Bush puts us in a room of fun-house mirrors
The impulse to control the press hardly originated with George W. Bush, but his administration has been less inclined than any in memory to echo Thomas Jefferson's famous declaration: "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
The Bush administration has little esteem for the watchdog role of the press, in part because its own quest for "truth" has been based on something other than empiricism. In fact, it enthroned a new criterion for veracity, "faith-based" truth, sometimes corroborated by "faith-based" intelligence. For officials of this administration (and not just the religious ones either), truth seemed to descend from on high, a kind of divine revelation begging no further earthly scrutiny.
For our president this evidently was the case. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported him saying to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister of the moment, "God told me to strike al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did."
It is hardly surprising, then, that such a president would eschew newspapers in favor of reports from other more "objective sources," namely his staff. He has spoken often of trusting "visceral reactions" and acting on "gut feelings." Reading facts, history, logic and the complex interaction among the electorate, the media and the government have all been relegated to subsidiary roles in what might be called "fundamentalist" policy formation.
Just as the free exchange of information plays little role in the relationship between a fundamentalist believer and his or her god, so it has played a distinctly diminished role in our recent parallel world of divine political revelation. After all, if you already know the answer to a question, of what use is the media, except to broadcast that answer? The task at hand, then, is not to listen but to proselytize the political gospel among nonbelievers, thereby transforming a once interactive process between citizen and leader into evangelism.
Although in the Bush political universe, freedom has been endlessly extolled in principle, it has had little utility in practice. What possible role could a free press play when revelation trumps fact and conclusions are preordained?
A probing press is logically viewed as a spoiler under such conditions, stepping between the administration and those whose only true salvation lies in becoming part of a nation of true believers. Since there was little need, and less respect, for an opposition (loyal or otherwise), the information feedback loops in which the press should have played a crucial role in any functioning democracy, ceased operating. The media synapses which normally transmit warnings from citizen to government froze shut. Television networks continued to broadcast and papers continued to publish, but, dismissed and ignored, they became irrelevant, except possibly for their entertainment value. As the press has withered, the government, already existing in a self- referential and self-deceptive universe, was deprived of the ability to learn of danger from its own policies and thus make course corrections.
Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, bluntly declared to New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press "don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and- balance function."
Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush administration, the press corps had become little more than another special-interest lobbying group. Indeed, the territory the traditional media once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying, publicity, and advertising -- cleverly staged "photo ops," carefully produced propaganda rallies, preplanned "events," tidal waves of campaign ads, and the like. Afraid of losing further "influence'', access, and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.
What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that "we the people" are seen not as political constituencies conferring legitimacy on our rulers, but as consumers to be sold policy the way advertisers sell product.
In the storm of selling, spin, bullying and "discipline" that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized and cowed. Attacked as "liberal" and "elitist," disesteemed as "troublemakers" and "bashers" (even when making all too little trouble), they were relegated to the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place in the political process. Add a further dynamic (which intellectuals from Marxist-Leninist societies would instantly recognize): Groups denied legitimacy and disdained by the state tend to internalize their exclusion as a form of culpability, and often feel an abject, autonomic urge to seek reinstatement at almost any price.
Little wonder, then, that "the traditional press" has had a difficult time mustering anything like a convincing counter-narrative as the administration herded a terrified and all-too-trusting nation to war. Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed -- at least for a time -- in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often they simply found themselves looking into a fun-house mirror of their own making and imagined that they were viewing reality.
As even the conservative National Review noted, the Bush administration has "a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations." In this world of mutant "news," information loops have become one-way highways; and a national security adviser, cabinet secretary, or attorney general, a well- managed and programmed polemicist charged to "stay on message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or is about to do.
Because these latter-day campaigns to "dominate the media environment," as the Pentagon likes to say, employ all the sophistication and technology developed by communications experts since Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, first wed an understanding of psychology to the marketing of merchandise, they are far more seductive than older-style news. Complete success would mean not just that the press had surrendered its essential watchdog role, but -- a far darker thought -- that, even were it to refuse to do so, it might be shunted off to a place where it would not matter.
As the war in Iraq descended into a desert quagmire, the press belatedly appeared to awaken and adopt a more skeptical stance toward an already crumbling set of Bush administration policies. But if a bloody, expensive, catastrophic episode like the war in Iraq is necessary to remind us of the important role that the press plays in our democracy, something is gravely amiss in the way our political system has come to function.
Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. This piece is adapted from the preface to a collection of New York Review of Books articles on the media's coverage of the war in Iraq by Michael Massing, soon to be published as a book, "Now They Tell Us." A longer version of this essay appears on www.tomdispatch.com.
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