Democratic Underground

When Ordinary is Not Enough

February 24, 2005
By Pamela Troy

Shortly after the 2004 election, I had a brief exchange with a member of the Fourth Estate that throws some light onto the Gannon/Guckert scandal and the whole "nothing-to-see-here-folks" reaction from much of the mainstream media. The person in question is an editor who's occasionally featured as a panelist and commentator on the Sunday morning talk shows and other national venues. I had the opportunity to speak with him for a moment after a talk he'd given, and I used it to comment on something he'd said about the impossibility of predicting the future.

It's certainly true, I observed, that it's not possible to look into a crystal ball and say exactly what's going to happen, but it is possible to make educated guesses that have some degree of reliability, based on what's happening around us. For instance, back in the '80s, many of us who were watching the rise of the Moral Majority knew that this evangelical political movement was smart, persistent, and well-organized and was going to have an impact on American politics. "And yet many Washington insiders kept telling us that the Religious Right wouldn't get anywhere," I said.

He looked at me and, quite earnestly and seriously, less than a month after the 2004 presidential election, he said, "But the Religious Right never did get anywhere."

If I'd been thinking on my feet I would have simply asked him, "Why are you saying this to me?" Instead, still not quite able to believe what I just heard, I stammered out something about the Religious Right successfully moving American political dialogue further and further to the right. So he told me another one, to the effect that the Religious Right was on their way out anyway, because Bush would show them the door very soon. All I could muster in response was "I've been hearing that for the past twenty years."

By now we both knew the jig was up. The conversation politely ended.

Why did someone who is intelligent, literate, and has a birds-eye view of what is happening to this country, tell me something so obviously untrue as "The Religious Right never got anywhere?"

I reject the notion that as an outsider, a member of the vast "bewildered herd" that makes up the mainstream media's audience, I should just meekly take this player's word for it when he utters such nonsense. At my age that old punch line, "who do you believe, me or your own lyin' eyes?" no longer works.

Now the Guckert/Gannon scandal has broken, and we've all seen yet another version of that conversation writ large, the spectacle of presumably intelligent, well-read insiders like Howard Kurtz, Wolf Blitzer and Aaron Brown gazing politely off into space and indicating that they really just don't see why those peasants in the blogosphere are making such a fuss about a right-wing shill with nonexistent journalistic credentials being given a pass to White House press conferences while using an alias.

There's no arguing with deliberate obtuseness. The question is, why do they do this? And how can they do it on national television without appearing at least slightly embarrassed?

We all know the usual answers. They do it because, as mainstream journalists, they want to protect their turf from the encroachments of the Internet. They do it because they are beholden to, or friendly with many of those powerful folks who are likely to be embarrassed by the Guckert affair. But while these things may be true, there are more insidious reasons that account, not just for the mainstream press uttering twaddle, but for the mainstream press sticking to the twaddle long after it's been revealed as twaddle, and earnestly repeating it in one-on-one conversations off-camera and away from the microphones.

To begin with, the chances are that they do these things because they can. This is not to say that mainstream journalists and pundits are all consciously telling lies from their bully pulpits and smirking at our inability to call them on it. It's just that in the circles in which they move, they can say things that in other venues would result in stares of disbelief, and instead get grave nods of agreement and even the occasional murmured, "of course."

Back in the early '90s, at the height of the whole repressed memories syndrome Satanist/witch hunt, I once spoke to a charming, liberal, very intelligent therapist who informed me that she knew for a fact that there was a church in Los Angeles that, once a week at midnight, became a "Synagogue of Satan." She also told me that one of her patients was receiving coded commands to commit suicide, cleverly disguised as family letters, from the cabal of intergenerational Satanists who had raised him.

What was striking about the conversation was the therapist's obvious uneasiness with my skepticism. It was plain that she was used to talking about these things within the community of other therapists who believed as she did in a vast underground conspiracy of diabolists out to molest preschoolers. She wasn't used to someone saying to her face, "well, I have doubts about that and here's why..." She was used to unquestioning acceptance and reinforcement. It was an object lesson in the manner in which even educated people can, once they close ranks, provide an echo chamber that makes pernicious nonsense sound like the truth.

When that echo chamber is conducted on televised panels and interviews by people handsomely paid for dispensing their "insight," nonsense can be given not only the veneer of truth, but the force of a moral imperative. Going off-script, as blogger John Aravosis recently did when he called hogwash "hogwash" on CNN, is seen as unprofessional. The "professional" approach to political commentary as done on cable and network news, is to turn inside out Mark Twain's old saying about the difference between the almost the right word and the right word, and illuminate issues with the cool, unearthly glow of lightning bug light. The use of real lightning is, well, just plain rude. (Of course. Nod gravely.)

And there's another reason for the media's unwillingness to admit to their mistakes, even in private. There's the matter of the hefty moral stake we all have invested in the decisions we make and how we act on them.

As social animals, we humans have hardwired into our psyche the desire to be, if not "good," at least no worse than other human beings. Even those defective souls who lack empathy (sociopaths we used to call them) will usually try to minimize their own crimes by saying that "everybody" either does what they do or wants to, that they're only behaving in a natural and understandable manner. Something inside us revolts against saying, unequivocally and without reservation "I was wrong," "I was stupid," or "I was irresponsible."

The greater the power wielded by an individual or an institution, the greater the responsibility they bear and the higher those moral stakes become. Our national media wields a considerable amount of power and responsibility. They are supposed to use that power as a check on other powerful institutions. They are supposed to keep government and corporations honest, get the truth to their readers and viewers.

Our national media has shirked that responsibility. By abandoning the pursuit of truth in favor of a form of stenography, of he said/she said journalism, they have allowed lies to go unchallenged and the power of the press to be transformed into a propaganda vehicle for the Bush administration and its corporate buddies. The damage this has already done to our country and the terrible impact it has already had on individual American lives, is undeniable. When the history of the Bush administration is written and I have enough faith in humanity to believe that the Bush faux patriotism extant today will someday be remembered with the same contempt that we now remember McCarthyism and Jim Crow the mainstream press as it is now will not be regarded as heroes.

They know this. They aren't stupid and they aren't ignorant of history. But knowing something and admitting it to oneself are two different things.

It would have been nice if the Guckert/Gannon embarrassment had resulted in genuine soul-searching among the press about why this outrageous shill had gone undetected by the mainstream media even as he sat several feet away from reporters who are presumably the best and brightest of their profession. It could still happen. Maybe it will.

But don't bet on it.

Instead, what we're more likely to see is a powerful institution rising to its full height, drawing its robes about it, and loftily denouncing the hoi polloi for daring to question its competence. Recently C-Span showed a February 4th panel discussion on the legacy of Watergate that had been held at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to examining the role of the press in uncovering the Watergate scandal, the panel led by Carl Bernstein and including Anthony Lewis and Bob Schieffer, discussed the state of today's media. After denouncing Bill O'Reilly, Crossfire, Geraldo Rivera, and Matt Drudge, Carl Bernstein announced that at bottom it was the public's fault for not playing closer attention to the more traditional news sources, which presumably qualify as a still small voice of truth in the wilderness of bloggers and cable TV.

Judith Miller's cheerleading coverage of Bush's march to war in the New York Times? The unwillingness on the part of either network or print media to ask tough questions and engage in investigative reporting? Bob Novak's collusion in the Valerie Plame affair? Little of that was mentioned. Even the normally blunt Anthony Lewis, who had read a fiery and concerned opening statement about the timidity of the modern media only managed a mild demurral at Bernstein's blatant act of passing the buck. It was a more dignified version of Elisabeth Bumiller's petulant outburst last November at Medill School of Journalism when, faced with an audience's plainly skeptical response to her assertion that "you can't call the president a liar," she exclaimed, "What's wrong with you people?"

I don't believe the individuals who make up our mainstream media are involved in a conscious conspiracy with the Bush administration, in which the influence wielded by the Religious Right and the implications of a faux reporter being allowed into White House press conferences are deep dark secrets to be deliberately concealed along with the identity of Deep Throat and the question of who killed JFK. They are ordinary human beings with an ordinary level of vanity, credulousness, and denial, living at a time when, as in the Jim Crow and McCarthy era, simply being ordinary is just not sufficient.

They are ordinary people who know that if they don't look politely puzzled and ask, "What religious right influence?" or "What betrayal of American trust?" they are faced with the prospect of admitting how bad things are and where their own responsibility lies.

And then explaining to us what they are going to do about it.

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