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Howard Kurtz: Government and Media Need a "Cease-Fire" Now and Then
Howard Kurtz makes an extremely funny joke today, showing why he is the "media critic" for both The Washington Post and CNN:
I know the [DC media/political] dinners may project an image that we're all just a bunch of cozy Washington insiders, but I don't think they're that big a deal. There's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols that spending a couple of evenings in a kind of light-hearted cease-fire doesn't strike me as a terrible thing.
That is some very penetrating media criticism there. The media and political leaders are at each other's throats so viciously, they have such sharply conflicting interests, that it's a wonder they can even be in the same room together without physical confrontation. For instance, it was the same Howie Kurtz who, in 2004, wrote this about what happened at his own newspaper:
Days before the Iraq war began, veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus put together a story questioning whether the Bush administration had proof that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
But he ran into resistance from the paper's editors, and his piece ran only after assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, who was researching a book about the drive toward war, "helped sell the story," Pincus recalled. "Without him, it would have had a tough time getting into the paper." Even so, the article was relegated to Page A17. . . .
An examination of the paper's coverage, and interviews with more than a dozen of the editors and reporters involved, shows that The Post published a number of pieces challenging the White House, but rarely on the front page. Some reporters who were lobbying for greater prominence for stories that questioned the administration's evidence complained to senior editors who, in the view of those reporters, were unenthusiastic about such pieces. The result was coverage that, despite flashes of groundbreaking reporting, in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times.
"The paper was not front-paging stuff," said Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks. "Administration assertions were on the front page. Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday. There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?". . . .
Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials had no problem commanding prime real estate in the paper, even when their warnings were repetitive. "We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," [Post reporter Karen] DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far.". . .
Such decisions coincided with The Post editorial page's strong support for the war, such as its declaration the day after Powell's presentation that "it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."
Kurtz's own paper also reported Tim Russert's policy of refusing to report anything said by government officials unless explicitly authorized by them to do so and the view of Dick Cheney's communications aide that Meet the Press was the ideal format for Cheney to control the message. The Post's Op-Ed page is overflowing with "journalists" demanding that there be no investigations of what the Bush administration did when torturing people and spying on Americans with no warrants; who condemned the prosecution of Bush officials for obstruction of justice and cheered on pardons for high-level government lawbreakers; and who insist upon immunity for surveillance lawbreakers and support the most extreme government assertions of power. It was also The Washington Post that brought us the inspiring (and completely false) tale
of Jessica Lynch engaged in a firefight-to-the-death with her evil
Iraqi attackers, only to be rescued from the toxic clutches of Dr. Germ
and Mrs. Anthrax by heroic Marine commandos who fought through Iraqi
machine gun fire to carry her to safety from the mad-lab-germ-hospital
where she was
having her injuries treated by Iraqi doctors being imprisoned and abused.
Bush's own Press Secretary mocked the American media for being "too deferential" to the White House. The practice of writing flattering hagiographies of government officials in order to win favor with them is so pervasive that journalists bestowed this sycophantic ritual with its own playful name ("beat-sweeteners") and defend it as natural and proper. When Charlie Savage won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Bush's signing statements, his Boston Globe editor said that "what Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says" -- because most "political journalism" is so devoted to the latter that it actually becomes Pulitzer-worthy when, in those very rare cases, someone actually does the former.
Our largest media outlets pay people who receive their talking points from the Pentagon to pose as independent experts, and even once that's exposed, they continue to do it and -- as Howie Kurtz himself noted -- never mention any of it to their viewers. Virtually every corporation that owns our largest media outlets are dependent upon, and intertwined with, government leaders in countless ways. Ashleigh Banfield got demoted and then fired for pointing out that media coverage of American wars glorifies those wars and only shows the pro-Government side. Phil Donahue was fired for relentlessly criticizing the war. Katie Couric and Jessica Yellen, among others, both revealed that they were pressured by corporate executives to avoid coverage that was too critical of the Government. And on and on and on.
But Howie Kurtz, as America's "media critic" with the furthest-reaching platforms, is here to assure us all that things like this are not at all bothersome even as symbols because the media and the political establishment are so inherently adversarial with one another -- in such a perpetual state of war with one another -- that a few nights of giggly revelry (what Kurtz actually calls a "light-hearted cease fire") won't cause any weakening of the relentless watchdog role played by our journalists. He actually wrote this sentence with a straight face: "there's such a built-in adversarial relationship between the press and the pols."