Has American journalism ever been so anemic? So docile? So unwilling to exercise its duties and responsibilities? One can make a strong case, in view of the tools and vast resources at its disposal, that, save for a distinguished and relative few, the nation's reporters and editors are suffering from a collective ennui, or perhaps simply shell shock.
Who -- and what -- to blame? The apparent anomie of the U.S. electorate toward the ruses perpetrated and lies told by the administration? The dumbing down of just about everything in print and broadcast media? The gradual usurpation of culture by pervasive, relentless, omnipresent advertising and marketing? All of these, of course. But that's an incomplete answer.
The monstrous attacks of 9/11 so stunned the national psyche that its frame of reference was shattered. On that day, the country divided into two opposing camps: one bellicose and belligerent, calling for blood, the other bewildered and beset with the Who? How? Why?
Presidential rhetoric, when not scripted ("Bring 'em on!") frequently defaults to the former, positing a world of good guys and bad guys -- those with us, all the others against us.
Through the White House lens, this ever more complex world, which demands of us ever increasing powers of discrimination and reason, is simply a biblical tableau of good versus evil.
Is this a valid simplification or fuzzy-minded thinking? Thinking is difficult: It encourages doubt, undermines certainty and creates the discomfort that possibly our leaders don't know as much as we think they do.
Why does an Arab kid sign on to fly a jet into a skyscraper? Because he's Muslim? Misled? Poor? Ignorant? Evil? Because the United States does a poor job of articulating its foreign policies? Because the United States lies to the world about the motives for a pre-emptive war?
It is vexing to weigh multiple factors of humanity, different cultures or religions and what might be happening in another part of the world or even in the next block.
It's much easier for the wagon master to circle the wagons, hand out rifles and warn that the bad guys are coming for our families.
This summer, when asked about the continued deadly resistance to U.S. troops occupying Iraq, President Bush uttered what may be the most ill-considered and self-demeaning words of his administration. Rather than use his office to reaffirm U.S. resolve to transform Iraq into a stable society, and speak words that would play well on the Arab Street, he taunted Iraq's shadowy killers. "Bring 'em on!" said the reservist from Crawford, Texas.
How much better the United States would have been served had the president noted that the majority of Iraqis are working for order, that turmoil springs from holdouts from Saddam's regime and terrorists from other countries answering the president's own taunts.
But no. Keep shooting at us, said the president, and they have, forgetting that he is not one of "us," not a Marine on patrol, or an unarmed U.N. envoy, but rather a pampered head of state protected by the tightest and most formidable security apparatus in the world.
His taunt to the assassins in Iraq is the worst and most dangerous kind of demagoguery possible from a head of state.
Now he goes before the United Nations, calling for its courage to enforce the "peace" in Iraq, threatening the United Nations with irrelevancy if it does not send its soldiers to fight and die for the mess he has created.
The ruse continues. No WMDs, no Iraqi connection to 9/11? The world is a safer place now? At the United Nations, Bush calls for a non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, while the Department of Defense explores the next generation of same. He boasts of saving the world from disease, slavery and child pornography, while his own country faces domestic bankruptcy.
A bumper sticker -- published in Texas -- reads: "Think -- it's patriotic."
Thinking, however, seems to be the last thing that this administration wants us to do.
Most Americans respect authority, they yearn for unimpeachable motives in their leaders. A president's motives are generally considered worthy until proven otherwise. U.S. journalists, charged with the duty to question authority figures, do so in front of citizens who are traditionally inclined to give their national leaders the benefit of the doubt. There is plenty of room for doubt.
The administration knows this well; previously satisfied with slogans and photo-ops, they backtrack and cry for help. Will U.S. journalists lead us in this important debate or be content to cheerlead and market their journalism, as does cable TV?
The consequences of journalistic timidity in the face of the bully pulpit could lead us down a very tragic road.
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