Monday, February 20, 2006

Goodbye Bernstein and Woodward

On the occasion of the 30th-anniversary release of "All the President's Men" - a two-disc DVD goes on sale tomorrow - it is instructive to contemplate how much the world has changed since the dawn of the Bush era. Way back then, there was no cable TV or Internet or conservative media empire; there were just a few national newspapers and four broadcast networks (including PBS). Way back then, a movie featuring journalists as heroes could play in packed movie houses, while the president they brought down in the Watergate scandal was trudging on the beaches of San Clemente in disgrace...whereas today, Richard Nixon's party is busy changing the rules of the game, pushing back at the "old media" establishment and treating it as just another special interest group.
I was reminded of all this today while moderating a forum at the University of Pennsylvania. My guest was Gail Collins, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, who labors cheerily at the eye of the storm. She mentioned that, on the news side, several Times reporters are under threat of being subpoened, in connection with a Bush administration probe into alleged leaks of national security information; and that, in general, pressure from the right is now a staple of daily work life. Among conservative bloggers, she said, "the ideal way for a politically or intellectually-driven website (to succeed) is, can you take down somebody like Dan Rather? It's the notion that you have to take someone down in order to make your mark." Republicans, she said, have discovered that they don't necessarily pay any political penalty (certainly not with their core followers) if they freeze out the media establishment; in her words, "you discover that it can be pretty easy."
That observation was seconded a few days ago by Jay Rosen, an associate professor at NYU who writes a valuable media blog about these issues. He noted the other day: "Dick Cheney will look into the eyes of a journalist on television and deny saying what he is on tape saying!...The flagrant factual contradiction is not a problem, but itself a form of cultural politics," in which the administration frames all fact-checking reporters as pejorative "liberals."
Witness the way Cheney played cultural politics in his handling of the hunting accident; a passing remark that he made on Fox News said it all. Word was first passed to a small Texas paper, and, in defense of that decision, Cheney said: "It strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas." (Translation: those effete big-city, blue-state easterners have no special standing in my world.)
I raise all this not to lament some lost world of media power and supine politicians. Just as Tom Hanks said there's no crying in baseball, there's no room for whining in politics. The Bush model is simply what the real world looks like today; new game, new rules, deal with it. But here's the more interesting question, as we look forward politically:
Have the Bush people permanently changed the relationship between media and (Republican) politicians? Will the Bush model (and the multi-faceted conservative media apparatus) transcend Bush and simply be adopted by the next Republican nominee? What if the GOP candidate is John McCain - the media darling who seems to treat reporters as real people who have interesting things to ask? The temptation is to predict that McCain's Straight Talk Express bus would hit the road again, but as Gail Collins noted earlier today, "We forget that in 2000, he was only a viable candidate for a short while (until the South Carolina primary). Let's see how he is with the press if it turns out he really has a chance to win."