The news business is not a happy place these days. America’s big-city newspapers have been battered by sliding circulation, job cuts, plummeting stock prices and journalism scandals that sent the cable news shouters into a tizzy. Over at the three broadcast networks, it’s not any better: Nightly ratings have skidded to historic lows, and the only people the networks can seem to attract are viewers squarely in the Depends demographic—hardly the audience coveted by advertisers.
Economics and demographics aside, the news business has been sorely troubled by the rise of the media-bashing complex, a full-blown industry of press critics armed with cable news shows, blogs and talk-radio programs. Their mission is simple: discredit and defang the so-called mainstream media (MSM).
Historically, the wolf pack of media bashers has come from the right. Conservatives found they could whip up support from their base by exposing the MSM’s “liberal media bias” with a jab at The New York Times or the CBS News. (Roger Ailes launched Fox News to wild success based entirely on that single premise.) Since the attacks of Sept. 11, however, the piñata-like MSM has had to contend with a new band of angry critics lashing out from the left. Outfitted with their own noisy blogs like the Huffington Post, liberal press critics have attacked the leading news organizations with a fervor equal to their conservative rivals. The media’s liberal critics contend that the MSM in general, and the Washington press corps in particular, has been nothing less than a friendly stenographer for the Bush administration.
Eric Boehlert’s Lapdogs is the latest title to chronicle the left’s beef with the MSM during the Bush years. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Mr. Boehlert takes the reader on a journey through Lexis-Nexis to show how the media obscured facts, spun news to favor Republicans and, in some cases, reported falsehoods (and then made no attempt to correct the record). This colossal misstep has been expertly documented before in Michael Massing’s Now They Tell Us (2004), based on his award-winning series in The New York Review of Books. Though Mr. Boehlert’s critique extends beyond W.M.D. to the press’ coverage of myriad issues, he doesn’t do the original reporting that would freshen his argument.
Here’s the thesis, baldly stated: “[T]he mainstream news media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power.” The press, in Mr. Boehlert’s view, “came to fear the facts and the consequences of reporting them.”
Through a series of case studies, Mr. Boehlert portrays the media as elitist insiders currying favor with Beltway Republicans, while exhibiting open contempt for hapless Democrats. Witness the media’s coverage of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: Mr. Boehlert contends that the media gave the group’s specious arguments credence without calling them out on inconsistencies or misstatements.
Another instance: During last year’s Terry Schiavo debate, ABC’s The Note, an influential Web digest of political news, reported that “the Republican leadership seems to have succeeded in framing the discourse around a moral question.” Conversely, The Note said the Democrats’ “lack of clarity and weakness are the orders of the day.”
And again: When Time anointed President Bush its 2004 Man of the Year, Mr. Boehlert points out, the magazine published twice as many articles as it did when Bill Clinton earned the same honor a decade earlier.
Lapdogs also replays the media scandals of the Bush years. From the male escort Jeff Gannon to the paid pundit Armstrong Williams, Mr. Boehlert compiles a damaging list of revelations of wrongdoing inside the White House, but remains exasperated that the MSM let Mr. Bush off so easily. For example, Mr. Boehlert notes that the MSM, fueled by conservative bloggers, gave Dan Rather’s botched 60 Minutes II report on Mr. Bush’s National Guard service wall-to-wall coverage, while at the same time ignoring the substantive evidence, reported in the Boston Globe, that Mr. Bush shirked his responsibility to serve in the early 1970’s.
We’re also invited to revisit the coverage of Iraqi W.M.D. in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, with former Times reporter Judith Miller front and center, funneling the administration’s spin onto the front page. (I should mention here that Mr. Boehlert cites one of my Observer pieces in building his case that The Times hyped pro-war coverage.)
Mr. Boehlert deftly points to troubling trends in the MSM’s war coverage. Last year, it took weeks for the MSM to cover the so-called Downing Street Memo, a document leaked to The Times of London in 2005, which purported to show that President Bush was determined to go to war with Iraq as far back as July 2002, at a time when he was publicly calling for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Additionally, Mr. Boehlert notes that the media has scaled back war coverage even as the carnage has grown worse. In 2003, ABC, NBC and CBS aired an average of 388 minutes of coverage on Iraq each month, Mr. Boehlert writes, but in 2005, that number had slipped to 166 minutes per month.
In tone and substance, much of Lapdogs reads like an extended blog post—and sometimes it’s just as careless. In explaining why The Times didn’t report on the mysterious bulge that appeared under Mr. Bush’s suit jacket in the 2004 Presidential debate, Mr. Boehlert claims that The Times chose “what to report on the basis of how it would affect Bush’s reelection chances.” Really? How does Mr. Boehlert know this? Did he interview Times reporters and ask them if they wanted Mr. Bush to win? The reader is left guessing.
When they attack the MSM, liberal critics like Mr. Boehlert—though they seek to distance themselves from their conservative counterparts—contribute to the erosion of the public’s faith in our establishment media. Writing in The New Republic last December, Franklin Foer examined how liberal press critics have become aides-de-camp for conservatives in their anti-media campaign: “By repeating conservative criticisms about the allegedly elitist, sycophantic, biased MSM, liberal bloggers have played straight into conservative hands. These bloggers have begun unwittingly doing conservatives’ dirty work,” Mr. Foer wrote.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Boehlert paints a dim picture of the future for the MSM. He complains that even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which supposedly awakened a somnolent press corps, the MSM continued to go easy on Mr. Bush.
Mr. Boehlert doesn’t offer any prescriptions for change; he merely urges reporters to ask tougher questions. And he hardly bothers to explain why the press went into a collective slumber, though he does make passing reference to the effects of corporate media consolidation, the patriotic upswing following 9/11 and the strong-arm tactics of the Bush administration’s press office.
The press can’t win. When The Times publishes a piece like its domestic spying exposé, the paper is criticized by the left for sitting on the piece for over a year, and excoriated by the right for being unpatriotic in a time of war. The polarization of American politics has grown so severe that partisan critics now blame the media for failing to bring down their political enemies. Unless bloggers on both sides of the aisle understand that it’s not the job of the press to do their political bidding, the media better get used to being a punching bag.
Gabriel Sherman is a reporter at The Observer.