Pretending the Press Is What You Think It Should Be

It is probably right to assume that those who work in the news business – the folks at the Associated Press and Reuters, in broadcast and cable news, and the few remaining people who work for newspapers – refer to the rest of us as civilians. We consume what they produce, but we have no idea of how the product is actually created.


What they do has been shown to us, from His Gal Friday (1940) to Clark Kent and Lois Lane, reporters for the Daily planet in every mutation of the Superman tale – and in the latest iteration Lois Lane has even won a Pulitzer Prize for her opinion piece on why the world doesn’t need Superman. Sure, there were fine films – Network and Broadcast News and the like – but do things work that way? Perhaps All the President’s Men got it right – Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward (Robert Redford) chasing down the Nixon team, with the support of their gruff but lovable editor, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). But most of us just have silly images – a frustrated Perry White (John Hamilton), editor of the Daily Planet, shouting out “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”


Superman, disguised as the mild-manner reporter, Clark Kent, smiles ironically, to himself. Lois Lane looks depressed, but then gets that determined look on her face – she’ll get the story. Jimmy Olson stands at the side, eager and forever clueless. It must be like that.


Of course we’ve seen a lot of nonsense about how the news business works. And with our romantic notions of how it works – as many of us think we too could be an ace reporter, if the opportunity presented itself – we all gripe about the news. Folks on the right prattle on endlessly about the liberal media – those elitist and condescending snobs in New York not having any respect for conservatives and true patriots and the god-fearing values voters, twisting the facts to make them all seem like mindless pawns if not outright hillbillies. And those on the left seem perpetually outraged that the spineless media has not reported on this scandal or that – those in power are fools, and evil, and they’re out to grab everything they can and screw us all. Why not report that? That is what the press is supposed to do, after all.


All this no doubt drives those in the media crazy. The civilians are griping, and they’re just trying to figure out what happened and get it all into words and images, on deadline, while worrying about getting a second or third source to verify things, and whether someone arranged transponder time for a remote, and if they captured the essence of the thing and can present it in any ordered way that makes sense. How do you frame it? What’s the hook? What details stay in and which can be dropped? Either air-time or column-inches are limited, after all – and so are budgets. Hell, some stories aren’t worth covering.


It cannot be easy on the front lines, with the civilians, not in the battle, throwing brickbats. It’s just not fair. Everyone’s a critic.


And things aren’t any easier when the Washington Post puts up a story, with an accompanying video clip, on its website, as if it will appear in the next morning’s edition – and then the whole thing just disappears. On Thursday, September 11, that happened – read about it, in Editor and Publisher, here. The story – whatever it is – involves someone named Tom Gosinski, who was involved in something from the early nineties – Cindy McCain’s drug addiction and a charity she and Gosinski both worked for. The page went blank – just a Washington Post template, as shown here along with the truncated Google search result, the first line of a story that was withdrawn.


The Washington Post recorded an interview with Gosinski that they are now hiding from the public for some reason, if you are conspiratorially minded, or they decided – very, very late in the process – that it was bogus. More than a few folks who follow such things think back to 2004, when 60 Minutes delayed broadcast of a story, an exclusive about Iraq, Niger and yellowcake, one that would have been massively damaging to President Bush. They decided not to air it just before the election. CBS did not want to accused of trying to influence any presidential election, one way or the other. People have a right to know, as they say, and everything in the CBS story was true, and verified six ways from Sunday, and voters should be informed and all that – but the folks at CBS are no fools. There would have been hell to pay for airing that story – and maybe they were right. Breaking the story that late would tip things toward John Kerry, leaving the Bush folks no time to counter it. Well, that’s history now.


As for this one, Matt Stroller has the scoop:


A whistleblower is coming forth against John and Cindy McCain, and the picture he is painting is not a pretty one. You’ve probably heard about Cindy McCain stealing prescription drugs from her charity in the 1990s. Today, Tom Gosinski, her former employee and a close friend of the McCain’s, came out on the record about the entire sordid episode. And it appears that McCain used his Senate staff and resources to cover up Cindy’s drug use, and potentially to prevent the Drug Enforcement Agency from investigating his wife’s theft of illegal prescription drugs. John McCain certainly used his political connections to begin a campaign of intimidation against Gosinski, because at the time – this was after the Keating 5 scandal – another major scandal would have derailed his career. Gosinski stayed quiet out of fear until today; a recent fight with cancer has strengthened his resolve. As he told me today, if he can beat cancer, he can go on the record regarding how the the McCain’s do business.


Read the rest, if you care. Raw Story adds more:


Tom Gosinski, a former employee of the medical-aid charity Cindy McCain used as personal supplier of Percocet and Vicodin, is speaking out publicly for the first time.


On Wednesday, Gosinski sat down with RAW STORY and other outlets to tell his story and distribute copies of his personal journal from his time with the American Voluntary Medical Team in the last half of 1992, where he voiced ever more acute concerns and frustrations over McCain’s drug use and its impact on her mood and job performance.


“My journal wasn’t to trash Cindy or anything,” he says. “My journal was kept because I came in contact with so many people. It was a way of keeping an ongoing biography of all the people I met, so I could refer back to it.”


He says he can’t buy the official McCain camp line that Cindy’s drug abuse was kept from her husband, he saw and heard too much for any of their stories to make sense – like the time Cindy was allegedly taken to the hospital after an overdose and John rushed in to berate the doctors and nurses there before moving Cindy to their secluded Sedona ranch. Then there were the Hensley family interventions and the fact that Cindy’s drug abuse came to be something of an open secret among employees of the charity.


At Hullabaloo, “dday” offers what you would expect from the left:


It is completely inappropriate for the Washington Post to spike a legitimate news story about the corruption of a Presidential candidate, especially considering that candidate is running on this platform of reform. And all the other news outlets need to be informed of this as well. If there’s enough pressure, one of them may see the tactical value in going forward with interviewing a willing witness before their competitors – if that’s how the news business still works, anyway.


This fellow may have been watching too many movies about the press – the news business may have never worked that way. The Post may have discovered they were being had, by a guy with an ax to grind, making up nonsense. Or they may have done the CBS thing – deciding that even if true, running the story would be unfair to McCain and would make the Post seem biased. You need to protect your reputation for reporting the facts, and not being out to embarrass one political side or the other. Add, too, that this was a long time ago – it might not matter a whole lot now, and readers would wonder why such thing would pop up at this time. What’s the point? And people still have this idea that McCain is that straight-shooting maverick who always does the right thing no matter what the cost, and changing that narrative would look awfully suspicious. And they could have been pressured by the McCain folks, or gotten a call from Karl Rove or the White House, and been intimidated. That too is possible, even if it is unlikely the Post or any other newspaper would cave in the face of threats. What could they do to the Post – cancel the White House subscription?


But no one knows their motives – least of all us, the civilians. There is no story – just what’s on the blogs. The Post spiked the story, however awkwardly. The most likely calculation is that the story, news from the distant past, was more trouble than it was worth.


And as for coverage of the campaign in real time, at the American Prospect, Adam Serwer has some interesting observations about the Post, and the Post’s Jonathan Weisman with an article drawing some sort of equivalence between anonymous smear emails being sent around about Sarah Palin and the McCain campaign’s problems with telling the truth. The argument is that the former justified the latter, or some such thing. And the item quotes Republican strategist John Feehery:


“The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she’s new, she’s popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent,” Feehery said. “As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.”




So Feehery is saying that the McCain campaign will lie to the American people, and will get away with it because no one cares about the facts. Not only that, but people will be offended by the facts if you report them about the person the GOP happens to be running for vice president. So don’t bother.


And the Post’s Weisman notes that’s just how things are.


But then, what is the press to do? Serwer says not much:


It seems to me at this point that the press is simply acting as a very expensive middleman. We might as well get rid of the campaign press all together and allow the PR wings of either campaign tell us what’s true and what isn’t. Except the campaigns themselves need the press, because they need to be able to repeat lies and give them the veneer of truth by filtering them through a third party ostensibly committed to telling you what matters. If the campaign press didn’t exist, the campaigns would have to invent them. And if they had, it’s hard to imagine they would be much different than they are today.


So much for Lois Lane digging and digging and digging, and getting the big scoop – she’s really a stenographer, and Superman has to rescue her all the time, anyway.


Steve Benen knows what’s going on:


When these manufactured campaign controversies come up, there’s a fascinating dynamic in which the various actors play their roles. When it comes to the “lipstick” stupidity, for example, McCain’s job is to push the story, Obama’s job is to dismiss it, and the media’s job is to pretend it’s worth talking about. All three know exactly how mind-numbingly foolish this is.


He asks why news outlets would play along with this charade. And he answers with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough accidentally saying what he was actually thinking to Chris Matthews:


MATTHEWS: Now, it’ll die, as we said, it’ll jump the shark. Two days ago, no, we’re all talking about – you’re waving the tabloids around, come on. Two days from now – I want to ask you, what will we talk about two days from now?


SCARBOROUGH: Whatever the McCain campaign wants us to talk about, because the McCain campaign is assertive.




I suppose the most obvious question that comes to mind is why the Obama campaign isn’t equally assertive. But the truth is, it’s quite assertive. … I’ve seen plenty of the campaign’s blast faxes, emails, “In Case You Missed It” memos, etc. Obama’s team is pushing plenty newsworthy stories at media personalities on a nearly constant basis.


But news outlets seem kind of picky about what kind of nonsense goes into heavy rotation. As far as I can tell, the story has to a) have video; b) be exceedingly simple and easy to summarize in a few seconds; and c) be good for John McCain.


Of course that third item is nonsense. No one in the press is pro-McCain, except for Fox News. The McCain folks are just better a pushing out there what is more compelling. The news business is a business, after all – the idea is to make a nice profit by selling advertizing slots. Forget the adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” – if it keeps people tuned in through the commercial breaks you run with it. It doesn’t have to bleed, it only has to keep people tuned in, nodding their heads in agreement, or outraged – either will do just fine.


Michael Kinsley, founder of Slate and for a time the editor of the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, here comments on the “lipstick on a pig” controversy, which he describes as “ginned up, a fraud, a lie” and all that:


I know that by even bringing this up, I am falling into the trap that McCain’s people have set and perpetuating this ridiculous controversy. But the routine acceptance of obvious lies now corrodes our politics as much as the money that was the subject of McCain’s famous act of Republican apostasy: McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. McCain has described his motive for McCain-Feingold as a giant mea culpa for his involvement in the Keating Five scandal. Maybe when this is over, one way or another, McCain will swear off corrupt lying the way he has sworn off corrupt money.


But it shouldn’t be necessary to wait for one of McCain’s conveniently delayed conversions to righteousness. In a democracy, obvious lies and obvious liars should be self-defeating. Why aren’t they?


One reason is that the media have trouble calling a lie a lie, or asserting that one side is lying more than the other – even when that is objectively the case. They lean over backwards to give liars the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt. Objectivity can’t be objectively measured. What can be is balance. So if the sins of both campaigns are reported as roughly equal, the media feel they are doing their job – even if this is objectively untrue.

But the bigger reason is that no one – not the media, not the campaign professionals, not the voters – cares enough about lying.


… McCain says he’d rather lose the election than lose the war. But it seems he’d rather lose that honor he’s always going on about than lose the election.


No one cares about lying, so the media decides it also shouldn’t care? That’s not exactly true, as Steve Benen points out:


And with that, Kinsley becomes the latest major media professional to give up on respecting John McCain, the scales having fallen from his eyes. Kevin Drum labels the group “The ‘Enough’ Club,” which now includes Kinsley, Friedman, Mallaby, Joe Klein, Dionne, Marcus, Halperin, and Herbert. I’d probably throw Andrew Sullivan in there, for good measure.


And for what it’s worth, one gets the sense that even the right-leaning editorial board of the Washington Post is getting close to joining the club, too: “John McCain is a serious man who promised to wage a serious campaign. Win or lose, will he be able to look back on this one with pride? Right now, it’s hard to see how.”


He has links to all those folks, if you wish to verify the rebellion. And as for Sullivan, he notes a “creepy, unprecedented, bizarre media shut-down” here:


…an aide told the journalists on board that all Palin flights would be off the record unless the media were told otherwise. At least one reporter objected. Two people on the flight said the Palins greeted the media and they chatted about who had been to Alaska, but little else was said.


Sullivan’s comment:


If you want to know what it’s like to live in Putin’s Russia, the Republican Party is giving you a good taste. This is the most appalling dereliction of duty by the press that I have ever seen in my adult life. If they had any integrity, they would stop covering her at all under these conditions. We’re now well into the second week in which someone who could be president of the United States next January has not been available to the press.


I’m simply staggered at how supine the press has become. They are being deferent and giving the benefit of the doubt to the people who told us there were WMDs in Iraq. Imagine that.


He too has been watching too many Hollywood movies about heroic reporters, and, in Reason, Michael Moynihan pushes back:


Sullivan should probably recognize that a press corps trying to wrangle an interview with an elusive V.P. candidate (and hamstrung by a McCain campaign petrified of a “General Whatshisname” moment) isn’t at all analogous to a state-run media run by an illiberal band of Putin lackeys. As I have previously written, throwing the word “fascist” around willy-nilly is intellectually lazy and, more often than not, historically illiterate. But so is accusing the American media of being no better than outlets controlled by the Kremlin, or those remaining independent journalists whose reporting is influenced by credible threats of violence.


Sullivan will have none of that:


Who is he kidding? We have someone who could be elected vice-president in less than two months and tomorrow it will be two weeks since she was announced and still no-one in the press is allowed to even ask her a question in an uncontrolled setting.


This has never, ever happened before in modern American politics. Never.


Given the fact that she is a total unknown, given that the convention was very late historically, given that we have less than two months to figure out who to vote for, the denial of access is both an outrage to transparency and democracy and also, deeply, deeply troubling about what it says about what the McCain camp believes is her competence level.


Yes, this is the spirit of Vladimir Putin. I wrote not that we were living in Putin’s Russia but that John McCain is giving us a “taste” of what that’s like. John McCain – the man who prided himself on access, on answering any question, on talking to the press, even when we’d grown a little bored of talking to him. What happened to that guy? Who kidnapped him and replaced him with this creepy, sealed off, bullying press management?


We, of course, have a First Amendment. It’s just that John McCain is treating it with contempt.


And one of his readers agrees:


You’re right, Moynihan is wrong. Protecting Palin in a bubble is just an extension of the concept of “free speech zones” where protestors are herded in small areas far from whoever is speaking. I recall the quote from someone surprised about this: “What? I thought the whole United States was free speech zone.” Not under Bush, and McCain will increase the distancing and marginalization of the ruled from the rulers.


I am not a great fan of our self-important and self-infatuated media and its mindless pack mentality focus on drivel, but the McCain campaign’s tactics are a new low. The Bush Administration has demonstrated contempt for the courts and argued that its members are not answerable to Congress. McCain is implicitly arguing that his won’t be answerable to the Fourth Estate. Maybe it’s not Putin yet, but it sure as hell is not the representative government that I grew up with.


Maybe the whole United States never was a free speech zone – just pockets of it here and there – but be that as it may, Sullivan is still appalled:


What we are witnessing is something we should genuinely fear. That the press is complicit is an appalling dereliction of duty. Duty.


But he is a civilian, isn’t he? It may seem the press is complicit, but that’s a press that only exists in Hollywood movies.


And Matthew Yglesias asks a question – what if liberal politicians lied and smeared as shamelessly as conservative ones do?


Or, to put it another way, why don’t liberal politicians lie and smear that shamelessly. There are a lot of answers to that question, but one thing worth observing is that the process of turning politics into a senseless screaming match about bullshit is not an ideologically neutral development.


Liberals just aren’t like that:


The default state of things in the world is for the levers of state to be dominated by the people who already possess social and economic power in order to protect and expand their sphere of privilege. The contention of progressive political reform is that it’s possible to organize, educate, and mobilize sufficient quantities of people to overcome the power of the few and instead implement policies that benefit the many. Clearly, a well-timed or well-placed smear or deception can serve those ends effectively. But a politics that’s dominated by bullshit and bullshit artists is, ultimately, not going to be conducive to progressive ends even if some folks with progressive instincts get really, really good at flinging the BS.


Which is to say that of course effective progressive political leaders need to be – and, historically, have been – good at “playing the game” but they’ve also been good at cutting through the smokescreen and refocusing attention. That’s how Bill Clinton managed to survive and even thrive during impeachment.


But though I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, the quality of the media ecosphere has actually gotten radically worse in the interim, such that prominent media figures now openly brag about how uninterested they are informing the public and how exciting they find it to wield arbitrary power in capricious and senseless ways – which, I suppose, is to be expected.


Has what he calls the media ecosphere has actually gotten radically worse? Who is bragging that the facts don’t matter? McCain’s campaign chairman, Rick Davis, only said the issues don’t matter. That’s different thing.


At “The Next Right,” Patrick Ruffini admonishes the Democrats:


The most important thing about a good attack is not the attack itself. It’s baiting your opponent to respond the way you want him to respond, because only the things that come out of his mouth will ultimately stick.


Obama seems to be falling into the trap of response-centrism. If only they could respond the right way, they figure, all will be well. But it won’t be. Because the game they are playing is reactive. Instead of changing the subject off Palin by launching some explosive new attack on McCain, all they do is respond, respond, respond. And the story, day after day, is Democratic Presidential nominee responds to Republican vice presidential nominee. The optics of that stink for them.


So it’s marketing, sort of. Sell a new attack, not the response to the original attack. Yes, the news business is a business – and you need something new to feed the beast.


But see Sullivan:


Unless, in fact, this election is about Palin. And it has to be. She – along with the Iraq war – is the embodiment of McCain’s claim to presidential judgment and experience. If she is a fraud, and has been proven a demonstrable liar in ways that a competent campaign would have vetted six months ago, McCain’s campaign is over, and deserves to be over, as is the election. I don’t see how we can know anything until she has answered a series of obvious, factual questions from the press corps about the truthfulness of her various statements in the public record.


Besides, Obama needs to respond to the insane and desperate lies being lobbed at him. He’s not Dukakis. And he should also keep reminding voters that, unlike the McCain camp, the doesn’t want to discuss the issues in this campaign, he does.


Look: we seem to be on the verge of a financial crisis of potentially severe proportions, we have a nuclear-armed rogue state with a leadership in flux in North Korea, we have a direct war between the United States and the Taliban in Pakistani territory – and John McCain wants to talk about “lipstick on a pig” and a woman who didn’t know the difference between a Shiite and Sunni two weeks ago. (I’m sure they’ve programmed her now).


They cannot be serious. I don’t believe the McCain campaign is serious about anything anymore, except bullying the press and running out the clock. This is the most shambolic campaign I have ever witnessed in a general election. If he runs his campaign this badly, how would he run the country?


Yes, but can you make that new?


But it was September 11 again, and the press was full of retrospectives about that – no talk of who called whom a pig in lipstick. McCain and Obama visited Ground Zero, the big hole in lower Manhattan, together, and by agreement, neither made a speech about anything. It was a day off from all that. No one was saying anything about the Palin woman and how she was being kept under wraps, like a surprise gift.


The press did its duty, and gave us sad ceremony. Only people like Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch were being shrill:


Seven years ago today, on Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri – two men who have dedicated their lives to killing as many Americans as they can – were living in Afghanistan. Their hosts, the Taliban, possessed only primitive weapons and rode around in Toyota pickup trucks.


Today, bin Laden and Zawahiri are almost certainly living in Pakistan. Their hosts, the Pakistanis, have an arsenal of nuclear bombs and missiles with which to fire them. And the Pakistanis, including many in the military and ISI, or intel service, are becoming more anti-American as the Bush administration embraces their mortal enemy, India, with a technology-rich new strategic partnership. Under this deal, Washington will forgive India’s decision to go nuclear and not even require that it abandon nuclear testing. And we will inadvertently send a message to every other major would-be nuclear power in the world (like Iran): You too can rejoin the international community, if you wait long enough! So keep at it.


The press can print such things on such a solemn day? Matthew Yglesias adds this:


To be fairer to the Bush administration than Hirsch becomes later in the article, this is legitimately difficult stuff, and it’s not really all that shocking that they haven’t managed to brilliantly solve the intertwined political, economic, and security dilemmas of Pakistan and its neighbors.


That said, it’s really galling that they haven’t really been trying. Instead they decided to focus their attention on something else that they thought would be easier – Iraq – and then screw that up.


That’s not very respectful, and the McCain campaign, regarding Sarah Palin, says the press must be respectful, or she won’t say anything to any reporter. And in her first and only interview with the press, tightly-controlled and with a reporter the campaign selected, she did say she’s ready to be president right now, but as the AP, reported here, “struggled with foreign policy, unable to describe President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against threatening nations and acknowledging she’s never met a foreign head of state.”


Noted neoconservative, Robert Kagan, says that’s okay – and maybe even better, that national politicians lack experience or knowledge of foreign policy.


Matt Yglesias argues he’s just being honest:


Kagan, like most neoconservatives, thinks that in-depth knowledge of foreign countries and the politics and culture of foreign societies isn’t helpful in thinking about foreign policy questions. Similarly, they believe that in-depth knowledge of theoretical and empirical work in the field of international relations isn’t helpful. Indeed, they think that this kind of in-depth knowledge is actually harmful. They prefer the judgment of people who have little knowledge of the outside world but do possess a degree of gut-level nationalism.


Maybe the press should report that this is just what the Republicans are selling, gut instinct. The Democrats are selling thinking. That might clear things up. And it’s simple enough for any audience.


And Kevin Drum sees the precedents:


Conservatives never trusted either Nixon or Bush 41 on foreign policy, even though both of them were knowledgeable and sophisticated students of foreign affairs. They thought that knowledge slowed them down and made them wimps, always worrying about what world opinion might think. Conversely, they love Reagan and Bush 43, who had a couple of basic instincts about foreign affairs and not much else.


So John McCain? He’s great! And Sarah Palin? Even greater! You, elitist that you are, may think that knowledge is power, but that’s decidedly not the position of most modern Republicans.


But we’ll be back to lipstick and pigs soon. Great Caesar’s Ghost!


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Advocacy Journalism, Attack Politics, Blaming the Press, Deference and Lying, Journalism, Lipstick on a Pig, Lying to Win, McCain's Sleazy Campaign Ads, Obama Too Cool, Objective Journalism, Palin Under Wraps, Palin Unqualified, Press Bias, Press Objectivity, Qualifications to be President, Sarah Palin, The Duty of the Press, The Role of the Press. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pretending the Press Is What You Think It Should Be

  1. Conservatives never trusted either Nixon or Bush 41 on foreign policy, even though both of them were knowledgeable and sophisticated students of foreign affairs. They thought that knowledge slowed them down and made them wimps, always worrying about what world opinion might think. Conversely, they love Reagan and Bush 43, who had a couple of basic instincts about foreign affairs and not much else.

  2. Mark says:

    It would be good if we could depend on the media that is built by the Govt. for the Govt. to tell us the “Truth” about the Govt. but I live in a world where sugar coats the words that fly out of the mouths of high paid actors.

    Just My 2c

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