Columns » John Brummett

Reporters, politicians, aging wine

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The mainstream media, losing ground daily to the Internet’s hyperactive blogosphere, where anything goes, are having an especially bad time lately. It’s pretty much deserved.

Bill Moyers, who has become Michael Moore in a suit, unveiled another of his earnest polemics the other day. It was a PBS broadside on how the mainstream media didn’t sufficiently resist the Bush administration’s rush to fraudulent war in Iraq. It was only a little overdone, invoking hindsight’s prescience a tad haughtily.

It is quite true that our greatest newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, had reporters and editorialists who bought wholesale the same thing Colin Powell regurgitated wholesale. That was the notion that Saddam Hussein had the makings of deadly chemical weapons.

It is eminently true that the cable talk show culture is a right-wing wasteland where a blowhard like Bill O’Reilly preens about the supposed patriotism of not criticizing your supposedly free country when it’s at war.

Moyers’ theme was that a free and independent press ought to be more skeptical than meekly calculating Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton. It’s a point that Frank Rich, the powerful anti-Bush columnist for The New York Times, made two days ago by invoking the just-departed David Halberstam, a brave pioneer of free and independent journalism who was among the very first to tell the truth about Vietnam.

Rich wrote that it’s hard to imagine Halberstam’s falling prey to the access-centered culture of modern Washington reporting and yukking it up with Bush at a black-tie White House Correspondents Dinner.

Days before, the Washington press corps had thrown this annual function. That’s the one at which the inimitable Stephen Colbert had upset the cross-pollinated apple cart the year before. He’d performed in character from his Colbert Report, meaning as a dim-witted but cocksure O’Reilly spoof, and satirically dismembered Bush and the reporters who supposedly cover him.

This year they brought in Rich Little, a 1970s refugee apparently still alive.

The bland impressionist told his home-state newspaper in Nevada: “They don’t want anyone knocking the president. He’s really over the coals right now, and he’s worried about his legacy.”

This year Bush declined to get up at the dinner and make the usual jokes. He said it was out of respect for the slain at Virginia Tech. Frank Rich made a good point: What about respect all those other years for the slain in Iraq, which were his more direct responsibility? What about that year Bush made a joke by pretending to look under desks for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

One of the reporters said critics don’t understand that you can get along with a guy you cover, even have dinner with him, and still be objective in your coverage.

Maybe, but the fidelity is to be with readers.

Let’s bring the issue home. Let’s say the governor was uncommonly popular and temporarily successful and had a 20-year friendly relationship with a columnist, and that the columnist had, in fact, long touted this man for governor. Let’s say the governor had suggested one day that, when the legislative session was over, he and the columnist extract a cork from a bottle of good red wine, probably a shiraz or a pinot noir. Off the record, of course.

What about that? Three things. One is that the columnist, weak to the flattery and the bouquet of good red wine, replied that he would love to. The second is that it would be like cheating on the readers. The third, just as well, is that the columnist hasn’t heard any more about it since he started using his blog to criticize the governor for not paying for his own personal groceries, a transgression the governor says he has now corrected.

At the risk of appearing holier than thou, I suspect this red wine ought to be aged a few more years, about eight, I predict.

But if I get fired before then ... Actually, I wonder if I’d still be worthy company, which is kind of the point.


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