How the US Press Corps Lost Its Way
The eulogies for Washington Post columnist David Broder and the chaos surrounding National Public Radio have coincided as an unintended commentary on what went wrong with the U.S. news media.
For different reasons, Broder, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, and NPR, which is scrambling to save its federal funding, came to reflect the timidity of American mainstream journalism, unwilling or unable to challenge the corruption of the status quo.
Broder personified the cult of centrism, a faith in "The System" that ignored how hollowed out its institutions had become, at least in terms of any moral or democratic values.
NPR, with its endless attempts to mollify conservatives, demonstrated how slippery the slope can be when a price tag is put on journalism. As NPR slides ever downward in its frantic attempts to appease the Republican House majority -- most recently with a cascade of resignations -- it’s hard not to conclude that the radio network may not be worth saving.
After all, the concept of news within the framework of government support only works if there is a genuine barrier between the professional journalists and the political partisans. In the U.S. system, that barrier was supposed to be the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
However, once that barrier breaks down – and it has been under Republican assault for more than three decades – then two things happen: the news bureaucrats cravenly reposition themselves to protect the money and the journalism is watered down and eventually sold out.
Since the 1980s, the Republicans have worked hard to transform the CPB from the institutional protector of honest journalism into the opposite. Mostly, that was done by placing political ideologues on CPB where they could pressure the Public Broadcasting Service and NPR.
The Republican attack line, of course, is that PBS and NPR have a “liberal bias.” So, to prove otherwise, PBS and NPR scuttle pretty much any programming that might offend the Republicans. And, once the networks crossed that line, an institutionalized self-censorship took over.
So, NPR, which demonstrated some guts in the 1980s by reporting aggressively about South Africa’s white supremacist regime as well as on right-wing “death squads” in Central America, began its gradual retreat into mushier and mushier content.
NPR’s stock in trade has become the off-beat feature, like a segment about what kinds of fish thrive in the rivers around Manhattan. Such fluff might be okay if surrounded by sharp-edged journalism, but NPR seemed determined to be as dull as possible, desperate not to offend the Right.
Yet, the Right came for NPR anyway with one of those hidden-camera tricks of James O’Keefe who had some operatives pose as Muslims interested in contributing $5 million. During a luncheon meeting, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller criticized the Tea Party as containing “racists.”
In the furor that ensued, Schiller resigned, as did NPR’s chief executive officer Vivian Schiller (no relation). More than 20 NPR staffers (including stars like Cokie Roberts, Robert Siegel and Susan Stamberg) issued a letter saying they were appalled by Ron Schiller’s comments.
“Those comments have done real damage to NPR,” the letter said. “But we’re confident that the culture of professionalism we have built, and the journalistic values we have upheld for the past four decades, will prevail.”
However, the sad truth is that NPR and PBS have been in retreat on those “journalistic values” for many of those decades. They have added so many right-wing commentators and ordered up so many right-wing programs that it’s hard to envision very many people fighting passionately to save them.
For instance, in 2007, PBS broadcast a neoconservative series in support of President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” including one info-mercial on the Iraq War written and narrated by Richard Perle, a chief war architect. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Time for PBS to Go?”]
Yet, while NPR and PBS have scurried farther and farther away from their earlier traditions of gutsy journalism, David Broder has long had his feet planted in the muck of mushiness.
Broder’s viewpoint was that except for a few bad apples the Establishment is filled with just stellar people. He was a staunch defender of these Respected Ones, refusing to see how their personal and political corruption was eating away at the pillars of the Republic.
Often called “the Dean of the Washington press corps,” Broder was more the efficient police officer who tells the public, “move along, nothing to see here.” He forever made excuses for the crimes of Washington’s powerful and discouraged investigations that might expose serious wrongdoing.
In 2009, for instance, he joined many of his Washington Post editorial colleagues in objecting to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to name a special counsel to investigate crimes by CIA interrogators.
“I think it is a matter of regret that Holder asked prosecutor John H. Durham to review the cases of the agents accused of abusive tactics toward some captives,” Broder wrote. “It is the first step on a legal trail that could lead to trials -- and that is what gives me pause.
“[Vice President Dick] Cheney is not wrong when he asserts that it is a dangerous precedent when a change in power in Washington leads a successor government not just to change the policies of its predecessors but to invoke the criminal justice system against them.”
In other words, the torture of detainees – while perhaps a tad unpleasant – didn’t warrant the punishment of Washington’s great and powerful or their obedient underlings. Nor apparently did any other crime of state.
Often when “The System” was looking really bad, Broder posed as the American “everyman” who didn’t want to hear anymore about that.
On Nov. 27, 2005, Broder appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to say that there was no need to examine how the Bush administration sold the invasion of Iraq by using false intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMD stockpiles.
"This whole debate about whether there was just a mistake or misrepresentation or so on is, I think, from the public point of view largely irrelevant,” Broder said. “The public's moved past that.”
Similarly, Broder rallied to the defense of Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove regarding the leaking of Valerie Plame’s CIA identity, done as part of a revenge campaign against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing one false WMD claim.
In an article entitled “One Leak and a Flood of Silliness,” Broder declared that publications which had implicated Rove in the Plame Affair “owe Karl Rove an apology. And all of journalism needs to relearn the lesson: Can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts.”
But it was Broder who was ignoring the facts. Though Rove was apparently not the first administration official to leak Plame’s classified identity, he was certainly part of the operation – and was involved in the broader campaign to undermine Bush’s war critics. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Press Bigwigs Screw Up, Again.”]
Broder’s determination to protect Bush-43 on war crimes was part of a larger pattern of Broder seeing no evil in other national security cases.
When Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, led a botched investigation of the so-called October Surprise case, ignoring evidence that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign had interfered with President Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran, Broder hailed Hamilton as the "conscience of Congress" – for reaching a conclusion that was bipartisan, albeit wrong.
To Broder, it didn’t matter that Hamilton had miswritten a key chapter of modern American political history. Broder was just happy that the comity of the Washington Establishment hadn’t been shaken. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “October Surprise Cover-up Unravels.”]
Similarly, Broder joined in the deification of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asserting that Gates is “incapable of dissembling” – when any student of Gates’s history could tell you that Gates has been a master of deception and spin since his early days at the CIA. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
Steering to the Center
Broder also could be counted on endlessly to urge Democrats to “steer to the center,” rather than fight for principles. That was the advice that Broder handed down to President Barack Obama in 2009, urging him to accommodate Republicans on issues such as health care and economic reforms.
Broder always appeared clueless about the true nature of the Republicans and the Right, that they had no intention of making meaningful compromises. If journalism relates to assessing reality as it is – not as you wish it to be – then Broder was a very bad journalist.
Yet, that is surely not the conclusion that Broder’s many admirers in the mainstream press will take away. In a lead editorial on March 10, the Washington Post wrote:
“Mr. Broder was often called ‘the Dean,’ a position that is now likely to go unfilled in the Washington press corps. His detractors used the term sarcastically; they came mostly from the political left and found him much too moderate.
“In this, he was probably reflecting not just his temperamental aversion to ideology but what he'd seen of the country over the years - a country whose governing institutions he genuinely loved and worried about.
“But he could thunder at times, and when he did, it counted all the more in public opinion. Mr. Broder had credibility of a kind that is rare today in the world of political discourse.”
The hard truth, however, is that Broder did possess an ideology, one of blind “centrism,” a viewpoint that failed to detect the corruption that had penetrated to the heart of the Establishment and that was eating away at his beloved governing institutions.
When Broder thundered, it was almost always at those who pointed out this corruption and who understood that simply papering over the rot wouldn’t save the Republic.
It was this failure to appreciate the need for honesty -- even when it upsets the powerful -- that stands, sadly, as Broder’s real epitaph. The same failure applies to the Washington press corps, which called Broder its “Dean.”
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which are now available with Neck Deep, in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.
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