Going Easy on President Bush
Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush
By Eric Boehlert
333 pages; $25
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
If we grade "Lapdogs" against the five W's of good journalism, then it gets an A for the "what" and a C for the "why."
"Lapdogs" succeeds most convincingly in demonstrating its main theme, that the news media have soft-soaped the troubled administration of President Bush. But the book proves less satisfactory in explaining why this has happened.
It does serve up the usual reasoning: that the right wing, through "toxic rhetoric" and "ferocious, ongoing attacks," has "perfected the art of media intimidation." What doesn't become clear, however, is why this "bullying" succeeds. Journalists have always been targets of criticism. What makes them succumb to these particular assaults?
In part, the book's method can be both its biggest strength and weakness. Taking advantage of today's super-powerful search tools such as Google, LexisNexis and TVEyes, the author collects and organizes a comprehensive look at news coverage.
We once demeaned such reports as "clip jobs," but that term is now too negative. Today's searches permit almost instant, definitive evidence-gathering. This is a true service. What is missing, though, are the insights and epiphanies that come from deeper discussion, from a variety of perspectives, of what these data points mean.
"Lapdogs" doesn't get that far, but it still makes a convictable case. Boehlert, who has written for Salon and Rolling Stone among others, moves devastatingly from example to example monitoring the media's meekness.
There's the strange outing of the CIA's Valerie Plame, in which the press clammed up and left it to a special prosecutor to become "the fact-finder of record..running down leads, asking tough questions and, in the end, helping inform the American people about possible criminal activity inside the White House."
There's the Orwellian manner in which the investigation of Bush's possibly abandoned National Guard service morphed into a preoccupation with CBS' methods, while the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in an anti-John Kerry campaign "riddled with untruths" and "clear contradictions," got prolonged, respectful attention.
And there's the journalistic cheerleading for the Iraq war, with far-too-late attention to the deceptions that preceded it and the debacles that accompany it. Among many examples: the "baffling" delays in reporting the infamous Downing Street memo suggesting that intelligence was being "fixed," months early, to justify war.
In fairness, Boehlert also points out some strongly critical work about Bush, but his cumulative evidence leans far in the other direction, including some eye-opening statistical comparisons.
Why, he wonders, did CBS report on the Swift Boat story four times more in one day than it did on Bush's National Guard service during all of the 2000 campaign? Why did more than 100 New York Times articles and columns mention the Swift Boat group compared with eight references to a rival Texas group challenging Bush's military service?
Why did the Downing Street memo get 20 mentions on seven TV networks from May 1 to June 6, compared with more than 260 mentions of a "silly tabloid controversy" over a leaked prison photo of Saddam Hussein in his underwear?
Boehlert also excavates some embarrassing quotes from the mainstream media. When Bob Schieffer replaces Dan Rather, CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves is quoted as saying: "The White House doesn't hate CBS anymore."
At Time, a picture editor compares published war photos and is shocked to find today's far more toned down than those of the early 1990s. "It's a reflection of the culture and the fact that the country has become more conservative," she concludes. Likewise, "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Jeff Fager says, "We tend to err on the side of sanitizing news... We do a lot of self-censorship. Usually we don't see enough of what's really going on in Iraq."
Had Boehlert probed deeper into the reasons for all this, here are questions he might have pondered. Has the public been gulled by a decades-long, rightwing big lie about liberal media? Do new media, including cable and the Internet, favor the emotionalism of extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly over more moderate voices associated with print? Has intensified competition made media afraid of offending audiences through tough reporting?
A telling quote comes from PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. Asked why the press failed in reporting problems with the war, Lehrer says, "Because it just didn't occur to us. We weren't smart enough to do it."
But you and I know these journalists. They are plenty smart enough. If Boehlert is correct, perhaps the problem lies less in brainpower than in willpower, in journalism's resolve to do what is needed and stand up to the critics.