Monday, June 05, 2006

Take 'Lapdogs' for a walk

Responsible journalism involves examining all sides of an issue. While this tends to be easy when covering the crime beat (lawbreaker vs. law) or a high-profile divorce settlement (Simpson vs. Lachey), more complicated issues find reporters scaling a daunting dodecahedron of truth. This is known in journalistic parlance as "very consuming work." Ideally, an investigative journalist should sniff out the real stories behind the veneer offered by those with interests to protect. Journalists were long ago tagged "watchdogs" for this reason. In recent years, however, these watchdogs have been virtually put to sleep by their inbred cousins: lapdogs.

Anyone looking to document the dilution of the media could do so with a simple video comparison of the 1992 and 2004 town-hall debates. Watching Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush bicker with one another is a startling contrast to the heavily policed 2004 script-fest between John Kerry and George W. Bush. The latter debate achieved the seemingly impossible task of making the elder Bush look like an extemporaneous fighter. This is significant because, in his time, Bush pere was considered the ultimate lapdog. However, today’s lapdogs are to be found not behind the White House press lectern, but in front of it.

If the sole purpose of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush was to persuade Americans that the press has been favorable (and even fawning) to the 43rd president, then no more would be required of author Eric Boehlert than to publish the volume's cover with one page inside reading, "Turn on your television and see for yourself." The phenomenon is not new to anyone who has paid even casual attention over the past five years, nor is it necessarily denied by supporters of the administration. Indeed, those aligned with the right would have you believe that playing softball with this president is as American as, well, baseball.

Instead, Lapdogs earns its niche in the political canon by offering mountains of evidence supporting its thesis, pushing the compliant-media phenomenon from the realm of liberal conjecture to quantifiable fact. Lapdogs so effectively destroys the myth of a “liberal media” that its readers might feel guilty even mentioning the book to their conservative friends, knowing the rhetorical beat-down it will cause.

Boehlert singles out the Bush era for two peculiar trends: a White House uniquely desperate to control the flow of information and a press corps more than willing to unquestionably rehash such platitudes. And while all presidential administrations have attempted to manipulate the truth to various degrees, the latter trend is one unseen in American media history. To what can it be attributed?

Boehlert charges that insider journalists are prone to something called Lapdog Syndrome, an affliction arising from fear of retribution from both their subjects and the publishers of their stories. Much of Lapdogs examines how this unspoken fear has tainted news coverage of what should have been the richest stories in decades. The allegations don’t change from chapter to chapter; only the events and dates change. In addition to the expected analyses of the Iraq War and the 2004 election, the book offers near-instant analysis on the major headliners of 2005-06: Terri Schiavo, John Roberts, Cindy Sheehan, Hurricane Katrina and even the Dick Cheney shooting incident. Clinton-era scandals are added for a dash of contrast, igniting a perverse yearning for the days when the media couldn’t snoop enough.

Though Boehlert lambastes the mainstream media (tagged here as the MSM, a term ironically favored by right-wing bloggers) for its timidity and laziness, he indicts certain right-wing pundits for the opposite reason. In "The Press Haters," the author tracks pundits such as Michelle Malkin, who repeatedly reacts to unflattering news by attacking both the sources and motivations of said sources. "For them," Boehlert says of Malkin and her brethren, "the MSM represent the enemy, the only real interesting point of attack" (p. 98, emphasis his).

Because of this imagined “bias,” Boehlert says, a rightward trend is taking place in both the White House press room and the network boardroom. This takeover, under the guise of “balance,” is detailed across several chapters. "The War Over PBS" shows how public television, like its commercial counterparts, has been pressured to "prove" that it isn’t liberally biased by drastically overcompensating with right-wing programming. "'This is Scripted'" derives its title from an actual press conference prior to the Iraq War, in which Bush read from a list of journalists approved to ask questions. He then made the titular remark, which held deeper truth than the nature of his jest suggested.

Such thorough evidence makes Lapdogs a compelling and galvanizing read. Boehlert’s evidence will invigorate anyone wishing for the return of truly aggressive media and will reinforce the suspicions of Americans who already presume that all is not kosher with the press.

In the end, the only audience likely to be surprised by the arguments set forth in Lapdogs is the MSM itself—at least the elements that still feel as if they are offering tough coverage of the Bush administration. Their reactions will certainly be worth reporting.

3 comments:

Speechie said...

Ian,
Your thoughts on "Lapdogs" are rather interesting. I've done a lot of political reading, especially dealing with the Iraq War and Bush, in the past few years and most of them have been a severe bomb, no pun intended. The synopsis of those few sections was also really helpful. I'm going to pick up a copy this week. And I'll let you know how I like it...or if I blatantly disagree with you, I'll shout it from the rooftops ;).

Cajun Tiger said...

Ian...let's make a deal...you read "Bias" by Bernard Goldberg and I'll read this one. Deal?

Ian McGibboney said...

CT, I've read parts of Bias, s well as other books that tear it to pieces. Though I can see where you're coming from, the two books are hardly equivalents; whereas "Bias" is one man's personal vendetta against Dan Rather, "Lapdogs" is a more neutral and less personal book.