In the days after the 9/11 attacks, Americans watched their fellows grieve for 3,000 innocent loved ones lost in the heaps of charred rubble at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field. Though the press’s reporting in the first few days of the crisis had been courageous and straightforward, it wasn’t long before “analysis” was forthcoming.
Most descriptive was the headline in the Christian Science Monitor, a mere 16 days after the attack. “Why Do They Hate Us?” it read, plaintively. Implicit in the question was an assumption — that the attack couldn’t be an act simply of mindless, deadly hatred. There had to be a reason. And it was up to us to find it, and to try to understand.
Now, in the aftermath of Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, perhaps it’s time for the press to ask itself at least a variant of the same question. The media’s outrage has been loud and protracted about the Vice President’s decision not to notify the press immediately — and to release the news through a private citizen to a local newspaper.
But given the hyperbole, the snark, and the outright hysteria when all available evidence points to a simple hunting accident, any initial reluctance to set the press pack on the story seems to have been — if not wise — certainly justified. Along with the irresponsible and unjustified discussion of whether the Vice President was alcohol-impaired at the time of the accident, the week has featured such elements as the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank (whom, the paper insists, is not an opinion writer) appearing on Keith Olbermann’s show in a bright orange hat and vest. By Thursday, the Post‘s fashion writer was busily deconstructing the Vice President’s decision to wear a pink tie for a television interview about the accident.
Such treatment of the accident gives the game away — that many in the press itself understand it’s not really an important story. So why the continuing, constant coverage? Because, some in the press have argued, it’s not the shooting itself but the way the accident was handled that’s important — symbolic, we are to understand, of a pattern of secrecy on the part of the Bush White House. And if that’s the case, then it’s agenda journalism of the worst kind: Covering an unimportant story as if it were important, just to make a point.
It’s amazing. The same press that encourages Americans to “understand” why some Islamofascists pressed a sneak attack upon unsuspecting innocents is, itself, either unwilling or unable to look at the reasons that Republicans — at least half the body politic — routinely operate under the assumption that the mainstream media will be hostile in its coverage of them, their ideas, and their politicians.
Just last week, in an egregious slur, former NBC newsman Bryant Gumbel volunteered that the dearth of African Americans competing made the Winter Olympics “look like a GOP convention” (minus, presumably, Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Ken Blackwell, Lynn Swann and Michael Steele, among others). His views were remarkable in big-time media circles only in that the anti-Republican bias was so openly expressed — and it’s worth wondering how many current big-time anchors share the same opinion, deterred from voicing it publicly only by the chimera of “journalistic objectivity.”
Similarly, the hysteria over the Cheney accident itself only underlines the monolithic mindset and life experience of most of the national press — nary a hunter in sight — and its psychological and physical distance from everyday Red State values and pursuits.
A recent UCLA study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, found that nearly all major media outlets tilt to the left. The findings were surprising only to those who have never observed the mainstream media’s treatment of the GOP. The bias explains why Republicans are happy to offer stories to local, rather than national, press; they have a greater chance of being treated fairly.
As of March of 2005, some polls were showing that journalists were less well thought of than lawyers, auto mechanics, and even politicians. Episodes like the media frenzy of last week explain why. So even as members of the media excoriate the Bush Administration for its failings after the Cheney birdshot accident, perhaps they would be well-advised to take an equally persistent look at their own.
Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and radio talk-show host. Her blog is at www.carolliebau.blogspot.com.