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Exploding the "liberal media" myth

Scott McClellan,  whose scatching indictment of the failed Bush presidency is already the top bestselling book on Amazon, has also performed a valuable public service by exploding the right-wing myth about the

Scott McClellan, whose searing indictment of the failed Bush presidency is already the top bestselling book on Amazon, has also performed a valuable public service by exploding the right-wing myth about the "liberal media."

I am referring, of course, to the longstanding canard about how journalists, especially those in Washington, are by nature determined to destroy conservative presidents, supposedly because these members of the media hate the military and American values in general. This myth has been thoroughly refuted by a number of commentators - including Mark Hertsgaard (who documented the press' subservience to Ronald Reagan several decades ago in his book On Bended Knee), Eric Alterman (whose book What Liberal Media? appeared four years ago), and Eric Boehlert (whose book Lapdogs was published two years ago) - but the myth perpetuators have ignored these well-documented works, largely by dismissing the authors as liberals...who are determined to destroy conservative presidents and hate American values in general. And thus the loop closes.

Yet now we have McClellan - the erstwhile Bush loyalist who spent years seeking to advance the Bush agenda, spinning the media for the boss, his flag pin always right where it oughta be - and even he thinks the canard is a crock. Consider these key passages from his book, What Happened:

"If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise...In this case, the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served...

"Through it all (referring to the prewar period), the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it...The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so, because their focus was elsewhere - on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war."

Granted, if the press had been more aggressive at the time, in the manner that McClellan now suggests would have been advisable, he would have merely repeated the same administration talking points that he already had committed to memory (McClellan, July 17, 2003: the war was launched "based on solid and compelling evidence"). Nevertheless, this ex-Bushie is correct in his overall assessment of media behavior.

With very few notable exceptions - the now-defunct Knight Ridder Washington bureau was consistently skeptical of the Bush team's prewar claims - most of us journalists acted like credulous stenographers most of the time. For instance, The Washington Post consistently buried its skeptical stories (written by national security veteran Walter Pincus) deep in the A-section, while the cheerleading stories ran on page one. Thomas Ricks, the Post's Pentagon correspondent (who is now taking a buyout) lamented four years ago that "there was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?" And, as a Post editor also confessed in 2004, "We are inevitably the mouthpiece of whatever administration is in power," a fundamental truth about the Washington media's establishmentarian instincts that hardly squares with the right-wing myth about patriotism-challenged journalists running wild.

And it's already well-documented that The New York Times was repeatedly snowed by its flawed Iraqi sources, who ginned up yarns about Hussein's supposed WMDs, many of which wound up on page one and drove the national news. But many examples are far less known. MSNBC fired Phil Donahue, one of its talk show hosts, because the network didn't like the fact that he was refusing to toe the Bush prewar line; as one leaked memo pointed out, Donahue was "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war...He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." Donahue later told Bill Moyers, during a 2007 PBS documentary, that he had been routinely instructed by networks execs to book two conservatives for every liberal.

McClellan's book has also triggered fresh confessionals. The other night, CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin reminisced about her own experiences at MSNBC, during the prewar phase: "The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings...(Executives) would turn down (my) stories that were more criticial, and try to put in pieces that were more positive." Katie Couric said much the same thing during a guest chat on NBC the other morning, about how pressure from higher-ups "affected the level of aggressiveness." And this newly published book, by Greg Mitchell, is probably the best compendium of press derelictions.

(Full disclosure: My own track record was mixed. I did suggest, five months before war was launched, that Bush might have other motives for invading Iraq aside from destroying WMDs, notably the chance to secure oil. And I did warn, a month before the war, that America could be "stuck next winter with a costly, bloody occupation." And I did note, three days before the war began, that Bush had already "abandoned all his previous claims of a direct link between Hussein and the Sept. 11 terrorists," that he was refusing to provide "an occupation price tag," and that he was violating his campaign promise not to engage in "nation-building." And I did write, two days before the war began, about the forged documents that Bush had used to falsely claim that Hussein had sought weapons uranium in Africa. But my first full examination of four Bush lies did not appear until June 22, 2003, two months after the invasion was launched.)

Part of the problem - which the conservative perpetuators of myth always ignore - is that most journalists are bound by the traditional rules of "objectivity." Most are trained to seek the views of others, rather than think and communicate for themselves. Most are discouraged from initiating debates on their own about government policy. And, by nature, most journalists are not comfortable as commentators, either because they are averse to speaking or writing on their own authority, or because they sincerely believe (and this is certainly true, much of the time) that governmental authority figures know a lot more than they do about the nuances of foreign policy and national security.

Indeed these are the nuances about the so-called "liberal media" that are far more persuasive than the conservative myths, and McClellan - as an alumnus of a conservative administration - has done us all a favor by freshening the discussion.