I am often heard complaining that reporters, by and large, are lapdogs, not watchdogs. They sit there day after day, press conference after press conference, and dutifully report what they’re told without ever bothering to tell you what they know and we all should know – that what we’re being told is nonsense. I am always baffled seeing transcripts of press conferences where a politician or a candidate says something that is an exaggeration, a lie or just plain batshit crazy, and not one of the reporters in attendance bothers to say anything about it. No follow up questions; no attempt to pin them down on it; no “wait a minute, did you really just say that?”; no “come on, do you really expect anyone to believe that?”. Nothing. It’s as if the moment someone becomes a reporter, particularly in the press corps, their brain is taken out and replaced with an amplifier so that whatever the government says to them, they merely broadcast louder.
Most of the interaction between the press and the administration goes through the press secretary, Scott McLellan. McLellan’s job, you see, is to lie. That’s what he gets paid for, to stand in front of reporters and say things that he knows are dishonest, either by omission or commission. It’s what all press secretaries are paid to do. In an example I’ve used often, he stood in front of reporters a few weeks ago and announced to them that the President thought he had outlawed non-profit groups from taking out campaign commercials when he signed the BCRA a couple years ago. Not one follow up question. No one said, “Wait a minute, are you saying that the President doesn’t know what the legislation he signs is even going to DO?” Or better yet, “Wait, Scott, didn’t the President intentionally delay the appointment of the new FEC board members until after the interpretive rules of the BCRA were written in order to insure that the administrative rules that implemented that legislation would be far weaker than the bill’s authors intended?” (am I the only one who remembers John McCain saying that Bush flat-out lied to him about that because he wanted to weaken the BCRA, which he opposed but refused to veto? I don’t see anyone else mentioning it)
So along comes Joe Klein of Time Magazine, reporting on this little mini-press conference:
Flying to Minnesota on Air Force One last week, White House press secretary Scott McClellan held a “gaggle”–that is, a mini-press conference–with reporters in the back of the plane. The first questions were about Hurricane Ivan and the Dan Rather flap, the compelling news periphera of the moment. Then I asked McClellan about the intelligence community’s dire assessment, sent to the President in a July National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), that we seem to be losing the war in Iraq.
“The role of the CIA is to look at different scenarios,” McClellan said. But all three CIA scenarios were awful, I pointed out. The best case was “tenuous stability,” a continuation of the sapping insurgency we’re seeing now.
McClellan began to read from talking points. The “pessimists and naysayers” had been wrong, he said, about the Iraqi people’s ability to establish a transitional government, a national council and a transitional law. The “Iraqi people” had little to do with establishing any of those, but McClellan plowed on…
Two thoughts occurred to me as the taffy pull continued. For one thing, the President’s obvious skepticism about this National Intelligence Estimate stands in stark contrast to his wanton embrace of the NIE he received in October 2002, which said that Saddam probably possessed weapons of mass destruction. That report was produced after Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pressured the CIA to come up with stronger evidence for invading Iraq. The current assessment is more credible. It comes from a cautious, chastened CIA.
It was probably George Tenet’s last act as CIA director. And it was written well before the current spatter of dreadful developments, including the U.S. military’s acknowledgement that there are areas of Iraq, “no go” zones controlled by the insurgents, where we have decided not to fight. My second thought was pretty wicked: Scott McClellan is beginning to sound like Baghdad Bob, the infamous spokesman for Saddam who announced hallucinatory Iraqi victories as the American troops closed in on Baghdad.
The President, of course, is also sounding like him. He’s saying the very same things. But at least we found one reporter who is willing to say that what he was told was nonsense. This is one reason why I don’t put much stock in the media bias argument. I think cries of media bias, which come primarily from the right but are also heard on the left from time to time, are like a basketball coach working the refs on the sideline. The real purpose is to get the next call, to inoculate the public against those rare instances when a media outlet actually does its job and calls a politician on the nonsense they shovel out. Politicians are like the husband who gets caught in bed with another woman and says, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes (read: “liberal media”)?”