Show of Farce

The press digs itself into holes; the government covers up its own errors—the system at work

This would seem to be one of those moments in American history when satire becomes obsolete. It's because our national dialogue has itself become a full-blown, round-the-clock farce. The White House and the press are major players. Exhibit A: Newsweek made a telling error recently by publishing a story that lacked proper confirmation—about American military jailers desecrating the Koran to break down their Muslim prisoners. A week or so later, Islamic protest riots partly related to the story left at least 15 people dead in Afghanistan.

The Bush White House, suffering a yawning credibility gap from the Iraq war plus a global wave of anti-American sentiment, leaped on the press mistake and, even after a Newsweek apology and retraction, said the magazine should go further and "repair the damage" by "speaking out" about American values to the Muslim world. "The values that the United States stands for . . . the values we hold so dearly," as Bush spokesman Scott McClellan put it.

Reasonable citizens could not be blamed for rolling their eyes at such an exhortation. Indeed, what values has the Bush administration stood for and paraded before the world? For one, it can no longer be sanely disputed that this president led the nation into the Iraq war on a platform of false information. No stockpiles of "weapons of mass destruction" were found in Iraq. There was no imminent threat. Bush hailed our soldiers as heroes, but he sent them into battle without proper body armor or armored vehicles and without a large enough force or any real plan for restoring order after Saddam Hussein was ousted. Avoidable casualties have been the result. And the continuing scandal about the torture of Muslim prisoners needn't have happened at all if the White House had sent properly trained and disciplined units to run the detention centers.

Just what values does the loyal Mr. McClellan think all these policies and practices and behavior add up to? Does he really think we should present this list to the world as the sum of what America stands for?

Newsweek erred and has been deeply embarrassed and shaken. Unlike the president and his band, the press does make mistakes and, at least in the present era, it owns up to them.

But this story is much larger than a Newsweek article that may have contributed to unforeseen yet nasty mayhem. Our whole country is in an embarrassed and embarrassing state. We are deeply divided—fractured may be a truer word. People are uncertain and nervous about the future, yet the White House and its Republican-controlled Congress regularly paper over the war and serious domestic problems with little more than advertising slogans. And now the voters, from their separated clans and interest groups and political fraternities, scream epithets at each other—it's as if we have nothing in common as Americans.

The press is very much a part of this national dissonance. Over the past few decades, it gradually depreciated itself and dug its own hole. Even as the digital revolution enhanced reporters' fact-finding abilities and produced better investigative, serious journalism, the profession in other ways allowed itself to grow softer and looser. Gossip and celebrity chitchat crept into the news sections. We began covering the sex lives of public figures even when we could not demonstrate that their private indiscretions had any effect on their public performance or public policy. Remember the Miami Herald stakeout in 1987 at Gary Hart's townhouse that revealed his marital infidelity and ousted him from the presidential race? That was a landmark in the press's slippery slide. News became more like a game. It was entertainment. Later, of course, we gave the world the Monica saga of sex in the White House. Michael Isikoff, co-author of the Newsweek article currently in dispute, was a major unearther of the lubricious details back then. In devoting such investigative energy and resources to a love-nest story, the press took resources away from matters that actually have a tangible effect on American lives.

The press's proprietors and editors (some of the latter, to their credit, winced as they participated) told us that this was the necessary path to the future if we were to survive financially. They said we had to enliven newspapers and news on television so we could capture those 18- to 49-year-olds and thus draw the big advertisers who yearned to sell them things. "Get jiggy with it!" they told the newsroom doubters.

Almost without noticing, the press began losing its memory about its crucial adversary role. At America's beginning, the founding fathers, in establishing the fundamentals of this democracy, said a free press was necessary as one of the country's checks and balances. That explains John Peter Zenger and Thomas Paine and the First Amendment.

As amnesia about our history spread, the major news companies began making deals with the government. In 1991, you may recall, they agreed to accept the Pentagon's ground rules for covering the first Gulf war. The rules decreed that reporters had to be accompanied at all times by military babysitters who would not only select the story sites but pre-interview soldiers at those sites to avoid any lapses into truth telling. And that was how America, on television and in print, was handed its first major sanitized war. Another landmark. (The father of the current president was in the Oval Office then. Dick Cheney was the Pentagon chief.)

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