Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Not a watchdog, but a lapdog

Cintra Wilson, a reporter and novelist with a new release out entitled, “Colors Insulting to Nature,” claims to have fudged her way into the White House press corps for a month and returned from the right wing abyss with an interesting account, “I invaded the White House press corps” for Salon.com that can be found here:


Wilson’s account is of particular interest to journalists and bloggers with a curiosity about how things go down in “The Show,” (that’s minor league baseball talk for the big leagues). It has some very nice profiles of those who stand as the last line between us and dictatorship, those who have the privilege of getting to ask the (p)resident, such as he is, questions.

Her diary (of sorts) coincides with the press rebellion of July 11 following revelations Karl Rove was probably involved in the outing of Valerie Plame, another matter of concern mostly to journalists except (and too bad for the president), a certain federal prosecutor named Patrick Fitzgerald.

It also recounts some amazing tet-a-tet between oft-frustrated reporters and White House flak Scott McClellan. The kind of stuff the scribe thinks should be broadcast “as-is” for the good, not only of the commonweal, but also the fading ratings of news shows.

Government is fascinating if only broadcasters present it as such.

We’ll proceed in our normal fashion here at highwayscribery, interspersing our hip and pithy commentary with that of a writer who probably would not approve of the practice nor appreciate the association with a man who openly professes anarcho-syndicalist leanings.

Here’s Wilson on the state of the White House press corps as she found it in days prior to the great rebellion:

“In the last few years, the press has lost all sense of its own mojo. Things bottomed out after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when any aggressive grilling of the administration branded reporters as unpatriotic, which potentially alienated their audiences. The high emotion surrounding 9/11 and the War on Terror (or the new, improved Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, which the Beltway kids snarkily refer to as G-SAVE) have made them very useful hostage babies for the administration cowboys to shield themselves with during shootouts with the press. Somehow, aggressive questioning of the White House got spun as a heretical insult to slaughtered American innocents.”

the scribe would suggest this is the fault of Americans who should have never made any of these associations, and must needs be reminded, all the goddamn time, that without a free press you can wipe your ass with the American flag, because that’s all it’s good for.

As the scribe said, the author may or may not appreciate his interjections, but let’s continue with that passage of Wilson’s:

“It was so demoralizing that after a while the press succumbed en masse to what I called the Potomac dinge: passive cooperation in one’s own degradation – the deranged, unconscious complicity that is found in victims of ritual abuse.”

Now if we could only get somebody with a sizeable audience, like Sean Hannity, to say this.

Wilson goes on to explain the atmosphere in the White House briefing room and spends considerable time de-constructing McClellan’s half-robot, half-human makeup. The spinner-in-chief, she writes, is a man who infantalizes the press corps with a “patronizing hybrid of nursery school teacher and Hal the supercomputer from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.”

For those (the scribe included) who think the Washington press corps plays like the team that travels around the country getting paid to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters, Wilson has a little inside dope: “There is another powerful disincentive [beside the fact McClellan’s an asshole] to ask too many uncomfortable questions: Security passes to the briefing room have been known to become elusive at times, as Maureen Dowd discovered at the beginning of the Bush administration. Reporters are also frozen out by never getting called on. Staying an Insider in Good Standing is a much more demanding gig than getting in. There have been many bodies buried outside the security gate. Banishment from the corps means exile, and unless the reporter wants to give up and sell Amway products, it’s a slow, painful crawl back to the inside.”

the scribe would suggest, at this juncture, that the Bush administration hasn’t stumbled onto something new. There used to be a counterbalance and that was if you shut a reporter out, his boss went to bat for that reporter by digging up whatever slime the Oval Office was generating (or inventing some) and making its life a living hell until order was restored to the fourth estate’s claim to realty inside the White House compound.

Then (and this is the scribe theorizing) you had all this concentration in media, the supersizing of every outlet, the massive profits and the sudden identification between press/broadcast bigwigs and pols who suddenly found themselves dining and golfing at the same country club.

People who believe in democracy and the role of an unfettered and fully informed press get a few pages of satisfaction in Wilson’s account of how the press raked McClellan over the coals for a number of days once the fetid presence of Karl Rove in the Plame affair got up everyone’s nose.

The White House, savvy as a “Pravda” editorial board when it comes to media and bullshit, forced the press hounds off Rove’s scent by announcing the choice of John Roberts for Supreme Court Justice.

Great color here about who and what your government consists of these days:

“It seemed somehow related to the Roberts nomination that there was an extra helping of snappy young [r]epublicans around the White House [the day after the announcement] – prematurely wide and matronly young women with obsolete cheerleader features dressed like Lady Bird Johnson, with tightly twisted hair and $2,000 handbags, and 20-something guys with that roundheaded military eunuch look: plastic wraparound sunglasses and boxy, off-the-rack-navy-blue suits with the periwinkle-blue shirts that have become the uniform of GOP youth. The guys have a restless, jacked-up machismo that probably comes of venting the frustrations of abstinence in Krav Maga class, and a thumping sense of the authority and entitlement that comes with belonging to the winning team, which they call ‘The Party’...”

the scribe has written on various occasions (and just a few paragraphs above) on how the GOP is a perfect replica of the Brezhnev-era Communist Party in the way it does business.

But the scribe digresses and back to Cintra...

“...Superclean motherfuckers – an abrasive, stinging kind of clean, like they all just got shaken out of an icy tumbler full of Pine Sol, pumice and the New Testament.”

(that’s good stuff!)

Anyway, Wilson moves ahead, pointing out that the nomination was a bold stroke, “classic slick Bush move” that took the heat off Rove. Why? Back to you Cintra...

“In order to stay with the Rove story, the press corps would have had to have broken with precedent...

(the scribe would have opted for the simpler, cleaner: “the press corps would have broken with precedent...

"...and cross a professional ethic red line: They would have had to consciously become the news themselves.”

When one considers how many ethic red lines the administration has crossed (preemptive war, recess appointments, keeping the House open til the wee hours to pass a Medicare prescription drug bill, meeting with oil barons in private on energy policy etc.) you would think the press might get hip to the fact the paradigm has shifted and either new rules, or none, now apply.

the scribe has, which is the reason for the blog.

Anyway, read the rest of the long-ish article to find your own pearls. We’ll close with some words Helen Thomas, a reporter at the White House since the Kennedy years, imparted to Wilson:

“Reporters have not done their job. They’ve given Bush a free pass and they’ve let the people down. They haven’t been watchdogs, but lapdogs. The press officer has to wear two hats. True, he speaks for the [p]resident...[But] he also, through the press, has to give the truth back to the American people. [The press] is the transmission. You have to pile on these people,” Thomas said in response to the short-lived rebellion, it had to be the whole press corps, she said, or questions would be dismissed as coming from “an isolated enfant terrible.

“McClellan was on the ropes. [July 11] was the one time finally, finally, the press corps came alive...If the reporters stick to the subject...that will worry the White House that they’re not getting their message across and they have to go and change it in some way, and maybe even tell the truth sometimes.

“If [reporters] don’t ask the question, no one else can, or will. We are the last line of defense. We’re the only forum, the only institution in our democratic society that can question the president. We have that privilege...The press has a duty to find out the truth. No one else can question him...If we fall down on the job, people suffer. [The Bush administration] doesn’t think people have a right to know, but we know they do.

“You can’t have democracy without an informed people.”

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