Useful Idiots?

USEFUL IDIOTS?….The right-wing outrage machine has been screaming about liberal bias in the news media since at least the Nixon administration, but until recently screaming has been pretty much all they’ve done. Ironically, though, after a decade in which the press has gotten demonstrably less biased, conservatives are finally scoring the victories they’ve been hungering after for so long ? thanks in large part to the blogosphere:

  • In June 2003, New York Times editor Howell Raines was forced to resign following the revelation that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated numerous stories over a period of several months.

  • In January 2004, BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies resigned in the wake of the Andrew Gilligan scandal. Gilligan had claimed that Tony Blair made knowingly false statements about Iraqi WMD, a claim he was later unable to back up.

  • Last month, several CBS producers were fired after an internal report concluded that they had acted irresponsibly in the Rathergate scandal. Dan Rather had already announced he would step down as CBS News anchor, although he claimed ? unconvincingly ? that this decision was unrelated to the scandal.

  • On Friday, CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, resigned following reports that he had said U.S. troops were deliberately targeting and killing journalists in Iraq.

In isolation, none of these resignations is noteworthy. As a trend, though, they’re disturbing. With the exception of Rathergate, which was truly a sad failure of journalistic standards, the offenses in question have all been relatively modest.

The core of the complaint against Howell Raines, for example, is that he didn’t realize the Times had hired a con man who worked four management levels below him. This was the first time such a thing had taken place under Raines, and when he realized what had happened he apologized, ordered an excrutiatingly detailed public disclosure, and promised to clean house. In the end, the worst specific charge ever leveled at Raines was that he might have paid too little attention to Jayson Blair’s problems because Blair was black ? hardly a firing offense.

Across the ocean, Andrew Gilligan’s blunder took place during a brief report on a live morning call-in show. His subsequent conduct was indeed dodgy, especially in the details, but in the end it turned out that the core of what he reported was disturbingly close to the truth. The claim that Saddam Hussein could launch WMD-tipped missiles within 45 minutes really was false, the intelligence behind it really was single-sourced, there really were senior intelligence people who were skeptical of the whole thing, Gilligan’s source for his accusation really was highly placed, and the government “dossier” in question really was rewritten to make sure that the 45-minute charge would dominate the next day’s headlines. It’s true that Davies and the rest of the BBC’s managment backed up Gilligan a bit too credulously, but their culpability never went much further than that.

And Eason Jordan? During a meeting at Davos he made an inflammatory accusation about the military killing journalists and then backed down (literally) seconds later at the same meeting. Since then, he has consistently said that he spoke hastily and emotionally and didn’t intend to imply any kind of deliberate military policy.

In the wider world, throw in Trent Lott, Ward Churchill, and Jeff Gannon ? and probably some others I’ve forgotten about ? and you start to wonder: is this really the blogosphere’s biggest contribution to public discourse? Collecting scalps?

Sure, these guys bear varying amounts of culpability and deserve varying amounts of criticism, but if you take a look at the standard history of the blogosphere it becomes clear that its best known incidents on both left and right ? Lottgate! Rathergate! Easongate! ? all revolve around public figures being viciously hounded out of their jobs. Positive accomplishments, conversely, are pretty thin on the ground.

I guess we all have our own ideas of what the blogosphere is good for. But when the history books are finally written, I hope that cranking up the politics of personal destruction yet another notch isn’t what we end up being most famous for.

And one more thing: it might be time for liberals to realize that even if we manage to collect a few scalps of our own along the way, conservatives gain strength from promoting this brand of warfare far more than liberals do. I hope we’re not just being useful idiots by joining in this game.

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