The Elephant in the Room

But Craig Crawford begs to disagree with any such dismissiveness. A columnist for Congressional Quarterly and a familiar TV talking head, Crawford has gone a few rounds in the ring himself. In his first book, Attack the Messenger, he makes the case that every American should be concerned about the eviscerated state of the press following the fabrication/plagiarism scandals at top newspapers, the Dan Rather debacle at CBS, and the government’s latest attacks on journalists and their confidential sources. (He might have a slightly different view in this post-Katrina era, given that the press has raised its bloodied head off the mat, at least momentarily.) As he sees it, the victory of politicians over the press is not only clear, but also deeply alarming. American democracy, Crawford argues, depends on a viable press: one that not only aggressively pursues the truth, but is also believed and trusted by the public.

Politicians have triumphed in recent years, Crawford goes on, by turning the tables on the traditional questioners and attackers and making the foibles of journalists into the issue, thereby deflecting any blame that might fall upon themselves. Their weapon of choice? The public’s growing distrust of the media, wielded like a cudgel.

Crawford has taken on a worthy subject here–and a big one. The problem is, he’s written a small book. Not just in size, though the volume is nearly as thin as Michael Brown’s list of disaster relief credentials, but also in vision, and, most of all, in depth. This dashed-off treatment seems more like the overblown draft of a long magazine piece than a fully realized book. But a book it was to be, and toward that end, the 160 pages of Attack the Messenger are padded–none-too-subtly–with such things as the nasty emails Crawford has received from readers and an off-the-point chapter on how news consumers can go about getting the “real story” from media sources.

Worse, Crawford delivers familiar ideas as if they were profound discoveries. “The major news organizations are under siege,” he says breathlessly, “[t]hey’ve been replaced by an agenda-driven rabble of pseudo-journalists on the Web and on cable news networks.” He explains, as if to a not-very-bright junior high class, that the public’s trust in mainstream news sources–taken for granted in the glory days of Walter Cronkite or the Pentagon Papers-era New York Times–is no more: “The role of the news media as an honest broker is shattered. Instead, [people] are drawn to sources that tell them what they want to hear.” Those who care about the subject–academics, media people, politicians, government types, and the blogerati–have talked, written, and read about all this ad nausuem. A less plugged-in general public, for whom this book seems to be written (“how politicians turn YOU against the media”), may never care. That leaves Attack the Messenger without an obvious audience. That’s a marketing problem at the very least.

Still, Crawford often writes engagingly and has his moments of perceptiveness and clarity. In a clever-enough device, he identifies some key battles in this war–the Gettysburgs and Antietams of the raging conflict. There was, for example, “the day the politicians began to win the war against the media.” That was Jan. 25, 1988, when Dan Rather’s efforts to pin down Vice President George H.W. Bush on Iran-Contra backfired. Bush successfully attacked the messenger with a pointed reference to Rather’s controversial walk off the anchor desk the year before. Bush emerged triumphant; Rather was cowed.

Years later, there was “the day the politicians won the war against the media,” or in Crawford’s well-turned phrase, “the day they drove old media down.” It was Nov. 23, 2004, when Dan Rather, his reputation wounded by the network’s flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard service, announced his reluctant resignation.

In each battle, Crawford argues, the media lost ground because it had no effective way of defending itself against the aggressive attacks of politicians and partisan groups. The press simply got pummeled and seemed to have no choice but to take the hits. In the National Guard dust-up, the Bush campaign turned the tables on CBS–making Dan Rather the issue while Republican partisans attacked John Kerry for his Swift Boat experience in Vietnam. It all amounted to what Crawford calls “a miraculous feat of political jujitsu. The candidate who had avoided conflict during Vietnam benefits from attacks on the credibility of the combat veteran in the race.”

Amidst all this, problems of logic emerge. Crawford writes constantly about “politicians,” but is this generality what he really means, or is it a euphemism for “conservative Republicans and their echo chamber”? Many of his examples include one Bush president or the other, especially the current one. In an unusual case in which he uses an example from the other side of the aisle, it seems a strain. He describes as a milestone event in the taming of the press the day when a president blatantly lied to the public while the press let him get away with it. That was Jan. 26, 1998, when Bill Clinton made his infamous “I did not have sex with that woman” statement about Monica Lewinsky from the Oval Office. But did Clinton really get away with his lie? Not only did the media, in the weeks and months that followed, gleefully lay out every detail of Clinton’s extramarital escapades for a drooling, though disapproving, public, but in addition, there was that little matter of the president’s impeachment. The Clinton example seems included here for political balance rather than because it fits Crawford’s premise terribly well.

One wonders: If Crawford means to talk about conservative Republicans when he talks about politicians, why doesn’t he just say so? Ah, there’s the rub. Doing so would give weight to the apparently terrifying charge of liberal media bias. While Crawford never adequately explores this issue, it’s the elephant (an appropriate-enough symbol) in the room. He harps on the idea that the mainstream media can’t defend itself, but he never fully nails down the reasons, other than to blame the wicked expertness with which “politicians” spin the facts.

Another reason–a more complicated one–is on display right here in Crawford’s writing. The mainstream media can’t, or won’t, defend itself against raging Rovism–the politically astute ability to turn the tables and “attack the messenger”–precisely because it’s so afraid of not seeming completely objective: down the middle, fair to all, taking no sides. That’s a nastily effective trap, of course. Crawford not only fails to identify the trap, but tumbles into it, quite fatally, in his own book on the very subject.

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