I can't say I have a great deal of sympathy for Scott McClellan, the Bush administration press flack-turned-turncoat now garnering a lot of attention for a new memoir in which he blasts his former bosses. The Rude Pundit's got this one right: a last-minute act of repentance that seems mostly geared toward selling books and boosting speaker fees doesn't exactly present a profile in courage. McClellan strikes me as the better-dressed, (somewhat) better-spoken version of the mafia hit man who turns state's evidence to avoid the consequences of his crimes.
Which isn't to say that his account of the miserable Bush years won't be of value to historians. When Karl Rove declares that McClellan "sounds like left-wing bloggers," another way to put that sentiment is to say McClellan's account confirms what those bloggers have been saying for years now. Marc Ambinder makes the important point that when Rove's own memoir oozes out into the world, it will be "the first (and only, to date) sustained defense of the intersection of policy and politics of the Bush Administration."
But there's another group McClellan targets--and it's one on which I think he could hardly be more credible. That's the media and punditariat, which the former press secretary asserts absolutely failed the country in the runup to the Iraq war. Glenn Greenwald brings the smackdown:
In a minimally rational world, this extraordinary passage, from the new book by Scott McClellan, would forever slay the single most ludicrous myth in our political culture: The "Liberal Media":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.
Just consider how remarkable that is. George Bush's own Press Secretary criticizes the American media for being "too deferential" to the Government. He lays the blame for Bush's ability to propagandize the nation on the media's uncritical dissemination of the Republican administration's falsehoods. And most notably of all, McClellan actually uses cynical scare quotes when invoking the phrase which, in conventional political discourse, is deemed the most unassailable truth of all: The Liberal Media.
How much longer can this preposterous myth be sustained when even the White House Spokesman not only mocks the phrase but derides the media for being "too deferential" to the right-wing Government "in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during [his] years in Washington"?
I share Greenwald's intense frustration at the staying power of the "liberal media" myth. The Clinton years and, especially, the 2000 election and recount should have sufficed to rid the country of this false notion. But his more important critique is that corporate power actively works against civic-minded journalism--and presents a threat to what's left of our democracy that isn't essentially partisan in nature. The revelations Greenwald details here and here about how far the networks went to stifle voices against the war began should trouble principled conservatives as much as liberals.
One response to this might be that we've been hearing for years, correctly I believe, how the nightly news and daily newspapers are declining in ratings, circulation and significance. But that isn't to say they aren't important: those Old Media sources are still pretty much the voice of authority for older Americans in particular, and even the blogs and alternate sources are largely dependent upon them as pivots for their coverage. (Consider how often I link to this or that piece from the New York Times, one of the signal offenders in hyping the Iraq war as well as the Clinton scandals and 2000 election.) And they're still the gatekeepers for public discourse; when "Wonkette" blogger Ana Marie Cox got a national following, she started writing for Time. Markos of Daily Kos is a Newsweek columnist now. The top rungs of the career ladder substantially remain what they were before anyone had heard the word "internet."
The question then might be whether "the market has spoken," and the public wants "news" that boils down to pro-government propaganda. This is arguable, but I doubt it; MSNBC seems to be doing better since its embrace of a more liberal line, and Fox worse... though I guess that could be a reflection of current political trends rather than an endorsement of more broadly confrontational journalism. I do know that a lot of people like me who were initially excited about the liberal Air America radio network tuned out after it occurred to us that what AA offered was not much less intrinsically ugly than right-wing hate radio--just for "our side."
What we really need is a return to the pre-Reagan mindset of network news divisions and papers as "loss leaders" that added to the owning company's prestige even if they detracted from the bottom line, because they served a clear public purpose. But given how the market has changed--the declining audience share and undesirable demographics--that's an almost unimaginable outcome. More likely is that the institutions that shape public discourse will transform in some way we haven't quite seen before. All I know for sure is that McClellan's insight--that the press isn't doing its job--is on target.