Thursday, April 15, 2004
War Coverage Shifts Dramatically
I am also an active participant in media, often quoted in print and occasionally appearing on television. As such, I have what might be described as an "interesting" perspective on the media.
Lately, I have noticed several changes in the media's coverage of both the White House and the Iraq War. This shift has accelerated recently, and in some instances, dramatically:
- Today's New York Time's front page shows a soldier's casket being unloaded from a plane (its one of 3 front page photos of grieving family members). There are additional photos (page A13) of all 64 American servicemen killed this past week;What we are seeing -- in real time -- is an unravelling of the administration's media management strategy.
- The Wall Street Journal has been critical of numerous statements of the administration. Several articles directly challenge as false facts put forth by the administration;
- At the President's Tuesday night press conference, the media asked far more difficult, uncomfortable questions than they have in the past. Though not nearly as voracious or "in your face" as the UK press, it was marked change from the kid glove treatment the President has enjoyed in the past.
- Much of the media carried explicit photos of the burned and desecrated bodies of 4 American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah.
How did so a dramatic shift come about?
Source: New York Times
As a media junkie, I trace the loss of press timidity back to one specific event: Robert Novak's outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. After years of spin and overtly politically motivated policies, that single event is where the White House "jumped the shark." I suspect it was the event that crossed the line for many professional journalists.
The Richard Clarke 60 Minutes interview was the next order of magnitude shift. When the Nation's Chief of Counter Terrorism tells the country that the President of the United States was asleep at the switch, it generates some media introspection.
Then came the worst week of the war in terms of U.S. Casualties. The Fallujah debacle added to the sense that the war was slipping from our grasp.
These three events have emboldened a cow-towed Media. No one likes to feel they have been played for a fool. Its apparent (to me at least) that the Press is perturbed over having smoke blown up their collective arses for the past 4 years.
The sharks smell blood in the water, and they are more than willing to exact some revenge.
This is extremely significant, at least from an election campaign perspective. The media has been complicit in much of what has happened during this administration. A lack of vigorous fact checking, and little challenges of outright falsehoods has enabled much of what the Bush White House has accomplished in their first term. With few exceptions (The New York Time's Paul Krugman, and the Kansas City Star come to mind), the Press has been mostly AWOL during most of President Bush's term.
How significant is this? With the Press engaging in self-censorship post 9/11, the White House was free to set the media agenda, determine the tone of discourse, and control what subjects were ripe for further exploration.
That is an enormous concentration of power.
How did we ever to get this point, in an open Democracy with a Free Press? For a perspective on that, I suggest you watch Alexandra Pelosi's 2000 campaign documentary "Journeys With George." Pelosi is the youngest daughter of California Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Minority Leader. Far from a liberal screed against a far right candidate, the documentary reveals the candidate George W. Bush as an intelligent and likable person.
If you have ever wondered how one of the least qualified (on paper at least) major party candidate for President got elected in the first place, this film provides at least part of the answer. In short, W utterly charms the pants off of the press corps.
That charm, combined with the President's initial good post 9/11 performance gave him an enormous amount of latitude with the media; W got the "benefit of the doubt." That's an edge which the White House has enjoyed and exploited ever since the terrorist attacks shocked the nation.
Do not underestimate the impact of this: It is the most significant change in the 2004 Presidential campaign. For a variety of reasons, but most especially the three mentioned above, Rove & Company has lost the "benefit of the doubt."
So far, we have seen how the President's handler's have performed since losing that edge: Not very well. The President gave a steady speech on Iraq, only to turn into a Deer int he Headlights during the Q&A portion. Is it any wonder that this was only his 3rd prime time Press Conference since taking office?
This makes a multitude of debates less likely. It means we will see less of the President in situations where he is working "without a net." Karl Rove is likely to stick to a strict script of tightly controlled photo ops and prepared remarks. I suspect he is willing to risk further alienating the media and attempt to run out the clock.
At least, that's the impression I got from watching his televised expressions Tuesday night during some of the President's less eloquent monents.
Indeed, the failure on the part of most of the mainstream press to adequately discharge their duties is what has enabled the blogosphere and sites such as this one to come about and thrive. There is a definite public hunger for a more aggressive media, complete with better fact checking and challenges to authority.
The free market despises a vaccum. If the press will not provide a vigorous fact checking mechanism, we have seen the market place step nito the void and do so instead. This is a warning shot across the bow of the mainstream commercial media, and they had best take notice of it.
Getting back to the politics of the recent media shift: Without a compliant and willing press, the White House will have a much harder time getting their message out unfiltered. Both the right and left wing echo chambers preach to the converted. But its the mainstream media that speaks to the great middle, the swing voters and the independents.
In a divided nation, this is the strategically a very important group of voters. Losing media compliancy is a potentially devasting loss in what looks to be a very close election.
Deadly Week Ends in Tears for the Fallen
By MONICA DAVEY
New York Times, April 15, 2004
Families in Mourning
Bush News Conference Set Amid Campaign Concerns
New York Times, April 13, 2004
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