Beat the Press

Reviewed by Michael Getler
Sunday, June 11, 2006

How the Press Rolled Over for Bush
By Eric Boehlert
Free Press. 333 pp. $25

Aside from the U.S. military, not many American institutions have paid a price for the war in Iraq. One signal exception is the mainstream media, known in the blogosphere as the MSM -- the big commercial and cable TV networks, the major newspapers and the news magazines, all of which have taken a pounding from both right and left.

The latest to join in the pounding is Eric Boehlert, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. "Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong," he argues in the bluntly titled Lapdogs , "the press during the run-up to the war -- timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking -- came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existence in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest." With this for his central argument, Boehlert has written an important book, but one that probably will not be welcomed in newsrooms; journalists don't like scathing criticism any more than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, Lapdogs may be easy for some to write off: It has flaws that too often overwhelm the valuable research and provocative analysis that Boehlert has assembled, including material on subjects beyond Iraq ranging from the "press haters" on the right who seek to dismantle independent journalism to the question of how the 2004 campaign was covered. One obvious failing is that a book by a journalist attacking the press ought to have included some responses from editors and reporters who disagree with Boehlert's conclusions. There is basically none of that here.

Another defect is that Lapdogs too frequently appears overtly political; the book is written as though a cadre of Bill Clinton's defenders were its editors. Boehlert's case that a timorous press was intimidated by President Bush frequently rests on comparisons to the media's supposedly more aggressive approach to Clinton and former vice president Al Gore. This is arguable, at best, and the tactic diminishes the book's overall impact. Moreover, Boehlert reinforces this problem with an odd ending. "While the point of Lapdogs ," he writes, "is to document the press's failings and not necessarily to offer Democrats communication or campaign strategies, it does seem obvious that if Democrats have to battle both entrenched Republicans as well as a MSM that refuses to give the party out of power a fair shake, then Democrats are going to continue to have trouble winning elections." It's not easy to be a credible media critic when you're also being, at least indirectly, a Democratic strategist.

Moreover, the book starts out by waving another red flag. In the preface, Boehlert writes, "The goal of Lapdogs is to cut through incessant rhetoric about a liberal media bias, and to show, factually, just how the mainstream media has tipped the scales in President Bush's favor for going on six years. The proof for that is all in the public record; in the voluminous pages of the New York Times , Washington Post , Newsweek , and Time , just to name a few, as well as in the mountain of transcripts produced by network and cable news programs." Laying this out, he writes, "makes the conclusion -- that the press rolled over for Bush -- inescapable." But there is no way to prove that this is "inescapable," which would mean knowing what was inside the heads of producers and editors at the time their news decisions were made.

I firmly agree with Boehlert that the press was seriously derelict in its prewar coverage. (Indeed, he refers to some of my critical columns during my tenure as The Washington Post's ombudsman.) But topics such as Saddam Hussein's weapons programs were tough subjects to get at -- although U.S. newspapers ran quite a few good stories, produced by Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among others. One big problem, however -- especially at this newspaper -- was that these challenging stories were far too often run inside the paper rather than on the front page. Other stories that challenged the whole premise of an invasion were simply missed or minimized.

So does that mean that the editors who made those calls were pro-Bush or cowed by the aftermath of Sept. 11, fiery right-wing bloggers, conservative broadcasters and a mean White House press strategy? Or did some editors simply exercise poor news judgment or lack the experience or determination to make sure that nothing was left unsaid, unchallenged or uncovered? Or were they convinced that a war with Iraq was coming and were too focused on getting ready to cover it?

I tend to chalk up uncritical reporting on administration claims about Iraq's supposed doomsday arsenal to that combination of factors. And of course, the obvious inference from Saddam Hussein's behavior -- his use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and his own Kurdish civilians in the 1980s, his earlier nuclear arms ambitions, his bucking of the U.N. arms inspectors -- was that this was a regime with something to hide. But maybe something else was indeed going on in America's newsrooms. If so, Boehlert's book will prove to be the most well-researched and well-argued one I've yet seen about the darker side of why the press failed.

This book takes a hard look at TV, the news broadcasts as well as the big Sunday interview programs. Lapdogs provides many accounts where TV news divisions seemed to fall short -- for instance, by not asking the right questions (thereby giving policymakers a pass) or inviting the right guests (thereby stacking the deck with conservatives and hawks). It also questions the cozy relationships between some TV hosts and high officials. To their credit, several newspapers, including the New York Times -- which had the most to apologize for -- and The Washington Post, looked in the mirror afterward and reported on their own shortcomings. Television hasn't done that.

To anyone who has been following the press saga of the last six years, the episodes in this book -- from the Swift boats and Bush's National Guard service to Terri Schiavo, the Downing Street memo and the battle for more conservative views on PBS -- will be familiar. But Boehlert fills in several strokes that present a fuller portrait. The performance of the press during the Bush years, especially in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is so important that all serious attempts to assess it are worthy of attention. Despite the flaws, this is one of them. ยท

Michael Getler is the ombudsman of PBS. From 2000-05, he was The Washington Post's ombudsman, and he has also been the paper's foreign editor and deputy managing editor.

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