With war looming it is no good the American public looking to its newspapers for an independent voice. For, says Matthew Engel, the press have now become the president's men
By Matthew Engel
[The Observer, UK - Sunday January 12 2003]
It is more than 30 years ago now, though it seems like yesterday. A Republican president, much derided by liberals, was in the White House and his opponents were being lashed by the rightwing attack dogs, led then by the vice-president, Spiro Agnew.
The elite East Coast press, exemplified by the New York Times and the Washington Post, were the special targets of his scorn: "pointy-headed liberals," he called them, and "the nattering nabobs of negativism".
But the press laughed last and longest. Agnew resigned in disgrace, to be followed by his president, Richard Nixon - forced out by the investigations of two Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose doggedness revealed Nixon's role in covering up the Watergate break-in and sundry other crimes. It remains one of the greatest - maybe the greatest - moment in the history of American journalism.
Now there is a new Republican president, elected even more controversially and pursuing a far more divisive agenda. Where are the pointy-head liberals now? The change can be summed up in Woodward's own career. As the Watergate investigator, he not merely protected his sources, he glamorised them. Now, still on the Post staff, he functions as a semi-official court stenographer to the Bush White House. And it is notable that those who talk to him - such as the president himself - always play the heroic role in his stories.
The worldwide turmoil caused by President Bush's policies goes not exactly unreported, but entirely de-emphasised. Guardian writers are inundated by emails from Americans asking plaintively why their own papers never print what is in these columns (in my experience, these go hand-in-hand with an equal number insulting us for the same reason). In the American press, day after day, the White House controls the agenda. The supposedly liberal American press has become a dog that never bites, hardly barks but really loves rolling over and having its tummy tickled.
Indeed, there is hardly any such thing as the liberal press. Since Watergate, the Post has acquired a virtual monopoly over the Washington newspaper market, grown fat and - frankly - journalistically flabby. Its op-ed page is notable for its turgid prose, its conservative slant, and the apologetic tone of its more liberal contributors.
The rival page in the New York Times has far more spark, and - in the unfortunate absence of political opposition - has provided the only forum for serious national debate over the Iraq issue. But the Times' own editorials over Iraq, possibly reflecting internal tensions, have been uncertain. And the paper feels itself a little beleaguered, even marginalised, by the strategies employed by the Bush White House.
Outside these two bastions, the media landscape has changed entirely. Day after day, rightwing radio talk hosts dominate the airwaves, deriding opponents and cutting off callers who argue. Indeed, to emphasise the turnaround, one of the most ferocious is run by G Gordon Liddy, who was jailed for his role in Watergate. ("There are no second acts in American lives" - Scott Fitzgerald. Wrong.) The doyen of them, Rush Limbaugh, reaches an estimated 20 million listeners a week. Supporters of the Democrats are rather desperately trying to find ways of countering this. "Most liberal talk shows are so, you know, milquetoast, who would want to listen to them?" Hollywood producer and Clinton buddy Harry Thomason complained to the New York Times. "Conservatives are all fire and brimstone."
On TV Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, pursuing a thinly disguised rightwing agenda, has taken over the No 1 cable news spot from CNN; Bill O'Reilly, the host of its flagship show, makes Limbaugh seem wishy-washy. An attempt by the No 3 channel, MSNBC, to counter this with a liberal alternative by bringing the old master Phil Donohue out of retirement has been an embarrassing failure.
The papers are not immune to the shift. The Post's only hometown rival is the Moonie-owned Washington Times, which is negligible in circulation terms (100,000 v the Post's 750,000). But a fair number of those copies go into the White House, which enjoys a newspaper in which 99% of the copy and columns are agreeably slanted in its direction. Rival reporters note sourly that when positions in presidential reporting pools are being doled out, the puny Times seems to do better than its New York namesake. Unanimously, it is accepted that the Bush White House - helped by his popularity, the post-September 11 mood and the weakness of the Democratic opposition - has taken media control-freakery to unprecedented levels.
There is a new game in town. It is not merely Bush's opponents who have failed to grasp the rules, but ordinary reporters who believe their sole job is to get at the truth. American journalists emerge from university journalism schools, which teach rigid notions of factual reporting and "objectivity". But facts can be very slippery creatures, especially when sliding through the hands of skilful politicians and their spokesmen. The journalists may see the sleight-of-hand, but in the US the conventions of their trade make it hard for them to convey it.
"It's not that the press is uncritical of the people it covers," says Steven Weisman, the New York Times's chief diplomatic correspondent, "but it's critical the way a sportswriter is critical, calling the points and measuring success or failure based on wherever the administration wants to be. So in a situation like this, when the administration is set on waging a war, is enacting its programme and is winning seats at elections, then in a funny way the press becomes like a ga-ga sportswriter. Except for scandals, the press is unable to set the agenda in this country."
This might seem desirable compared to the British situation, where national newspapers traditionally have an agenda of their own. But there are two major consequences of the American way. Most Washington reports consist of stories emanating from inside the government: these may (rarely) be genuine leaks; they may come from officials anxious to brief against rival officials, but that too is rare in this disciplined and corporately-run administration. Most of these stories, which look like impressive scoops at first glimpse, actually come from officials using the press to perform on-message spin. Whatever the category, the papers lap this up, even when it is obvious nonsense, a practice that reached its apogee last year when palpably absurd plans for the invasion of Iraq emerged, allegedly from inside the Pentagon, on to the New York Times front page.
"It's a very cynical game," says Eric Umansky, who reviews the papers for slate.com. "The reporters know these stories are nonsense and they know they are being used. But it's an exclusive. It's an exclusive built on air, but CNN says 'according to the New York Times', so the paper's happy, and it stays out there for a whole news cycle. So what if it's popcorn?"
The second consequence is that this makes for very tedious journalism. One observer thinks Woodward and Bernstein may actually be to blame for all this. "It's been a post-Watergate phenomenon. We just got so sober-sided and Serious with a capital S that it drained a lot of personality out of the newspapers," says Tom Kunkel, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland. "The trend in American journalism has been to be more credible and more objective. But we've just taken all the fun out of it. Most of the time, it's just 'he said' and 'she said'. Newspapers have got kinda boring. The industry wrings its hands and asks what's wrong and beats itself up. What it never does is say: 'Well, we could make the paper a hell of a lot more interesting'."
There is actually very little pressure to make the papers more interesting. The last rip-roaring newspaper war outside New York was in Denver, and it ended a couple of years back. Only about a dozen cities still have competing newspapers, and even there the competition is usually notional: either the main paper - as in Washington and Los Angeles - is so dominant it can ignore the opposition or the papers have joint operating agreements to cut costs. The major papers are so fat with ads they hardly notice that circulation is drifting ever downwards. The pressure on editors is not to increase sales but to maintain the industry's phenomenal record of profitability, which is not quite the same thing.
In this situation, journalistic adventurousness is understandably a rarity. The papers are verbose (one Los Angeles Times reporter said his stories were so long even his mother never read to the end of them), formulaic, wretchedly designed (the Washington Post being an especially monstrous example) with the use of pictures being generally of the standard that would have been regarded as slightly old-fashioned in English local papers of the Watergate era. Amid the glorious patchwork of creativity in the American media - in Hollywood, TV, magazines, the net, advertising, even publishing - the newspapers are a drab and unimaginative exception.
And political courage is especially rare. reporters in Washington are kept in line by the standard threat: annoy us, and your stories dry up. In normal times this matters less, because there may be enough dissidents to produce alternative information. But the Bush White House's sophisticated news management has given them control. One official who has worked in administrations of both colours explained: "The Republicans regard themselves as patrician gatekeepers of the news. They say 'If you're really good, we'll give you information and if you're really, really good, we'll give you more information.' The Democrats thought; 'My God, there are all those reporters out there! We better talk to them!'"
In the face of this, only one White House reporter, Dana Milbank of the Post, regularly employs scepticism and irreverence in his coverage of the Bush administration- he is said to dodge the threats because he is regarded as an especially engaging character. It is more mysterious that only the tiniest handful of liberal commentators ever manage to irritate anyone in the government: there is Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Molly Ivins down in Texas and, after that, you have to scratch your head.
To some extent, journalists have felt obliged to tone down criticisms because of the sense of shared national purpose after September 11. Even that cannot explain how the papers cravenly ignored the Trent Lott story. Lott, the veteran senator from Mississippi, made his pro- segregation statement on a Thursday, in full earshot of the Washington press corps. The Times and Post both failed to mention it. Indeed, it was almost totally ignored until the following Tuesday, kept alive until then only by a handful of bloggers. If there is a Watergate scandal lurking in this administration, it is unlikely to be Woodward or his colleagues who will tell us about it. If it emerges, it will probably come out on the web. That is a devastating indictment of the state of American newspapers.