Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Free Ride

There has been a lot of Huffington and puffing in recent days about the Bush Administration's cynical smear campaign against the New York Times and the rest of the news media, and rightly so. But sadly, most of the denunciations have provided far more heat than light and done little to help people put this story in a larger context and understand why it is so pernicious.

One exception is New Yorker Editor David Remnick's exceptional commentary on the subject in this week's issue, which is the most cogent and contextualized analysis of the Bush team's "shoot the messenger" strategy I have come across yet.

Remnick makes the case that the latest attack on the Times is not just another ploy to distract Americans from the Administration's incompetence and malfeasance, but part of sustained effort to discredit and marginalize the press that has its machiavellian antecedents in the uniquely Nixonian paranoid style. That's their best hope of escaping accountability for their misdeeds, Remnick contends, to take our democracy's primary watchdog out back and shoot it.

"Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the Nixon-Agnew-Ford orbit left Washington believing that the imperial Presidency had been disastrously hobbled by a now imperial press. When they reappeared in 2001, under the auspices of George W. Bush, the Nixon-Agnew spirit was resurrected with them—this time without the Joycean wordplay. More than any other White House in history, Bush’s has tried to starve, mock, weaken, bypass, devalue, intimidate, and deceive the press, using tactics far more toxic than any prose devised in the name of Spiro Agnew.

"Firm in the belief that the press can be gored for easy political gain, the Bush Administration has set about reducing the status of the media (specifically, what it sees as the left-wing, Eastern-establishment media) to that of a pesky yet manageable interest group, nothing more. As Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff at the time, told this magazine’s Ken Auletta, 'They'—the media—'don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. . . . I don’t believe you have a check-and-balance function.'

"In the past six years, the Administration and its surrogates have issued a stream of disinformation about intelligence and Iraq; paid friendly 'columnists' like Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher tens of thousands of dollars to parrot the White House line, accredited to the White House press corps a phony journalist and ex-prostitute (Jeff “Bulldog” Gannon, a.k.a. James Dale Guckert) as a reliable pitcher of softball questions, tightened Freedom of Information Act restrictions; and pioneered a genre of fake news via packaged video 'reports.' The President has held fewer solo news conferences than any of his modern predecessors. The Vice-President kept the Times reporter off his plane because he didn’t like the paper’s coverage. The atmosphere, in general, has been one of crude manipulation and derision. After Seymour M. Hersh published, in this magazine, his third article on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in as many weeks, the Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita, overlooking the truth of the reports, publicly declared that Hersh merely 'threw a lot of crap against the wall and he expects someone to peel off what’s real.' (Hersh’s articles, he said, composed a 'tapestry of nonsense.')"

After reading Remnick's piece, it seems to me that Democrats have a great opportunity to use this scapegoating crusade against the Republicans and to shuffle the deck in the "security vs. liberty" debate. But to seize it, we are going to have to reframe the discussion, to stop defending the press and their rights and start attacking the conservatives for their assault on freedom.

Much as Remnick has done, but more broadly, we need to connect the dots and show how this Administration and its allies in Congress -- which has so piously proclaimed its commitment to spreading freedom abroad -- are systematically stifling it at home. Bit by bit, they are taking away our freedom to know what our government is doing. They are taking away our freedom to dissent and petition our government for redress. They are taking away our freedom to choose what is best for our country. And they are doing it because they don't trust we the people.

This is a case where language really matters. Ever since 9-11, Republicans have tried to corner the market on freedom, and apply that word as a shield to hide and/or rationalize all manner of freedom-diminishing policies and tactics. They have managed to get away with this hypocrisy largely because Democrats have fallen back in to the rights trap that marginalized us in 1960s and 70s on crime, where it now seems like we care more about the civil liberties of foreign terrorists (and the journalists who abet them) than the basic security of the American people.

That's a myth, of course, but we have allowed ourselves to be painted into that caricatured corner by our rhetoric and in particular our emphasis. Most Americans do care about the balance between security and liberty, but if all they hear out of our mouths is the liberty side of the equation, it's easy for them to write us off as being soft on terror. And we compound that misperception when we make the New York Times (the people who brought us Jason Blair) the issue instead of the freedom of all Americans.

To change this damaging dynamic, we have to refocus our message and reiterate our commitment to fighting terrorism -- ideally, as I have lobbied for many times before, by issuing an aggressive strategy to crush Al Qaeda and talking about it incessantly through the November elections. Once we begin to do that, we will be in a position to highlight the Republicans neo-Nixonian behavior, hold them accountable for their hypocrisy, and reclaim our rightful status as the party of freedom.

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