Bush scorns role of press

August 02, 2004|By Orville Schell

THE IMPULSE to control the press may not have originated with George W. Bush, but his administration's lack of esteem for the watchdog role of the news media has been striking. In part this is because its own quest for "truth" has often been based on something other than empiricism. In fact, it has enthroned a new criterion for veracity: "faith-based" truth, sometimes corroborated by "faith-based" intelligence.

For officials of this administration (and not just the religious ones, either), truth seemed to descend from on high, a kind of divine revelation begging no further earthly scrutiny. For our president this was evidently literally the case. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported him saying to Mahmoud Abbas, then Palestinian prime minister, "God told me to strike al-Qaida and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did."

It is hardly surprising, then, that such a president would eschew newspapers in favor of reports from other more "objective sources" - namely, his staff. He has spoken often of trusting "visceral reactions" and acting on "gut feelings." For him, as for much of the rest of his administration, decision-making has tended to proceed not from evidence to conclusion but from conclusion to evidence, leading to what might be called "fundamentalist" policy formation.

Just as the free exchange of information plays little role in the relationship between a fundamentalist believer and his or her god, so it has played a distinctly diminished role in our recent parallel world of divine political revelation. After all, if you already know the answer to a question, of what use is the media, except to broadcast that answer? The task at hand, then, is not to listen but to proselytize the political gospel among nonbelievers, transforming a once-interactive process between citizen and leader into evangelism.

Although in the Bush political universe, "freedom" has been endlessly extolled in principle, it has had little utility in practice. What possible role could a free press play when revelation trumps fact and conclusions are preordained? A probing press is logically viewed as a spoiler under such conditions, stepping between the administration and those whose only true salvation lies in becoming part of a nation of true believers.

Andrew H. Card Jr., Mr. Bush's chief of staff, bluntly declared to New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press "don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." Mr. Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush administration, the press corps had become little more than another special-interest lobbying group.

Indeed, the territory the traditional media once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying, publicity and advertising - cleverly staged photo ops, carefully produced propaganda rallies, preplanned "events," tidal waves of campaign ads and the like. Afraid of losing further influence, access and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.

What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that we the people are seen not as political constituencies conferring legitimacy on our rulers but as consumers to be sold policy the way advertisers sell product.

In the storm of selling, spin, bullying and discipline that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized, cowed and relegated to the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place in the political process. Little wonder, then, that "the traditional press" had a difficult time mustering anything like a convincing counternarrative as the administration herded a terrified and all-too-trusting nation to war.

Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed - at least for a time - in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often they found themselves looking into a funhouse mirror of their own making and imagined that they were viewing reality. As even the conservative National Review noted, the Bush administration has "a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations."

In this world of mutant "news," information loops have become one-way highways, and a national security adviser, Cabinet secretary or attorney general must be a well-managed and programmed polemicist charged to "stay on message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or is about to do. For three-plus years now, we have been governed by people who don't view news, in the traditional sense, as playing a truly constructive role in our system of governance.

At the moment, they are in retreat, driven back from the front lines of faith-based truth by their own faith-based blunders. As the war in Iraq descended into a desert quagmire, the press belatedly appeared to awaken and adopt a more skeptical stance toward an already crumbling set of Bush administration policies.

But if a bloody, expensive, catastrophic episode such as the war in Iraq is necessary to remind us of the important role that the press plays in our democracy, something is gravely amiss in the way our political system has come to function.

Orville Schell is dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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