Our Nixonian Press
Last summer, there were several occasions held to mark the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which occurred on June 17, 1972. There were fetes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who were assigned the break in and traced it all the way back to the White House. Looking back four decades to that pivotal moment, journalism paused to pat itself on the back.
Reading David Freddoso's new book, Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Elect Barack Obama, it's possible, indeed likely, to feel that the symmetry of where the media is exactly 40 years after Watergate is just too perfect. Certainly when people and institutions grow older they sometimes have to be somewhat hypocritical -- the former pot smoker who's now a dad and tells his kids to "just say no"; the born again evangelical who begins to second guess whether everyone else in every other faith is going to hell. But the way that the American media has, during the presidency of Barack Obama, warped into exactly and precisely the very thing it once considered the epitome of shame and evil is genuinely staggering.
Spin Masters is thoroughly researched and damning in its detail, but the strength of its case reminded me of something Christopher Lasch once observed about the no-nukes movement: the extent that it convinces is also the extent to which it paralyzes. That is to say, when peace activists convince you that there are millions and millions of nuclear weapons, it's easy to give up. I mean, what is one person, or even thousands of people, against all that?
This is the place where criticisms of the Obama worshipping media have come to. The problem is undeniable and epidemic, and therefore difficult to fight or control. Freddoso effortlessly reels off topic after topic that should have been covered and example after example of the media ignoring or downplaying stories because of who the president is. A quick five that come early in Spin Masters: drone strikes, the poor economy, undeclared war in Libya, unconstitutional recess appointments, and the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
The worst of these has been Benghazi, where four Americans were murdered at the hands of terrorists and then the administration lied about it to win an election. Fredosso is a fan of Bernard Goldberg and mentions Goldberg's astute criticism of liberal bias. Recently on Bill O'Reilly's show, Goldberg claimed that the press's love of President Obama is unprecedented in American journalism. (I would add that anyone who thinks that the fourth estate gave FDR a free ride need only read H.L. Mencken's popular columns from that time.) Goldberg is absolutely right. We are in uncharted territory here for the American media, something more akin to a dictatorship or third world country.
Forty years ago, indeed right around this time of year in 1973, the American populace eventually cottoned on to the Watergate scandal. As Woodward and Bernstein uncovered more and more, the public began to turn against Nixon. But it was a more literate and engaged population back then. These days, people seem to have lost the basic ability to reason, or be outraged.
And it is in dealing with the fact that nobody cares that David Freddoso makes a big mistake. "I don't have a fix for liberal media bias," he writes near the end of Spin Masters. "But even if it can't be fixed -- so what? No amount of slanted coverage -- whether it comes in the form of subtle bias or the overt propaganda from 2012 that was designed to drive fear and resentment -- can forever overcome the soundness of a truly good idea."
I'm sorry, but that's just not true. Propaganda, lies, slander, and derision of an opponent can indeed overcome the soundness of a good idea, and if not forever, than at least long enough to see the long, slow deterioration of a country and a culture.
Recently Senator John McCain was on Meet the Press talking about his fight to discover the facts about Benghazi. In what was one of the most bizarre examples of role-reversal I've ever seen, McCain fired off several unanswered questions about the massacre to the Meet the Press moderator, award-winning and establishment journalist David Gregory.
Forty years after the fact, we had a complete mirror image of the Watergate hearings. In 2013, it was a U.S. government official who was hunting for facts, and a reporter who was trying to hide them. "Do you care, David?" Senator McCain plaintively asked. "Do you care?" Gregory, like Nixon before him, had no answer.