the 2004 election.

Journalists’ raises and promotions also depend on their geniality to the corporations that employ them. It is a career-buster to come off too far left or too critical of Republicans, says Boehlert. However, it is O.K. to be openly contemptuous of Democrats since they are the party out of power. Part of the problem here is corporate self-interest. The six remaining news corporations (down from 50 in 1983) have been jockeying to win over the Republican-controlled Congress as they have sought further ownership consolidation. These corporations include: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) and General Electric’s NBC.

Then there are the remarkable personal relationships between members of the press and the nation’s leaders that Boehlert warns may compromise objectivity in reporting. PBS’s Gwen Ifill speaks delightfully of Condoleezza Rice’s cooking. PBS’s Jim Lehrer was a financial beneficiary of Bush’s sale of the Texas Rangers. CBS’s Bob Schieffer has been a family friend of the Bushes for years.

So as the press acts more like a courtesan for the administration than as the neutral watchdog it was designed to be, Boehlert wonders how democracy can function without a fair, robust press corps to help the American people make informed decisions. Readers, however, may take this concern one step further. Should the Democrats become the party of power in 2006 or 2008, will they continue this game of information control?

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