Press, politics and public persuasion
By Paul M. Weyrich
There was Christopher Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," who fancies himself a journalist. Matthews had been Chief of Staff to the late Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Jr. (D-MA). The topic was the Special Prosecutor and Grand Jury investigation of the disclosure of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame as an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to the Iraqi War. White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl C. Rove, and I. Lewis ("Scooter") Libby, Chief of Staff, Office of the Vice President, have been the focus of a CIA investigation which is to conclude later this month unless extended.
It was rumored that the Special Prosecutor, United States Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, of Chicago, could indict Vice President Richard B. Cheney for having misinformed the Congress and the American people about the Iraqi War. Matthews was giddy over the Vice President's possible indictment. Matthews not only had Cheney indicted but had him resigning, to be replaced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, thus positioning Dr. Rice to be the 2008 GOP Presidential nominee. She, thus, would fulfill the wish of Dick Morris, former advisor to President William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton, who thinks Dr. Rice is the only American who could defeat Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). Seldom have I seen the demonstrative Matthews this excited. Fortunately, Matthews was interviewing panelists David Gergen and Patrick J. Buchanan, both former political operatives turned journalists, who brought him back to earth. They explained that if the Vice President were guilty as charged it is not a crime to use selective intelligence to justify a political action, such as going to war.
Regular readers of this commentary know I am no longer a professional journalist. In some ways, I still consider myself a journalist. It was once a noble profession. Today journalism has become an almost wholly owned subsidiary of liberalism. It had not been the case when I entered the profession 45 years ago. The media tilted to the left but had standards.
When I left my position as a radio news director to become a reporter for a major metropolitan daily, now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I was told to keep politics out of my columns. James G. (Jim) Wieghart was the fellow who recommended me for the newspaper job. He later was Chief of Staff for Wisconsin Senator William (Bill) Proxmire (D) and Senator Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy (D-MA). Wieghart received the same instructions.
My desk faced that of our political writer and author, Cy Rice, who been with the paper for nearly 40 years when I arrived. No one knew Rice's politics. People in both parties regarded him as one of the hardest working and fairest journalists. Rice would not be comfortable in today's newsrooms.
Television and the print media today virtually are identical. They had not been. When television news began it was less fair when covering politics. Television journalists could skew political news that appeared to represent both sides merely by applying make up to the favored political guest and not to the disfavored. Camera angles. Clever editing. There were many, many more ways to make a political figure look bad. The question is, how did we come this far? Former President Dwight David Eisenhower evoked cries of approval during the 1964 Republican Convention when he attacked media pundits, which regularly illy advised the Republican Party.
Today many pundits and columnists are more conservative than liberal. Those who wrote commentaries in the 1950s were liberal and everyone in politics understood that. How did we come to this stage in media coverage when politicians become so-called journalists? And reporters do the job commentators did?
Two major events in recent history, in my view, encouraged current journalism. First was Watergate. Until Watergate advocacy journalism actually was frowned upon, especially in newspapers but even in television newsrooms. When I worked for the CBS television affiliate in Milwaukee our Program Director, Baylen Smith, no conservative he, nevertheless lectured new reporters about the impact of television on politics and the responsibility of reporters to learn the truth and to report responsibly. You will not hear such lectures today in TV newsrooms as many employees said when I interviewed them for our network, National Empowerment Television (NET), in the early 1990s. In fact, some stories of political bias were so blatant that even I hardly could believe them.
Watergate, which brought down the unpopular President Richard M. Nixon, fundamentally changed the mentality of reporters. Rather than being instructed to hear both sides young reporters were told they, too, could bring down an elected official if they worked hard enough. Both sides? You have got to be kidding. Young reporters were told that all politicians basically are corrupt and an enterprising reporter must uncover corruption. During Watergate many reporters, not just opinion-makers, adopted an attitude of superiority that is sickening to behold. They know when I speak with them that I am hiding information. Decent reporters apologize before asking certain questions, which imply that.
The second major event which shifted journalism was the 2000 election. When the supposedly uninformed Governor George W. Bush defeated the supposedly brilliant Vice President Albert A. Gore, Jr. media shifted from bias to an agenda, an agenda to bring down President Bush. Advocacy journalism is insufficient to accomplish this task. It requires the equivalent of a political game plan. Reporters now are executing it.
The Bush Administration has been freer of scandal than most Administrations. One would never know this when reading our diminishing newspapers, watching 24/7 television news networks or watching the slowly deteriorating network news. Negative coverage of Bush far exceeds the assaults upon Nixon before it was revealed that Nixon had covered up Watergate. The television media views Bush as having become President by Illegitimate means. It considers it right to bring him down.
Do I think all reporters are guilty? No. I certainly do not believe they all get orders from some central source. Is there a solution? I believe so. It lies with the Internet, to which millions now turn to read the news. As technology changes and, perhaps as the market grows, new television networks will emerge and the Internet will replace most daily newspapers. The difference will be obvious. Fox News Channel has demonstrated that. It does not purport to have every answer. It merely reports political news from both sides and lets viewers decide. It should tell us something that slanted talk radio is popular. It should tell us something that the O'Reilly Factor is the highest rated program on Fox News. Bill O'Reilly says he attempts to have his guests reveal the truth. I leave it to others to judge if O'Reilly accomplishes that but that he is perceived as trying says much.
If alternative voices were to have access to the market place of ideas agenda driven journalism could be crowded out. It is sad to see one of our more noble professions so criticized. I love the profession. Seeking of truth is honorable. Pushing an agenda is not.
Paul M. Weyrich is the Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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