Bill Moyers' PBS special last night on the media's complicity in pushing America to war was so powerfully upsetting that I am forced to resort to using mid-1990s NBA metaphors to describe it, if only because describing it without a metaphoric buffer is just too depressing. This production was the documentary equivalent of Tom Chambers famously jumping over a screaming Mark Jackson and hammering down one of the greatest, most in-your-face slam dunks in history.
To call the media's complicity in the Iraq War a conspiracy is an insult to conspiracies, because it wasn't hidden - as Moyers shows, it was all out there for everyone to see. The problem was, Beltway reporters didn't want to see it.
As New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller admitted, in the lead up to war most self-respecting Washington journalists who wanted to stay on the White House Christmas card list refused to ask tough questions because "no one wanted to get into an argument with the president."
What's really disturbing, however, is not even what this documentary says about the past - but what it says about the state of journalism today. In interview after interview after interview, we hear top journalists and opinionmakers declare that they believe journalism is no longer about basic, hard-scrabble reporting or getting scoops. As the Washington Post's Walter Pincus says, most reporters today actually try to avoid getting scoops because they "worry about sort of getting out ahead of something" and - gasp! - making their friends inside Official Washington mad at them. So rather than, say, do the real work of reporting news, journalism has become a profession that is almost entirely about PR, transcription and packaging Establishment spin for news copy. This is why, for example, many of the highest-profile political "journalists" like Joe Klein and David Broder never bother to actually report anything anymore - but instead spend most of their time pontificating on horse race polls and campaign gossip, expecting us to believe that's real "news."
This kind of attitude, as Moyers shows, goes straight to the top. Take, for instance, NBC's Tim Russert - the Washington Bureau Chief of NBC NEWS. I stress the word "news" because, remember, "news" is supposed to be reported in the trenches, not transcribed in a television studio. Russert loves to brag about coming from Buffalo (often ending his shows with some irritating quip about the Buffalo Bills) because he believes it gives him some sort of working-class cred and more importantly distracts viewer attention from the fact that he is a longtime Washington insider and multi-million-dollar journalist. And at one point, he brags to Moyers that "I'm a blue-collar guy from Buffalo - I know who my sources are [and] I work 'em very hard." But then when Moyers asks him why he gave Vice President Cheney such a free pass to come on Meet the Press and spew blatant lies about Iraq's WMD - lies that news organizations like Knight Ridder were exposing but people like Russert were ignoring - we get this gem from Russert:
"There were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them."
Moyers quickly noted that at least some reporters "didn't wait for the phone to ring," and that CBS's Bob Simon said that sources debunking the WMD case "would have been available to any reporter who called." And that makes Russert's entire sob story fall apart like a house of cards. Russert wants us to believe that he's just "a blue-collar guy from Buffalo" who works sources very hard. Yet, apparently, "working sources very hard" means not even picking up the phone to make a call, but instead sitting in a comfortable Washington office waiting for people to call him, and in the meantime giving Cheney as much airtime as he wanted to spew lies.
Then there is the interchange with The New Republic's Peter Beinart, who since cheerleading for the war and berating war critics, has been rewarded with a Time Magazine column and a post as a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Moyers asks Beinart "what made you present yourself as a Middle East expert" in the lead up to war? Beinart admits that despite his preening around as an expert, he'd never actually been to Iraq, but nonetheless insists that he is "a political journalist." So Moyers naturally asks that as a "political journalist" what kind of reporting did he do to make sure his prewar cheerleading was substantively sound. Here's Beinart's answer:
"Well, I was doing mostly, for a large part it was reading, reading the statements and the things that people said. I was not a beat reporter. I was editing a magazine and writing a column. So I was not doing a lot of primary reporting. But what I was doing was a lot of reading of other people's reporting and reading of what officials were saying."
So here we have one of the Iraq War's leading cheerleaders actually telling us that his entire method of backing up his case was all about amplifying official Washington through brazen transcription. He actually sits there and tells Moyers that as a self-described "political journalist" his primary method of reporting on the issues he presented himself as an expert on was by not reporting at all.
This is what journalism has become today - and the worst part of it is that people who follow this Russert-Beinart method of sitting in comfortable Washington offices not picking up the phone or doing primary research is actually being rewarded as we speak. Moyers, channeling a fantastic piece by Jebediah Reed in Radar Magazine, notes that most of the people who regurgitated the Washington Establishment's debunked case for war have actually been rewarded with even more prominent positions in the media. And while these desperate-for-attention media icons like Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman are happy to throw themselves in front of cameras for almost any opportunity to promote themselves, they categorically refused to talk to Moyers for his PBS special.
I went to journalism school because I thought journalism was about sifting through the B.S. in order to challenge power and hold the Establishment accountable. Bill Moyers and the folks I've gotten to know at McClatchy Newspapers who Moyers highlights show that that long tradition still exists. But the fact that they are such rare exceptions to the rule also show that the incentive system in journalism today is to reward not the people who challenge power, but the people who worship it. And though Tim Russert and Peter Beinart and Bill Kristol and Tom Friedman can kick back in Washington with their six figure salaries and tell themselves that they are really Important People, what we have seen is that they are part of a new journalistic culture that is threatening to destroy what once was a truly noble profession and undermine our democracy.