All the President’s Press
SOMEHOW it’s hard to imagine David Halberstam yukking it up with Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz and two discarded “American Idol” contestants at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Before there was a Woodward and Bernstein, there was Halberstam, still not yet 30 in the early 1960s, calling those in power to account for lying about our “progress” in Vietnam. He did so even though J.F.K. told the publisher of The Times, “I wish like hell that you’d get Halberstam out of there.” He did so despite public ridicule from the dean of that era’s Georgetown punditocracy, the now forgotten columnist (and Vietnam War cheerleader) Joseph Alsop.So why did this happen? I think Duncan (Atrios) Black hit the nail on the head yesterday. While he is specifically talking about the brain dead David Broder it could apply to most of the Washington media aristocrats.
It was Alsop’s spirit, not Halberstam’s, that could be seen in C-Span’s live broadcast of the correspondents’ dinner last Saturday, two days before Halberstam’s death in a car crash in California. This fete is a crystallization of the press’s failures in the post-9/11 era: it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows. Such is literally the case at the annual dinner, where journalists serve as a supporting cast, but it has been figuratively true year-round. The press has enabled stunts from the manufactured threat of imminent “mushroom clouds” to “Saving Private Lynch” to “Mission Accomplished,” whose fourth anniversary arrives on Tuesday. For all the recrimination, self-flagellation and reforms that followed these journalistic failures, it’s far from clear that the entire profession yet understands why it has lost the public’s faith.
We normally think of "High Broderism" as the worship of bipartisanship for its own sake, combined with a fake "pox on both their houses" attitude. But in reality this is just the cover Broder uses for his real agenda, the defense of what he perceives to be "the establishment" at all costs. The establishment is the permanent ruling class of Washington, our betters who know better. It is their rough agenda which is sold as "centrism" even when it has no actual relationship with the political center in a meaningful way. Democracy's messy, in Broder's world, and passionate voters are problematic. It is up to the Wise Old Men of Washington to implement the agenda, and the job of the voters to bless them for it. When the establishment fails, the most important issue is not their failure, but that the voters might begin to lose faith in and deference for their betters. Thus, people must always be allowed to save face, no matter what their transgressions, as long as they're a part of his permanent floating tea party.The "floating Washington tea party", that's the key that I don't think even Atrios emphasizes enough. We no longer have journalists or critical pundits in Washington or even New York we have millionaire celebrities who don't want to jeopardize their status, salaries or attendance on the drunken cocktail weenie circuit. They don't want to alienate and lose access to those in power not because it would interfere with their ability to do journalism but because it might threaten their big salaries. The press that is supposed to be the watchdog has a vested interest to see that those in power remain in power. That's why the members of the press and punditry corp hate the pamphleteers of the blogosphere - for the same reason those in power hated the original pamphleteers long Thomas Paine.
While this basic attitude isn't unique to Broder, his apparent lack of interest in the actual details of policy makes him a more absurd figure than some. For him it's not about results, but about the right people being in the right places. It is terribly elitist in all the wrong ways. Arguments can be made for certain types of elitism - you do want a brain surgeon conducting brain surgery - but Broder's elites are simply aristocrats. It's their town.