The story by political correspondent Dana Milbank
drips with a sarcasm that would never be allowed for a report on, say, a
conservative gathering or on a topic involving any part of the American
political spectrum other than the Left.
“In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering
House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe,” Milbank wrote.
“They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee
hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look
like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags
to make the whole thing look official.”
And the insults – especially aimed at Rep. Conyers
– just kept on coming. The Michigan Democrat “banged a large wooden
gavel and got the other lawmakers to call him ‘Mr. Chairman,’” the snide
article said. [For the full flavor, see the Washington Post’s “Democrats
Play House To Rally Against the War,” June 17, 2005]
Washington Post editors – having already dismissed
the leaked British government documents about the Iraq War as
boring, irrelevant news – are now turning to the tried-and-true
tactic for silencing any remaining dissent, consigning those who won’t
go along to the political loony bin.
Those of us who have covered Washington for years
have seen the pattern before. A group without sufficient
inside-the-Beltway clout tries to draw attention to a scandal that the
Post and other prestigious news arbiters have missed or gotten wrong.
After ignoring the grievances for a while – and sensing that the
complainers have no real muscle – the news arbiters start heaping on the
A previous example is the way the major newspapers
reacted to Gary Webb’s San Jose Mercury-News series in 1996, which
alleged links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan contra rebels and cocaine
traffickers in the 1980s.
At first, the big papers were silent about this
upstart challenge to their long-standing dismissal of the contra-cocaine
issue as a “conspiracy theory.” But when the story spread on the
Internet and was taken up by the African-American community, the major
newspapers lost their patience. They attacked the stories as
nonsensical, called blacks “conspiracy prone,” and destroyed Webb’s
Rather than reexamining the contra-cocaine evidence
seriously, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles
Times simply cast the issue outside the realm of rational discourse.
Even when the CIA’s inspector general issued
reports in 1998 stating that the contra-cocaine connection actually was
worse than had been known – and admitting that the CIA had protected
some drug traffickers – the major media made only slight adjustments to
the contemptuous tone that had long surrounded the issue.
Hounded out of journalism and running out of money,
Webb committed suicide last December, an event that prompted hostile
obituaries from the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. [See
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb” or Robert Parry’s
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press and Project Truth.]
The Right’s experience has been different. After
Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal in 1974,
conservatives recognized the political danger that came from the media’s
power to set the parameters of permissible debate.
So, over the past three decades, the conservative
movement has invested billions of dollars to build a protective wall
around itself and its issues through the creation of its own media
infrastructure. [For details, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Now, the conservative media has the power to
inflict as much – or more pain – on the mainstream media as the
mainstream media can on conservatives. In other words, between the
Mainstream and the Right in Washington, there is now a balance of fear.
Indeed, Dana Milbank, as the Post’s White House
correspondent, has drawn conservative ire from time to time for not
showing sufficient respect for George W. Bush. But if Milbank were
tempted to write an over-the-top attack on Bush – like he did on Conyers
and the Downing Street Memo hearing – he would pay a high price from
retaliating conservatives who would accuse him of bias and flood his
editors with complaints.
Almost certainly, Milbank would have second
thoughts about such an article or his editors would for him. Without
doubt, the story would not have appeared in the openly insulting form
that it did when Democrats and liberals were the target.
Though no one wants to say it, everyone in
mainstream journalism knows intuitively that there is no real risk in
ripping liberals. Most often, it’s a win-win. Not only can you write
almost whatever you want, but it buys the journalist a measure of
protection from conservatives, who have a long record of costing
reporters their jobs.
Milbank, for instance, must know that his putdown
of the Downing Street Memo hearing means he can wave the article in
front of Bush supporters the next time they criticize something he’s
written about the president.
The reason for that part of the dynamic is largely
that funders on the Left – unlike their counterparts on the Right – have
chosen over the past three decades to divert money away from media into
other priorities, such as “grassroots organizing” or direct-action
projects, such as feeding the poor or buying up endangered wetlands.
Sometimes this refusal by wealthy liberals to “do
media” seems so extreme that one has to wonder whether – except perhaps
for some indigenous tribes in the jungles of Borneo – any group on the
planet has less a grasp of the importance of information and media than
American liberals do.
Even the Arabs – not usually known as information
pioneers – have learned how investments in media, such as the satellite
news channel al-Jazeera, can change the political dynamic of an entire
Though there have been a few positive developments
in liberal media – particularly the growth of AM progressive talk radio
at Air America and Democracy Radio – Left funders still show few signs
of understanding how valuable media could be to a liberal political
The latest trend in liberal grant-giving has been
for “media reform,” such as trying to “save PBS” even as it adds more
and more conservative programs. But the Left funders still shy away from
the construction of media outlets and the creation of independent
Without that strong media, liberals can do little
more than gnash their teeth when the Washington Post and other
mainstream news outlets banish issues like the Iraq War deceptions
beyond the bounds of Washington debate. [For more on the Post’s
treatment of this issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “LMSM
– the ‘Lying Mainstream Media.”]
Certainly, any thoughts about impeaching Bush are
little more than pipedreams given the reality of today’s national media.
In that sense, the Post’s attacks on the Downing Street Memo hearing
should serve as a splash of cold water in the face of the American Left.
While Web sites and progressive talk radio have
helped puncture the image of Bush’s invulnerability, a much broader
media infrastructure would be needed if issues, such as the Iraq
deceptions, are to be forced consistently into the national debate.