Hating the media has long been a popular pastime. But after the invasion of Iraq four years ago, anti-press animus reached a new level of intensity on the left. As weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize and the country began disintegrating, a widespread conviction developed that the press had failed to do its due pre-war diligence. Here’s how Michael Massing put it in the February 26, 2004, New York Review of Books:
In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush Administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq. . . . [O]ne is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change — when, in short, it might have made a difference?
Two years on, Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, made a similar argument in even harsher terms in Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press). Spooked by charges of liberal bias, Boehlert argued, the press before the war — “timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking — came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest.”
Damning stuff, that — but it may be time to ask whether the lapdog critique still applies. (Some insist it never did, or at least that things weren’t that simple) Think back to last year’s Pulitzer Prizes. Winners included the Washington Post, for its coverage of secret US prisons overseas; the New York Times, for reporting on domestic eavesdropping; and Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler’s images of caskets carrying deceased Marines home to Colorado. This year, meanwhile, the Boston Globe is reportedly a finalist in the National Reporting category for coverage of President George W. Bush’s unprecedented use of presidential signing statements, which allow him to ignore laws he’d rather not follow. The Los Angeles Times’ fine Iraq coverage is up for a Pulitzer as well. And thus far, the two biggest stories of 2007 are the debacle at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the still-unfolding mess at the Department of Justice, where eight US attorneys were fired last year for what appear to have been purely political reasons.
The press’s pre-Iraq failings stemmed from reluctance to question authority (see Miller, Judy). But right now, doesn’t the political media deserve credit for doing exactly that?
Chicken or egg?
Some of the press’s strongest detractors think so — at least to a point. “When I’m in forums where people have the same old uniformly critical view of the press, I point out that our top news organizations are doing much better,” says Massing. “Certainly, the New York Times and Washington Post have distinguished themselves by running many important stories and raising pressing questions — about the administration’s policies on Iraq and related issues, but on other issues as well.”
Massing doesn’t necessarily think soul-searching and contrition are responsible, however. Instead, he argues that external factors have made it easier for the press to treat Bush & Co. with proper aggression: the Abu Ghraib scandal, Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s ever-dwindling poll numbers. (He doesn’t mention Democratic control of Congress, but that only bolsters the case.) “My premise on all this,” says Massing, “is that the more powerful a president is, the less aggressive the press is.”