2007/07/10

Media vs government

Marcy "Emptywheel" Wheeler comments on The Next Hurrah about Michael Isikoff's story on Bush's decision to commute I. Lewis "Scooter' Libby's just and richly-deserved prison sentence. Warning: Marcy is a loud and proud DFH Blogger, so don't read her account if you like your language clean.

Th main question that occurred to me as I read Emptywheel's account was "Why do we still have confessional insider-type accounts in the mainstream media? The media that's allegedly full of Very Serious people?" Emptywheel makes it clear right off the bat that Isikoff does not consult any sources other than the people he interviewed and it's also quite clear a few paragraphs into reading Isikoff's article that it's absolutely chock-full of unverifiable, alleged facts that Isikoff simply takes the word of his sources for. Many years back, first Ronald Reagan and then the Elder Bush and then to a lesser extent Bill Clinton and then to a huge extent GW Bush, all decided that the handling of the press was an extremely important task that required serious study and education and long, late-night talks.

We lefty bloggers don't think much of Joe Klein, who wrote Primary Colors, but the movie effectively pointed out how politicians view the press. When "Hillary Clinton" was apprised of a scandal, her first thought was of which media source was the best one to leak the news to. The Elder Bush made it very clear during his time in office that his wife Barbara, was keeping careful track of "friendly" and "non-friendly" reporters. Those reporters who were not considered friendly, i.e., those who wrote critical stories, were denied access to the President. Friendly reporters, of course, got unlimited access.

When a reporter is getting an "inside account," we need to keep in mind that these interviews occur after the President's PR people have thoroughly discussed "the mark" and his "tells," his liquor preferences, his level of knowledge on the issues and his favorite conversational topics, etc. They know how to make their "insider" stories convincing and gather afterwards to talk over what worked, what didn't, what the reporter found convincing and what he appeared skeptical of. What this means is that the much-admired reporter I.F. Stone got it right. When he was told that counter-insurgency warfare was being given primacy in Vietnam and bombing was being phased out, Stone looked up the respective budgetary figures and found out that the US was spending less on counter-insurgency per year than it was on B-52 bombing per month.

Reporting on the President requires of reporters a stubborn refusal to be manipulated, a keen awareness of the many tricks presidential administrations will use to steer reporters towards favored narratives and a deep appreciation for the subject the reporters is reporting on.

My solution? There are many stories that can be covered adequately by a single person, but I'd like to see teams on many other stories. To have a reporter being close to sources and to do a lot of personal interviews in Washington DC, over cocktail weenies and over glasses of expensive scotch is not a bad thing in and of itself. Even "bad guys," however one defines the term, deserve to be heard and to be able to relay their stories in an up-close and personal manner. What I'd like to see, though, would be for the interviewing reporter to turn over his or her notes and observations and conclusions to a blogger up in Minnesota or down in Alabama and for the blogger to take those notes and put them into context, with other facts and opposing viewpoints. The editor can then make sure that the resulting story flows well and isn't choppy and disjointed. As I said, I'd like to see a real team effort on important stories.

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