Building a Better Doghouse
Mainstream liberals take on the media
For all of the merits in Eric Boehlert's Lapdogs, there's a quality the author surely did not intend. This history of "How the Press Rolled Over for Bush," as the subtitle puts it, is the first book made completely superfluous by blogs. It condenses six years of media follies into one narrative, and the latter four years of it appear much as they unfolded on the left half of the blogosphere. Even the lefty cartoonist and blogger Tom Tomorrow interrupted a rave of Boehlert's work to admit that "if you follow the blogs closely, there probably won't be any huge surprises."
Reading Lapdogs is an experience akin to testing the new Nintendo hardware at E3. Chapters on stories that the blogs covered back-to-front—the war in Iraq, the 2004 election, Hurricane Katrina—induce an odd ocular sensation, that digital burn your eyes get from looking at a computer screen and hitting "refresh." Boehlert's book is part and parcel of the blogs—it is the first liberal media critique to come out of the new liberal counter-establishment.
I'm not part of the target audience for this. As an alumnus of the hated mainstream media, I've seen inboxes light up with letters attacking a newspaper's liberal bias right next to letters demolishing its obvious pro-Bush sympathies. I know that political reporters, like most professionals who went to elite schools and relocate to cities and suburbs, are largely liberal on values, conservative on economics, and credulous on war. (Maybe they won't cheer for invasions, but they won't rush to promote the opposing forces' spin.) For years, conservatives have done more to get under journalists' skin by constantly accusing them of bias and fraud. Only recently has there come a movement to create that same kind of pressure from the left.
Liberals will quickly admit that this movement isn't up to much—not right now. They are in the middle stages of a push that started with the investigation and impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. Liberals had the presidency, but they had no talk radio or cable news channel to argue their side as the president got shellacked across the airwaves. In 2000 they watched the press—in their view—build up George W. Bush and belittle Al Gore, helping the former into the White House and the latter into a series of progressively larger khakis. America lost its way because the press didn't do its job and liberals didn't have the power to cajole them.
The left's media watchdogs got their start during the Bush/Gore election on Salon.com's Table Talk bulletin boards. One commenter, JennyQ, launched a muckraking site in 2000 called Media Whores Online. The new site's pseudonymous contributors whaled on mainstream media journalists and pundits on a daily basis, sometimes launching special projects to tear down conservative opinionmakers. CNN contributors like Paul Begala would cite MWO content on the air. MWO contributors like Atrios went solo and MWO readers and fans launched pages like ConWebWatch, to go after conservative web pundits. In 2004 reformed conservative David Brock (and a small army of liberal investors) launched Media Matters for America, a press-watching think tank modeled (perhaps subliminally) after the right's Media Research Center.
The arrival of Media Matters was greeted with skepticism. After all, left/liberal critiques of the media are nothing new. For decades, left-wingers could console themselves with the jeremiads of Ralph Nader, Noam Chomksy, Project Censored or (more recently) Robert McChesney. But those media critics considered partisan politics a distraction from the real issues: Corporate control and the race to the bottom. Boehlert's work is similar, but his arguments are rooted in mainstream Democratic liberalism rather than the hard left. Late in Lapdogs Boehlert mentions the Natalie Holloway story, a perfect example of the scandal-driven human interest garbage that networks use to win ratings wars and sideline hard news. But it appears as a point of comparison: the time CNN gave the events in Aruba versus how much it gave to the "Downing Street Memo."
In Boehlert's take, CNN and the rest of the media take this approach because the right has them facing down the barrel of a gun—or several million guns and the Republicans who grip them. "Conservative activists have perfected the art of media intimidation through [a] deep-pocketed noise machine," he writes. And this machine "wields extraordinary power in its ability to keep press attention fixed on whatever given story the right deems urgent or vaguely newsworthy."
Boehlert follows the narrative of the media as enamored of Bush as it was bitter about Clinton. One example: He recalls that The Washington Post mocked "the failed Clinton presidency" after the poor guy had spent four months in office. Since the Post has never termed Bush's presidency "failed," Boehlert concludes that the press never kicked Bush when he was down for fear of inviting "conservative scorn." There's no attention paid to the context of the Clinton-bashing—the man from Hope was actually stumbling badly, weakened by early scandals and a Democratic congressional majority that was refusing to clear a path for his tax package or health care proposals. And there's no retrospective of the post-election, pre-9/11 Bush presidency, portrayed by Time magazine and others as stumbling and divisive after Sen. James Jeffords left the GOP and threw the Senate to Democrats.
Much of Lapdogs is given over to stories the media missed or Republican-friendly stories they played up as they endeavored to please the Republican base and "noise machine." Boehlert regularly draws on stories from blogs (either pushed by them or uncovered by them) and his stomping grounds at Salon.com for evidence. There's a vision of what the media would cover, and how they'd cover it, if only they'd extricate themselves from the right-wing trap. One chapter asks why the media paid any mind to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; another asks why they didn't explode the shaky story of George W. Bush's record in the Air National Guard. Four pages are given over to whether President Bush had a radio transmitter stashed in his jacket during the first presidential debate, a story chased out of the destination media before finding a perch in Salon.com right before the election.
Some of Boehlert's stories of anti-Democrat bias simply don't hold up. He uses the Slate/New York Times television critic Virginia Heffernen's labeling Al Gore a "high-level laughingstock" as evidence that journalists can criticize Democrats "without the slightest fear of pushback" from watchdogs and conservatives. But Heffernan's column "Al Jam" was a review of Gore's appearance on David Letterman's Late Show, where he was double-booked with Pearl Jam. More than that, she was describing Gore's reception in the New York studio—when Letterman joked about what a "great show" he had that night, the audience laughed at the slate of has-beens they'd signed up for. Heffernan herself was impressed by Gore, whose "act seems to have been leavened and made more honest by his trials." The "how dare you laugh at me?" approach to political reporting has been a mainstay of the Media Research Center and, more recently, pro-Republican blogs. It's disconcerting to see it used against the famously sacred cow-free Slate, in defense of the famously self-deprecating Gore.
The Slate/Gore story is illustrative. It assumes that the media go soft on Bush and hard on Democrats because of personality and pique and the "pushback" they get from the right. The right isn't calming down, but the left is successfully adopting its tactics, slamming the mainstream media across a growing infrastructure, emailing the hell out of disobedient anchors and pundits. Boehlert notes that NBC's Brian Williams blogged his own frustration when left-wing websites demanded his broadcast run exposes of a May 2002 memo that revealed Tony Blair's opinion that an American-led Iraq war was going to happen, no matter the diplomacy or the facts. "One more note to those of you who are part of the mass e-mail project on the so-called Downing Street Memo," Williams wrote. "That's enough, we get it." Earlier this month, Richard Cohen—columnist for the perfidious Washington Post—cranked out a whiny column arguing that Stephen Colbert's Bush-baiting performance at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner wasn't funny. Less than a week later, Cohen cried out under the weight of thousands of angry emails from readers egged on by liberal blogs.
Any good partisan tract will get a few things right. Boehlert has penned a hilarious chapter on ABC's political email "The Note," a compilation of sniping and misplaced hyperbole that represents the worst habits of the DC press corps. There's a fine roundup of bogus reporting and self-promotion that led the media to misrepresent intelligence and help grease the rails for the Iraq War's rollout. But this isn't criticism motivated by the shallowness of modern media or the way foreign policy is covered. It comes from a movement to make reporters take Democrats more seriously. Anyone who enjoys the way red-blue divisions are used to define everything in American culture is going to love it. For the rest of us: Tough luck.