Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Why presidents point fingers at the media

Blaming messenger done often in politics

Craig Crawford
Special to the Sentinel

December 11, 2005

Politicians won the war against the media with a simple rule: First, attack the messenger.

Presidents since Thomas Jefferson have targeted the press. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln even ordered the military to shut down a New York newspaper and put its reporters and editors in jail.

But since George H.W. Bush aggressively ran against the media in the 1988 presidential campaign, politicians have gone to the media-bashing well so often that it is about to run dry.

The current Bush administration's latest maneuver on this front was absurd. Vice President Dick Cheney, after discovering that harsh White House attacks on anti-war critics had backfired, suggested that the media overplayed his attacks in the first place.

"Within hours of my speech, a report went out on the wires under the headline, 'Cheney says war critics 'dishonest,' 'reprehensible.' . . . I do have a quarrel with that headline."

The headline accurately quoted Cheney. And the story made it clear he was not saying all criticism was "dishonest" and "reprehensible," only charges that the White House had misled the nation into war. But that did not stop White House supporters from picking up the cue to bash the media.

Attacking the messenger always finds a receptive audience.

It's human nature. When you don't want to believe something, what do you do? First, you blame the messenger.

If the doctor has bad news, get a second opinion. If your bank statement doesn't balance, maybe it's the bank's fault. If you get a bad grade in school, the teacher is out to get you. Got a bad review at work? The boss just doesn't understand you.

Sometimes the messenger is wrong. But many times you eventually have no choice but to accept what you do not want to hear.

So it is with the news. If you don't like what you read on the front page of your newspaper, maybe the reporter is biased or just plain stupid. If the evening news on television doesn't please you, blame the messenger.

Consuming news with skepticism is a good thing. Plenty of reporting is biased, misinformed and, yes, just plain stupid.

But these days, public distrust of the news media is at a dangerously low point.

Despite their faults, those who once set the national news agenda were committed to telling the truth. Maybe it was the truth as they saw it, and sometimes they delivered it with a left-leaning bias. But they did not deliberately spread lies.

Whatever their faults, the old gatekeepers of real news are gone. They needed a head knocking, and they got it. But what has replaced them presents a challenge, if not a threat, to democracy.

Though there is more news to consume, there is no longer a consensus for truth in the news media. The major news organizations are under siege. They've been replaced by an agenda-driven rabble of pseudo-journalists, mostly on the Web and on television. There are few outlets anyone can trust to give unbiased information.

The role of the news media as an honest broker is shattered. Too many Americans do not trust mainstream news sources anymore. Instead they are drawn to sources that tell them what they want to hear.

Revive believable reporting

Public distrust of the news media is one of the most hazardous political challenges now facing Americans. The need for believable reporting is even more critical in a time of war. A fearful public is more willing to give politicians a free hand to keep secrets, restrict liberties and send our soldiers to their deaths -- all in the name of national security.

The dethronement of news elites divided and conquered a once-powerful force in American life. At the peak of their power, in the 1960s, they made a nation in denial see the tragic path our political leaders had led us into during the Vietnam War. A few years later, they toppled a president with the Watergate scandal.

Richard Nixon tried to run against the press. He routinely blamed the media for his problems.

After losing two elections in a row -- the 1960 presidential race and his 1962 bid for governor of California -- Nixon attacked the media during a stormy news conference, famously saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

Nixon made a lesser-known point in that Nov. 6, 1962, news conference that I find worthy today: "I believe that if a reporter believes that one man ought to win rather than the other, whether it's a television or radio or the like, he ought to say so."

I agree.

It is time for the news media to rethink what objectivity means. Concealing bias has left the media open to attack. The public, egged on by politicians, see bias even when it isn't there.

Not acknowledging our opinions provokes politicians and critics to look for clues, undermining the most objective stories.

But we could gain credibility by revealing bias, and showing we can be just as tough on what we like as what we don't like.

For more than a decade after the 1988 presidential campaign, politicians and their friends conducted a full assault on the "liberal" media.

The Bush family made it a personal crusade. President Clinton perfected some of their techniques when faced with coverage of his personal life. A new cable outlet, Fox News Channel, pursued and found a winning audience of those who thought the media was biased against conservatives.

Standing up to power

Today's media are as bullied as ever. Politicians don't have to dodge the tough questions anymore. They seldom even get them.

Before the Iraq war in 2003, most reporters in the White House press corps seldom challenged the president. A standout exception is longtime reporter Helen Thomas, who embodied the purpose -- and the peril -- of a free press in testy exchanges with President Bush and his advisers during televised news conferences. For a time, she was moved to the back row. Bush no longer calls on her at news conferences.

Only a free press can make politicians accountable. The founders of our nation understood this. They lived under an oppressive regime that jailed those who printed what it didn't want people to know. That is why they wrote a Constitution that ranks freedom of the press in the top tier of rights.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." -- First Amendment, Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution

Those who helped write the First Amendment deeply believed that freedom of the press was non-negotiable.

"The liberty of the press is indeed a blessing, which ought not to be surrendered but with blood," wrote Edmund Randolph in a letter to James Madison in 1789.

Without a free press, there is no freedom. Politicians everywhere -- and throughout history -- want to control the media, and thereby control what the public knows about their deeds.

Thanks to the world's most protective Constitution, the press in America is technically as free as it gets.

But politicians have found a way to limit the public benefits of our free press. They turned Americans against the news media, aided and abetted by the arrogance of elites in the news business who didn't know what hit them.

The news media earned a whipping, for sure. Disingenuous and superficial news coverage is everywhere -- on television, radio and even in the best newspapers. Biased, sometimes fraudulent, reporting is not the rare exception it should be.

But on its worst days, a free and fair press is our only real chance at getting the truth.

Armies of press aides, pseudo-journalists and well-funded advocacy groups are in place as an alternative to the traditional news media.

The great irony is that the rise of this propaganda machine feeds on the belief that the news media are biased. Yet often there is no one more biased than those who hurl the charge.

If the press is not believed largely because politicians and their allies turned Americans against it, then the press is not free, but under the thumb of politicians.

And without a free press, there is no democracy.

Craig Crawford, a former Orlando Sentinel Washington Bureau chief, is a news analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and 'The Early Show' on CBS. His new book is 'Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the News Media.'



Copyright © 2005, Orlando Sentinel

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