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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The General And The Giant Ape

by tristero

Man, this has me steamed:
Reporters en route to Arizona on Air Force One last week opted to watch the movie "King Kong" in the press cabin. Not so Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary and former Fox News commentator, who told reporters that he spent the flight in the staff cabin watching Gen. Michael V. Hayden's confirmation hearings to be the new C.I.A. director — on CNN.
Okay, once you're back from the dental surgery room and had your jaw returned to its proper place, let's state the obvious:

In a country with a rational press, any reporter on that plane who was watching "King Kong" instead of the Hayden hearings would be fired within 1 hour of the publication of Bumiller's story. Including, apparently, Bumiller herself.

Like I just said, no one was fired, as far as I know. And the farce of an open press continues - not that anyone other than the press itself believes it.

And there's also an obvious question here: What the hell was Bumiller thinking? She couldn't have possibly realized that she portrayed herself and her pals as exactly as lazy and dangerously incompetent as we thought they were. If she had, she never would have let that paragraph see the light of day.

Now, because I think there are a few important but easily overlooked issues at stake in this seemingly minor incident, I'd like to mull it over a bit. It's another one of those "yeah, it's oh-so-telling, but cmon, it's trivial" things that really isn't trivial at all. Let's start by trying to figure out what got Bumiller motivated to write this clearly embarassing if not potentially self-destructive lead in the first place.

I'm pretty sure Bumiller started out with this. She wanted to stroke Tony Snow, telling him - but more importantly, his masters - that he takes his job seriously. If you read the rest of the article - a sniffy, snooty account over the tussle to have something other than extremist propaganda available to watch in the press cabin - you learn that at an earlier time, poor Tony overstepped his bounds as press secretary and was gotcha'd by a former colleague at Fox (now, that's trivial, imo). And then, it becomes explicit that Bumiller was buttering Snow when she writes:
Mr. Snow, who is at the White House by 5:30 a.m. to start plowing through his briefing books...
and she continues, clucking sympathetically (did I just mix metaphors? Butter Snow? Clucking? Nevermind) over the dilemma poor Snow faces being fair - but not too fair - to his tv ex-station. (Nothing about being balanced, tho.)

But here in the lead, she just wanted to be humorous and light in her praise. So Bumiller used somewhat self-deprecating humor but basically standard office joshing and jocularity in a passive-aggressive effort to be charming as in, "Ha! Here we are enjoying a new movie but Tony, you can't do that anymore, can you? Nose to the grindstone, you poor guy, hope you really enjoyed watching those hearings 'stead of Naomi Watts! (grin) "

But by doing so, in writing up the lead, it simply never occurred to Bumiller that the true subject was not the workaholic Snow but her pals. She hadn't thought to consider -was she drunk?- that she was calling herself and her colleagues lazy, incompetent, and willfully, deliberately ill-informed and disinterested in their jobs. From her point of view, it's was just, "Hey! We work really hard, we need to unwind like everyone else, what's the big deal? And besides, it our job to report the White House, not hearings of White House appointees. Can I get some more sherbert, please?"

In other words, The White House press corps is so utterly corrupt and inept that it doesn't even know what working, nevermind working as a reporter, means. Bumiller wasn't arrogantly flaunting her laziness and incompetence. She couldn't even see it. Nor is it likely she could ever be taught to see it. Otherwise, it would have been utterly impossible to have written anything like that for her boss to see. "Tough day, Mr. Keller? Not me, I was catching up on my movies during the Hayden hearings! Gosh, I'm sleepy, gotta turn in now. Kiss-kiss bye bye!"

It's almost as if the press corps clowns are preparing for a return engagement of the infamous March of Folly press conference.

For reasons that I'm sure say much about my mechnanisms for association, I was reminded of Temple Grandin's efforts to make conveyor belts leading animals to their death in the slaughterhouse as stress-free as possible, by keeping them ignorant of the dreadful fate that will soon befall them. And then I thought, yeah, and I'm on that conveyor belt, too, but y'know, fellow beasts:

I'd really really appreciate it if I got just a teensy bit of the good skinny on what is happening right now, and why. My distressingly imminent fate may be to wind up as a tub of glue, but even so, I wouldn't mind being apprised of the glue factory's conditions.

If it's not too much trouble, of course.

But seriously, who cares? Bob Somerby notes the mordant humor in it, but finds more important things to focus on. And he very well may be right. But I do care about this one (and the others, too, duh). If only because as a symbol of the rot at the heart of American mainstream journalism, I would care. This story makes its point in the most direct and devastating way: Congress is getting bamboozled yet again by the Bushites, and the press is boggled by bouncy KIng Kong and his paw candy. It's let 'em eat cake for the Wired Age.

But it's more than a starkly obvious symbol. There are two realities here that bear taking a moment to tweeze out.

First of all, the time to express outrage is before things get so bad there's a second March of Folly. People got killed - lots and lots and lots of innocent people, thousands of people - in good measure because the American, and especially the Washington press corps, were mesmerized by the sight of an earlier eight hundred pound gorilla - the Bush administration's shock and awe propaganda of 2002 and 2003.

Dammit, those bozos should be fired now, not later when they've done -yes, done as in Judy Miller done - major damage. So I'll object loudly now, when it's seemingly trivial. It may not make any immediate difference, but it just might straighten up a few toes when it gets serious.

The second issue is the other main subject, besides fluffing Snow (that a better metaphor?), of Bumiller's column. CNN is not very good, but it is a news outlet, not a 24/7 source of extremist propaganda (well, not yet anyway, even if that CCC graphic is truly scary). It should be a matter of grave concern that this is not only the main source of information for the Bush/Cheny administration but that the administration went to ridiculous lengths to make sure that rightwing propaganda, and only rightwing propaganda, be broadcast to the press corps when traveling with the president. How ridiculous were those lengths? They were so extreme that it was only by asking the question publicly, and very carefully by pre-emptively insisting that the question was entirely serious, that anything changed. Before that, all attempts to get the situation changed were rebuffed.

C'mon! Isn't it just a matter of opinion, that Fox is what you call "extremist propaganda?" After all, American officials nicknamed CNN the "Communist News Network." Different strokes is all. And since it's just opinion, it's silly and trivial.


Saying that Fox News [sic] is extremist propaganda may not have the same value as an assertion of fact, as say, the claim that all life has common ancestry and evolved over billions of years. However, the ungodly extent of Fox's lies, distortions, and far right boosterism has been objectively documented over and over again. These aren't "mistakes" or nuances resulting from differing perspectives. This is deliberate radical activism with a particular goal: to advance an extreme right agenda. There is nothing comparable at CNN or at any other national television outlet. None. Only Fox would permit a scoundrel to compare a vice president of the United States to Goebbels and not so much as even make a token objection. Or even take note of it.

To demand that the American press subject itself to extremist indoctrination whenever the administration had the opportunity to manipulate what they could watch was not immature behavior for a presidency, but scandalous behavior by a government working hard to emulate a tinpot dictatorship. It's also telling. And very ominous.

Of course, does this really need to be said? - it's only a trivial incident when compared to the slaughter, torture, misery, and corruption the Bush administration has perpetrated. But just as it obviously isn't the worst by a long shot - for my money, the 9/11 intelligence failure, Iraq, the war on science, and Katrina are the worst, so far - the dangers of a US government all but compelling a literally captive audience of reporters to watch propaganda should not be minimized or ignored.

"Right! "'All but,' you said it yourself! They may be sometimes strapped in but they can do what they want! The press don't have to watch TV, y'know, they can read a book and actually learn something, hunh."

Ok, very slowly now. It is a simple fact that Americans mostly get their news from television. At the very least, it behooves a responsible press corps to watch a fair amount of televised news. At the very least. On the other hand, there simply is no reason for the press to watch a steady diet of extremist propaganda unless someone wants them to take it seriously as fact. It is outrageous that the administration was trying to pass off one as the other and offer it with a straight face. It is outrageous that the press apparently permitted them to do so for so long.

(Insert boilerplate here that reading books is also a good idea for the press to do more often than they have. Oh, and it's also a good idea to wear socks much of the time.)

(Edited slightly after initial posting.)

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