The Press Playing Catch-Up

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Journalists, in theory, are in the business of breaking news, or just as importantly, recognizing congealing social or political trends in the service of citizens who need help making sense of the information that comes to them helter-skelter.

Unfortunately, right now we've got a mainstream media in America that appears well behind the public-both in sentiment, and in some cases, in factual knowledge-on many of the most important stories and issues of our day. The most significant of these, of course, was the abject failure of most members of the media during the period of 2002 and 2003 in regard to the Bush administration's "fixing" the intelligence-in the words of the infamous "Downing Street Memos"- surrounding Iraq's non-existent WMD stockpiles.

Another big one, as we discovered after the November election, was how well the Bush machine painted the president as a tough, resolute leader, while painting his opponent, John Kerry, as an amoral 'flip-flopper.' All of the 'value voter' hype that so excited so many reporters in the months following the election turned out, in the end, to be little more than a chimera. As polls eventually showed, people simply thought that the president would protect them better than Kerry would, and that's why he won. This, too, was the result of the misreporting of the Bush administration's failures both pre- and post-9/11 to undertake the most fundamental efforts to defend the nation against terrorist attacks and prevent new ones in the future. Even so, this misreading of the exit-poll data-and misinforming of the electorate-did not stand in the way of those hundreds of reporters fanning out across the vast expanse of the South and Midwest, searching in vain for these so-called values voters, only managing to dig up a vocal minority of far-right religious conservatives. And nor did it stop them from painting these people as the alleged new face of the American electorate.

While the values voters meme has died down considerably and big media outlets (at least in print) are finally starting to pay some attention to the Downing Street Memos and the damning revelations they contain, the press has-yet again-been caught flatfooted catching up with a public that shows itself far harder to fool than the gaggle that gathers every day for the daily diet of lies and half-truths they are force-fed by the White House.

Earlier this week, several public opinion polls were released that demonstrated deep dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, and President Bush's job performance in general. On Tuesday, an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that a record 57 percent of respondents say that the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence that Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. This alone would seem to substantiate the contention of many bloggers that the Downing Street Memos should receive heavier-or at least more serious-coverage than they have been getting. The Washington Post, to its credit, ran a lengthy piece on its front page Tuesday looking at the memos (something The New York Times, among others, has done only in fits and starts), but for whatever reason, it has yet to receive the full-court press.

The ABC poll also found that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's job performance, and a record 40 percent disapprove "strongly"-while only 27 percent strongly approve. Notably, these numbers far exceed the career-high strong disapproval ratings for Bush's two predecessors, President Clinton (33 percent in fall 1994) and Bush's father (34 percent in summer 1992). Despite these historic numbers, the president continues to get the soft-glove treatment from the media.

To buttress this point-together with a general cluelessness in the pro-war, pro-Bush punditocracy-a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll released the same day found a record 61 percent of respondents telling pollsters that they don't think the president has a clear plan for handling Iraq. Perhaps more shocking for the self-righteous minions in the conservative camp who believe that Bush and company can do no wrong-and the reporters who love them-is a poll released last week in which "[f]orty-nine percent (49%) of Americans say that President Bush is more responsible for starting the War with Iraq than Saddam Hussein. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that 44% take the opposite view and believe Hussein shoulders most of the responsibility."

When was the last time you heard a mainstream reporter or cable host choose that as a topic of discussion?

While out of step with the pro-Bush platitudes of Washington neocons-and the media who love them-Americans are increasingly in step with the views of Bush held worldwide. Thanks to George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and company, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project Survey of nearly 17,000 people in the United States and 15 other countries released last weekend, France and Germany are more highly regarded by the world's citizens than is the United States. Even more striking, however, is the fact that so too is Communist China.

The president's Tuesday night speech to the nation demonstrated just how isolated he is from the horrific reality of Iraq right now. Just how long this can go on may rest on his ability to convince the media to continue to tow his misbegotten line. New York Times editors noted on Wednesday the president's rock-bottom approval numbers while saying, "The questions now are how many more times over how many years he might have to deliver the same message of patience and resolve-and whether the American public, confronted with a mounting death toll, an open-ended military commitment, lack of support from allies and a growing price tag, will accept it." We'll see whether the media continue to enable that failed policy, or whether the apparent perspicacity of the public they serve will inspire them to hold the administration's proverbial feet to the fire of genuine accountability-hitherto unseen anywhere, anytime in the Bush administration.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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