March 3, 2006
Myths the Beltway Journalists PeddleBy Ed Lasky
The White House Press Corps and journalists working the Capitol Hill beat are well versed in the ways of Washington. Yet, they also seem determined to keep the public in the dark about how our government works.
When a Republican is president, they find it convenient to foster myths enabling negative conclusions to be drawn.
The Beltway press corps has seen countless campaigns, wandered the corridors of powers, and observed how decisions are made and executed. While they may disdain real hunters (note their obsessiveness regarding the Cheney hunting accident and their focus on gun control), they do share a keen appreciation with them of the importance of knowing the lay of the land when they go hunting for their quarry (politicians). After all, journalists are experts at finding leakers, the suspect photo, the proverbial 'smoking gun,' the anomalous relationship or meeting, the disgruntled government employee ready to spill bile. They are magicians who can unravel a thread endlessly.
Journalists routinely make incendiary attacks against Bush administration officials that generate a lot of heat and destruction, but scant light or information. Because the public is kept in the dark about certain mundane realities. Even worse, people rely on Hollywood to give us an idea about the practices and policies of government.
The liberal biases of Hollywood and the need to make a movie 'entertaining' result in a very cloudy, superficial and distorted view about the ways of Washington. For example, the movie Syriana shows the CIA operating in cahoots with oil companies to engineer succession (I think) in a fictional Arab nation. Conversations are elliptical, actions occur in dark places, and a general conspiratorial tenor persists throughout the movie. This genre of movie usually relied on a common set of tropes: big business conspiring with murky forces in the government to commit evil acts.
The very first reporter—as—Republican—busting—hero movie, All the President's Men, gave far more credit than deserved to the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein far uncovering Watergate. In reality, a variety of people played key roles in unraveling the scandal—among them Congressman and cooperative witnesses. There was far more reporting than just the investigating by Woodward and Bernstein. But this was one of those convenient myths the Beltway press is in no hurry to bust. Our journalists seem to do little better than scriptwriters in giving us a sense of how our government works for us and often craft a narrative that sometimes seems straight out of Hollywood.
Here are several current myths the Beltway press pushes onto a gullible public.
A plan is a serious indication of what might happen
The aftermath of the Iraq War has lead to media attacks about the roads not taken. The criticism often takes the form of 'If only Bush had followed or listened to _____ (fill in the blank with any of the ex—officials now making a fortune on book tours and the lecture circuit), we would have enjoyed a successful conclusion in Iraq by now. The tack is often to make it seem as if a binary decision was involved: Bush had two plans before him and consistently chose the wrong one.
This scenario is foolish. Washington has as many plans floating around as Hollywood has scripts. The town is full of think tanks, agencies, departments, branches, divisions, ad hoc groups—all very busy making 'plans' and charting scenarios. Most never see the light of day, are never shown the President, and are filed away in some filing cabinet—ready to be brought out as the political equivalent of hand grenades.
A picture is worth a thousand words
Sorry Kodak, no it is not, at least not always. While it may be an exaggeration to think that any John Q. Citizen can get his picture taken with a politician, it is probably not as difficult as many might be led to believe. Most political events have a 'meet and greet' session that allows audience members to have a photo—taking opportunity with speakers. Attendees can wait in a 'holding pen' until they are escorted for a quick snap with the celebrity—a very brief brush with fame.
People can buy these pictures for wallpaper to bedeck their offices in order to impress clients. Journalists in DC know this, but seem to react with extreme agitation whenever a politician is found in the same frame as a disgraced figure. I am peripherally involved in politics and have had my picture taken with, among other, Rudy Giuliani and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (arm in arm). Did they know who I was? No. Will they ever know who I am? Alas, no.
Yet somehow George Bush is disgraced by being in the same picture as accused terror fundraiser Sami Al—Arian or lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In the Bush/Abramoff shot on a Newsweek cover, you might need glasses to spot Abramoff. He is the guy who is so far away from the President he looks like an elf. Close enough for journalistic work.
Pictures may not lie, but they do not always tell the whole truth, either. They are certainly of little probative value — they do not prove anything. Journalists know this, yet continue to tar politicians with guilt by association. In a court of law, prosecutors are compelled to inform defense attorneys of mitigating circumstances or facts that might help defendants. In the court of public opinion, journalists feel no such responsibility.
Press conferences have become abattoirs. Journalists come well—equipped to the battle, having developed a list of questions meant as much to score points among fellow reporters by embarrassing the politician, as they are intended to elicit information. Imagine yourself before the crowd of scalp—hunters: you have no idea what obscure questions await you (such as the ruler of one of the 200 plus nations out there). You are about to be ambushed by the howling and bleating multitude of reporters. Nevertheless, you soldier on, for you would be criticized if you avoided fielding questions. Mistakes are inevitable, malapropisms, momentary lapses of knowledge and stumbles are human and to be expected. After all, the fate of the free world rests on your shoulders. Journalists only have to concentrate on one thing: getting the gotcha moment.
There is a related myth: that there must be something congenitally wrong with a President who does not read the daily papers. This criticism has been leveled against President Bush. Presumably, he should be reading the New York Times or the Washington Post to be a well—informed leader. This is absurd, of course. The President has many sources of information available to him in real time. They are of far greater import than day—old news (think of the situation room made famous in the television series West Wing). Every morning the President has on his desk a Presidential Daily Briefing that summarizes key news items of the day. Spending a couple of hours a day perusing the paper for old news would be a dereliction of duty.
If the President is expected to read newspapers to get a sense for the pulse of the nation, he is unlikely to get an objective sense of this mood by reading the editorial pages of the major papers. After all, papers are run by people far more liberal in their orientation than the general population. If Bush needs to get a barometer of public attitudes, that is an area left to experts: Karl Rove or innumerable other professionals.
The Government is a Leviathan. Millions of people labor in thousands of federal agencies and departments. Can any President control all the levers of government and be held responsible for the acts of employees? Of course not. This would be beyond the capabilities of even a micro—manager like Jimmy Carter, who micromanaged the White House into a terminal state of decrepitude.
Yes, delegations of power and responsibility are made, as they are in any modern corporation. Yes, mistakes in appointments can be made. There are certainly some grounds to believe that Mike Brown, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief, was in over his head. However, the amount of abuse heaped on George Bush was clearly excessive and disproportionate, especially when compared to the gentle treatment given state (Democratic) officials.
A more recent example of this willful unawareness is the failure of many in the media to explain the approval process behind the pending Dubai Ports World acquisition of terminal operations in several American ports. Critics have attacked Bush as if he had a hand in the approval process. Or alternatively (can he ever be seen to do anything right?) he should have had a hand but didn't bother himself.
Wrong. The CFIUS is a multi—agency review panel that vets foreign investment in America for national security implications. It has done so in the past, involving other nations' (such as China's) purchase of port operations—with nary a whisper of criticism. As with those deals, proper procedures were followed. Yet Bush is attacked by political pundits and partisan journalists for not stopping the deal. Well there are thousands of decisions made every day by government officials—does anyone assume that Bush should be involved in those decisions. The right hand usually does not, indeed often cannot, tell the left hand what it is doing.
Government officials have photographic memories
Conservative government officials are not only expected to be omniscient and omnipresent but they are also expected to have photographic memories.
The legend of President Johnson's ability to place names with faces, especially while campaigning, is enduring. Yet, little appreciated is that he had aides whispering in his ears the names of people he was approaching. This is because leaders, like the rest of us, can only retain so much information in their memory. Most people cannot recall the substance or details of conversations of a month ago. Journalists in DC should know that the typical politician must talk to dozens of people a day, passing in the hallways, in meetings, over lunches, on the phone.
My personal political experience on Capitol Hill dealing with Congressmen has given me a deep appreciation of the demands of the office — juggling dozens of people a day and a myriad of issues. Journalists must witness this every day, yet somehow people such as Scooter Libby are supposed to remember the details of conversations from years ago. They ascribe sinister motives for his simple, and very human, inability to do so.
The only sure way to capture conversations is to for people to wear wires and offices to be 'bugged' (we know how well this worked for Richard Nixon). Such a Big Brother monitoring would have a very chilling effect on the free flow of ideas, especially when journalists can be all too keen to pull statements out of context to disparage people.
Partisanship ends when one works for the people
Early government reformers enacted civil service rules to help ensure that people who went to work for the government would put aside partisanship and work for the people. They were to concentrate on the tasks at hand and fulfill their job functions as they would be required to do if they worked in the "real world."
During the Bush Presidency we have seen people who are fired or forced out (such as CIA employees) feeling free to express their ire for partisan purposes. They may be embittered employees, who are fired for incompetence or due to an overhaul of operations. Yet journalists rarely express any sense that vengeful motivation may cast doubt on the veracity of their claims.
Joseph Wilson IV objected to Bush Administration policies, and instead of seeking redress in Congress, he sought solace in the New York Times. His partisanship became quite clear when he went to work as a paid consultant to John Kerry's campaign.
The idea that former Presidents should be honorable and refrain from criticizing sitting Presidents has gone by the wayside, as Jimmy Carter has continued his meddling and damaging ways by continually attacking George Bush (most distastefully at the funeral of Coretta Scott King). Bill Clinton has also recently taken up the cudgels—no doubt to help enhance his wife's Presidential prospects.
Criticism is the heart of a democracy, but the media thrives on attacking Bush officials for purported conflicts of interests and never examines any possible motivations that might tarnish or cast into doubt claims of Bush detractors.
Admittedly, this is a very simplified version of the ecology of politics in Washington. When journalists compose a narrative of events, they all too infrequently omit the 'methods behind the madness.' Yet only by being aware of the constraints facing decision makers and leaders can the public fairly evaluate their performance. Leaders cannot have all the facts at their fingertips, they may find themselves in photos with people who are persona non grata, they are not God and cannot be at all places at all times, and they are far from perfect. Just like us.
Ed Lasky is the News Editor of The AmericanThinker.