Let me look back for a moment to the Precambrian ancientness of last, er, Friday, when David Obey took a moment to respond to yet another vapid Fred Hiatt editorial:
Let me submit to you the problem we have today is not that we didn't listen enough to people like The Washington Post. It's that we listened too much. They endorsed going to war in the first place. They helped drive the drumbeat that drove almost two-thirds of the people in this chamber to vote for that misbegotten, stupid, ill-advised war that has destroyed our influence over a third of the world. So I make no apology if the moral sensibilities of some people on this floor, or the editorial writers of The Washington Post, are offended because they don't like the specific language contained in our benchmarks or in our timelines.
Exactly right, and it provides me a jumping-off point on the same topic.
Everyone gets to be wrong sometimes. But you don't get to be wrong all the time, much less arrogantly, divisively, sneeringly wrong, and if you are, then you can hardly be surprised if people grow damn tired of listening to you. No, not even if you write a fuzzy mea culpa, several years too late, that ends with little actual mea culpa-ing and a "no use crying over spilt milk" shrug that suggests that the whole thing would likely be done the same way again, the next time, for fear of doing anything different.
Both the Post and the New York Times proved to be devastatingly incompetent during a period in which the United States very much needed the voices of a strong free press -- and worse, they were apparently willingly incompetent, as administration dodge after dodge, no matter how cagey the intelligence or dishonest the framing, could find safe haven in their pages. It wasn't a question of not asking the right questions in the war, it was a question of willfully cheerleading against those that asked those questions, as if playing military Calvinball was clearly the most logical and positively sensible thing that anyone could do, and perfectly appropriate way to manage the national debate in the discoursive dead zone that spread out from 9/11.
I have never (and I do mean, never) gotten the impression that anyone among the upper echelons of the press understands just how badly their long-term credibility has been damaged by their uncritical kowtowing to administration propaganda when it comes to the Iraq War. I've never gotten the impression that they comprehend just how much their brand credibility was torn to ribbons, and how to this day there are large segments of the population -- the segments of the population that tend to pay the most attention to issues and news events, not coincidentally -- who remember quite well all the things the editorialists of the press were wrong about, and continue to be wrong about, and manage to make themselves quite insufferably wrong about, and that there simply is no patience, or marketplace, for these same voices again. Just as events in Iraq have impacted our military for the next two decades, so too will future editorializing about future national security debates be impacted by the abandonment of principles evinced by media behavior in the Iraq War.
That Iraq War failure, in itself, is nothing more than an extension of the ever more asinine failures of the national press for the last dozen-plus years, as political coverage in general slid gradually into lazy and lazier promotion of dubious or misleading stories pushed by partisan operatives, e.g. Vince Foster, Whitewater, etc., (2) grumpy politics-as-celebrity-gossip (Al Gore and "earth tones", for God's sake), and (3) unchallenged he-said, she-said stenography that simply repeats what figures on either side say, as opposed to doing a wee bit of research in order to figure out which side is right, and which side might be, for that particular issue, a lying sack of crap (global warming, and pretty much every White House statement uttered by any official in any capacity for the last six years.)
It is endemic, apparently, but there's a catch, and one that I think will become more and more obvious in the next few years. The major media outlets, by weakening their own apparent capacity for genuine analysis of the news they themselves produce, have made more and more of what they do expendable. Fred Hiatt has an opinion about something? Well, honestly, so the hell what? I've got an opinion too, and I apparently pay more attention to the actual on-the-ground reporting in his paper than he does. Judith Miller wants to tell us all about a new Iraqi defector that just coincidentally repeats whatever talking point the administration is most interested in pushing that particular week. Well, if it's false information from a demonstrably non-credible source, than how is that different from peddling raw propaganda, and how is that reporting? Tom Friedman met a cab driver somewhere in Asia that uncannily has all the same opinions as Tom Friedman himself does, expressed in almost the exact same way? Well, Jeebus, who the hell cares? I've got an old box-style cheese grater that agrees with everything I've ever said, too, but I don't write friggin' columns about it. And I could, too, because it's got a compelling life story -- its job was outsourced to the KitchenAid on the counter, and the damn thing has been rusting in a drawer ever since.
Cynicism on the part of much of the intelligent public, and apparently very justifiable cynicism at that -- that's the problem. The reporting of fact remains vital, but the editorial pages, the punditry -- the lifeblood of cable news, as it turns out -- those things are made of weaker stuff. They don't carry much weight, because they are by definition not designed to be very weighty. More to the point, those things are reproducible by others -- the only thing the pundit press has going for it is credibility. If the credibility is gone, by, say, being pompously, arrogantly, and window-rattlingly wrong on the major issues of the day for an extended period of years on end, then the rest of it is as good as gone too.
We don't trust the editorialists of the press anymore, as an institution, and that has implications for the entire American political debate. The Republicans have spent the last two decades attempting to dumb down political discourse into simple "you are with us, or against us" frames. They may succeed in getting there, simply because all parties have apparently now agreed to it as a legitimate mode of debate -- something to be taken seriously. We can no longer trust large swaths of the national media to provide any checks or balances whatsoever: they have proven they can be bought, for the simple price of access to the halls of power. The editorialists of the press are so tightly woven with the political community itself that they no longer represent a window into that world, but only a mirror. We can't see in, and they can't see out.
None of this is meant to be a "the press is obsolete" speech. It isn't obsolete, and it won't be, and nobody wants it to be. Reporting is the immune system of a functioning democracy: it is not optional. The country needs it to survive. And there are a lot of good, hardnosed reporters out there demonstrating how it's done, every day.
But punditry ain't press. Punditry ain't reporting, it shouldn't be treated as such, and it is, as a "class", deeply and profoundly broken. I'm not sure that it could ever not be broken, if it is designed as a mere outcropping of the political landscape itself, a place for political figures to winter over between government or partisan jobs. The notion of a pundit class, separate from the people but attached at the hip to the very class of power brokers that they cover -- it is unsettling. It is corruptive from the get-go. I simply don't see that as something even slightly worthy of the respect that we should give bona fide reporting, of the sort that has been getting rarer and rarer as the networks and newspapers seek to fill the holes of daily history with the cheapest possible fare: Mouth vs. Mouth, now in the editorial pages of your paper of choice and appearing on a dozen television channels, six times an hour on each.