It’s time for news media organizations to have the guts to turn down George Bush’s megaphone, not amp it up. On some days recently, that megaphone has resonated so loudly in the world of instantly breaking broadcast news and web site headlines that any Democratic response has quickly been drowned out. Which, of course, is just what Karl Rove wants.
No matter how outrageous Bush's assertions, no matter how they fly in the face of the reality of what even his Pentagon is saying about Iraq, the news media dutifully trot after the president, giving him lead play on the news in speech after speech. Whether he’s howling about “cut and run” Democrats or asserting, yet again, that the mire of Iraq is a central battlefield in his War Against Terror (read War Without End), the format of news is predictable: Amplify the president's dire predictions, let him brainwash the public a little bit more, then dutifully -- for the sake balance, of course -- give the opposition a quick soundbite or a few lines to disagree.
I realize, like it or not, that George Bush is the president. And, as a former reporter and editor, I know the norms of news: As the holder of the nation’s highest official, the president has the luxury of setting the agenda. Fair enough. But saying the same things over and over is not really setting an agenda. It is running a political campaign, one of the few things this president has ever done effectively.
The news media have no responsibility to help him campaign. To the contrary. Once it's clear what the president's game is, the news media should walk away, shut off the megaphone. News has always had to be selective. On the air and in print, time and space are finite. News also has some standards. It should be based on verifiable fact. It should emphasize what is new. It should place today's speeches in the context of yesterday's promises and actions. When the president says the same thing day after day -- "be afraid," he tells us earnestly -- the news media do not have to cover each utterance as if it is a revelation.
Give the president his shot. On the first day of what appears will be a monthlong 9/11 anniversary campaign, the news media were right to give good play to the newest version of his same old "we've got to win" speech. Day one, however, was several days ago. On day two, news organizations should have either (a) analyzed his words in the context of history, recent and past and/or (b) given the Democratic Party's perspective at the top of the news in rebuttal. And on days three, four, five and so forth, especially given the unabashed (and unattributed) Republican acknowledgement that the president and his minions will be giving the same speech all month, the news media should have moved on. Journalists with a "nose for news" know their job is to ignore anything that is not new. There's plenty out there in the real world that is. And if the White House press corps needs something to do, sometimes what's new can be found in the contradictions between the administration's words and its record.
One small example of this kind of reporting appeared on the opinion page of my Boston Globe the other day. Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador, wrote about the contact that key members of the current Bush administration had with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when the Reagan Administration sought to improve its relationship with Saddam despite the fact that he had already begun using banned nerve gas.
Noted Galbraith: "In 2003, Cheney, Powell, and Rumsfeld all cited Hussein's use of chemical weapons 15 years before as a rationale for war. But at the time Hussein was actually doing the gassing -- including of his own people -- they considered his use of chemical weapons a second-tier issue."
Now that was interesting news. But yet again it appeared in views, on the back page of the newspaper's first section.
In the meantime, big-time journalists reprint and rebroadcast ad nauseum the White House's version of the same-old, same-old. Need evidence?
Look no further than Wednesday night's CBS Evening News. There was Katie Couric on the second night of her $15-million-a-year job as CBS news anchor, proving in an "exclusive" interview with President George W. Bush that she should also be awarded a second new title: The First Booster.
Just how tough was she on W? You be the judge. "You have said we can't cut-and-run on more than one occasion," she asks the president in a clip posted on the CBS News website "... Otherwise we'll be fighting the terrorists here on our own streets. What do you mean by that Mr. President?" What do you mean by that Mr. President?! There was no real follow-up to the president's self-serving answer. But then the question itself, with such Republican-powered perversions of language as "cut-and-run" and "fighting the terrorists here on our own streets" made clear whose script Couric was reading even before Bush even bothered to answer.
The CBS news web site trumpeted the interview this way: "As President Bush appeals to the American people to support him in the global war on terror, he insisted to Katie Couric that it cannot be won without succeeding in Iraq."
We all know that this is not news. There is nothing new about it. It's September's broken record, the one Bush and the Republicans intend to play over and over again, without an iota of evidence that any of it is true. They know that few television reporters ask for evidence these days -- just good sound bites.
It really wouldn't take much effort to inform the White House's "news" with a little historical context. Remember Vietnam? Remember the Domino Theory that got us there ("if Vietnam falls to the Reds, country after country will fall like dominoes until those Reds are knocking on our doors")? Apparently George Bush doesn't (given his National Guard record, why would he). It took a decade of heartbreak and dead GIs, more than 50,000, before we extricated ourselves from that war, leaving millions of Vietnamese corpses behind.
Nor, sadly, does the new CBS News seem to remember that it was the old CBS News, with Walter Cronkite reporting in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, that finally set America on the excruciatingly slow path of extricating itself from Vietnam. And what happened after we pulled out? Nothing. No Red masses marched on our borders -- just as no "islamo-fascist" masses would march on our borders today.
Today the new CBS News seems to be falling over itself to join most of the other broadcast media as a public relations arm of the White House. And Katie Couric, America's sweetheart, the pioneer trumpeted for breaking the gender barrier as prime-time network TV's first solo female anchor, is quickly proving herself to be just another shill.
Sadly, neither contextual facts of history nor the president's words and actions from a year or two ago regularly inform what passes for news in this 24-7 world. It is the loudest megaphone of the day that increasingly draws reporters, drowning out the whispers in the well of past records that could put news in perspective. And since the president will always hold that loudest megaphone, the news media, in direct proportion to how much they gravitate toward the megaphone's amplified noise, risk becoming little more than the most power campaign ad available to the Republican Party. (I can see it now. It's late October. And Couric's "exclusive" is replayed across the country in paid Republican campaign ads. Implication: "Katie likes us. Why don't you?")
Ultimately, whether the media's role in promulgating Republican PR is inadvertent or not doesn't much matter. It's a potentially dangerous role -- and, especially at the network of Murrow, Cronkite and Sevareid, it's a sad one, too.
Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.