Hats Off In Swamp

by digby

Jay Carney at TIME takes his hat off to Josh Marshall and the blogosphere for "having been right in their suspicions about this story [the US Attorney purge] from the beginning," while he was rudely dismissing their claims with this:

Of course! It all makes perfect conspiratorial sense!

Except for one thing: in this case some liberals are seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist.

It's good of Carney to admit his mistake. It's far more than most MSM writers ever do when dealing with the blogosphere.

But this episode perfectly illustrates the problem with the mainstream media's coverage during the last six years. The Bush administration has been the most secretive and ruthlessly partisan in recent memory and yet the Washington bureau chief for TIME reflexively assumed a benign explanation for what was obviously at least a questionable process.

Here's Carney:

When this story first surfaced, I thought the Bush White House and Justice Department were guilty of poorly executed acts of crass political patronage. I called some Democrats on the Hill; they were "concerned", but this was not a priority.

One of the silliest conventions of modern journalism is that the press can't tell a story if "the other side" isn't screaming about it. Republicans are always screaming (and often are the ones feeding the scandal to the press in the first place) so it's very easy to find that hook. Democrats don't have the institutional infrastructure to successfully manufacture scandals and are often slow off the mark in seeing real ones, so the press doesn't feel they have any reason to pursue them. (And I guess stories about crass political patronage, even in the justice department, just aren't considered news anymore. That's a sad comment all by itself.)

In the case of the US Attorney purge, it was left to the victim to be brave enough to come forward before the mainstream press saw a story --- and likely it was mostly because the man who did it was an evangelical Christian and a Republican that made them take notice.

The problem here is that many in the press seem to see their role as some sort of referee and conduit for the two parties instead of independent fact finders and purveyors of truth.

Here's an echo of that from Richard Wolff a couple of weeks ago:

in my humble view, I think the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards in covering politics in general. And the, um, the interesting thing in, in looking at the political coverage as people try to guess what we do is, is that they want us to play a role that really isn't our role.

Our- our role is to ask questions and get information. But it- the press briefing isn't Prime Minister's question time. It's not a chance for the opposition to take on the government and grill them to a point where they hand- throw their hands up and surrender. Now, obviously there's a contentious spirit there- we're trying to get information, but, it's not a political exercise, it's a journalistic exercise, and I think often the blogs are looking for us to be political advocates, more than journalistic ones.

I like Wolff and Carney generally and they aren't the worst offenders by far. But this attitude is pervasive in Washington circles and it's causing some serious problems. (Partisan impeachments against the will of the people. Illegal wars. Out of control executive branch.) It comes at least partially from the fact that journalists think that by simply telling the public what the politicians are saying (much of it on double super-secret backround) they are doing their jobs. They allow both sides to play out their political games in the mainstream media and then provide running color commentary on who's "winning." In their minds, if the Democrats aren't as good at stoking scandals or creating an atmosphere of political terrorism, then it's not their job to uncover what the Republicans are doing. Democrats need to "play better" if they want to "win." (You often see a kind of admiration for the bold machismo of the Republican character assassins in the press -- they are winners.)

The fact that the Republicans are better at dirty politics and hand-feeding the kind of scandals to the press that they like should not be what controls the coverage of politics. A nose for news should be and it's clear that some combination of intimidation, laziness, commercial concerns, habit and, yes, political and cultural bias (see the disparate degrees of MSM revulsion shown toward the Democratic base and the GOP base when they exert their influence on their party)have tilted this ridiculous "playing field" waaay to the right.

And I hereby fearlessly predict that what you will see if the Democrats gain control of the government in 2008 will be a revival of 90's style "crusading" journalism in which the press will take every ginned up scandal the Republicans come up with and run with them like they are the reincarnation of Edward R. Murrow, thus proving in their own minds that they aren't servants of power after all. And they will say it's what we wanted during the Bush years and now we are complaining which proves we are partisan and they aren't.