I always knew that someday, someone in the Washington press
corps would notice the right-wing conspiracy. After all, it has been operating
under their upturned noses for these many, many years. On May 6, my faith was
finally vindicated with the appearance of a startling article by one of The Washington Post ‘s most able
reporters, John Harris.
While Mr. Harris carefully avoids using the C-word, he
obviously gets it. By merely acknowledging the existence of what plainly
exists, he breaks new ground. Even more forthrightly, he points out that the
conspiracy’s most important beneficiary, George W. Bush, has so far escaped the
barrage of assaults inflicted by the national media on everything and everyone
associated with Bill Clinton. If the Clintons (and Al Gore) were constantly
spattered with mud and worse, then Mr. Bush has been showered with champagne
and rose petals.
As Mr. Harris writes, “The truth is, this new president has
done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they
had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing
about those uproars.” He is quick to add that this difference in coverage has
nothing whatsoever to do with “journalists’ attitudes toward Bush or their
willingness to report aggressively on him.”
No, of course not. The true culprit is that right-wing thing
(which perhaps should be renamed La Cosa Destra, in homage to another infamous
group which some have likewise insisted is mythical). Mr. Harris calls it “a
corps” of “aggrieved and methodical people”
whose “well-coordinated” aim was to “expose and undermine” Mr. Clinton
from the moment he took office in 1993. He asserts that the absence of an
organized liberal mob is why Mr. Bush gets such an easy media ride every day.
Briefly sketching the gang’s crews and capos, he notes that
there is no liberal equivalent of the Heritage Foundation-or, he might have
added, the American Enterprise Institute and about half a dozen smaller but
well-funded versions of same, financed by right-wing godfather Richard Mellon
Nor is there any leftish
loudmouth who possesses the influence of Rush Limbaugh-generously described by
the Post reporter as “colorful,”
although “malicious” and “mendacious” would have been equally apt. Perhaps most
important, there is no Democratic counterpart to Representative Dan Burton-the
Hoosier hooligan whose “investigations” of the Clinton White House were only
part of a broader harassment scheme mounted by the Republican Congressional
The irony of that
contrast between then and now doesn’t escape the astute Mr. Harris. Despite
serious doubts about whether Mr. Bush won or stole the election, and his clear
defeat in the popular vote, he has been granted greater legitimacy by the
opposition party than his Democratic predecessor ever was. Mr. Harris observes
that “Washington’s snarling public tone” during the 90′s was produced largely
by Mr. Clinton’s opponents, a fair judgment rarely offered in The Post or any other major newspaper
when it would have mattered.
Insofar as he discusses the right’s hypnotic influence on
the press, Mr. Harris’ article is semi-confessional, or at least
quasi-confessional. When mainstream journalists write about the shortcomings of
their industry, reassurance always outweighs remorse, and Mr. Harris is no
exception. Yet his perspective as an insider at a Clinton-bashing national
daily ought to be taken seriously.
According to him, there are never any conscious decisions by
reporters or editors to slant news coverage in deference to conservative
dictates. Instead, he explains that “we give more coverage to stories when
someone is shouting.” The Republican right ranted incessantly, about Whitewater
and Travelgate and Filegate and Chinagate, and the Washington press haplessly
lent credence to their ravings.
The busy journalistic establishment somehow neglected to
discover, and thus inform their readers, that much of the scandal mongering was
without foundation. Mr. Harris doesn’t dwell on that failure, or the ambitions
and enmities behind it.
As they grew addicted to the Clinton soap opera, he writes,
“the Washington press corps collectively may have fallen a bit out of shape at
the hard work of examining, exposing, and critiquing public officials as they
go about making the decisions that affect national life.” So the flabby,
scandal-addled minds of those who covered the last administration are in no
condition to cope with this one.
Still, he strives to conclude with the upbeat tone required
inside the Beltway these days: “Good for this White House in avoiding the worst
stumbles of the early Clinton administration; good for Washington in giving a
new president a break at the start. And those people eager to see this
president face scrutiny can rest assured: The opposition is sure to awaken.”
Should that reawakening ever occur, we will see whether Mr.
Harris and his colleagues can hear shouting from the left as well as they heard
it from the right. Based on recent experience, I worry that they’ve become deaf
on that side.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.