TCS Daily


The MSM Bites Back!

By James Pinkerton - September 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Mainstream Media RIP? Not yet. Indeed, for now, the headline should read, "Mainstream Media Rips Bush in Wake of Katrina Crisis." And in fact, the header atop The Boston Phoenix, "Katrina Rips Bush a New One," was far harsher.

As Mark Twain might have said if he had lived, reports of the death of the MSM are greatly exaggerated. The Old Media Empire is striking back.

Consider the onslaught launched against President George W. Bush in the two weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit:

On ABC News' "This Week" last Sunday, George Stephanopoulos asked one of those compound questions that can be only refuted only by Jesuitical parsing: "Did government neglect turn a natural disaster into a human catastrophe and was it rooted in racism?" In the course of "interviewing" Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), Stephanopoulos sometimes dispensed with questions altogether, preferring to make statements, such as this: "So many people in this country have looked at so many of the victims being African-American, the sluggish federal response and said racism has to be at play." To which Obama, a cautious enough fellow, answered that the "incompetence" he espied in the Bush administration was "color-blind." Of course, such a tepid response wasn't good enough for the ex-Clinton White House spinmeister, who came back at Obama with, "But it was racism, I guess is the question." These weren't questions at all, of course, but rather witness-leading rhetoric: "How do you explain why President Bush didn't seem to get this early on?"

Over at Newsweek, the words on the cover, "Poverty, Race and Katrina", established the magazine's bleeding-heart perspective right away. Inside, the headline "The Other America" was a deliberate homage to the identically titled book by Michael Harrington from 1963, which spurred the Great Society.

Yet while Newsweek's macropolitics might be simplemindedly paleoliberal, the mag also knows how to wield a deft micropolitical shiv against Republican soft underbellies. In a companion article entitled "How Bush Blew It", the weekly jibed that Bush suffers from poor "situational awareness" about the Katrina disaster, such that presidential counselor Dan Bartlett had to make him a DVD compendium of the news coverage to get the point across to his uncomprehending boss. Now how do you suppose that Newsweek got that nugget? Assuming it's not fabricated out of whole cloth, the answer is that Bartlett either leaked it himself or someone leaked it about him. Either way, the trust level inside the Bush White House, once high, has now fallen lower than the New Orleans land-level.

And The New York Times provided a Blanco-eyed view of the recent events, giving long shrift to the Democratic governor -- and short-shrift to the Republican president. In the article's opening scene-setting vignette, the reader is informed that embattled Pelican State Governor Kathleen Blanco was "blistering mad" because she couldn't get help from the Bush administration: "Only a fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived." But what about all those other buses, such as the New Orleans school buses left to drown in that parking lot? Not pertinent, judges the Times story. But the enormity of detail in the piece -- nearly 5000 words, reflecting the input of eight different reporters -- brought with it an undeniable debate-shifting weight.

Other MSMers did their part, too. Time broke the Michael Brown resume-padding story, and two days later the Federal Emergency chief was out of a job. And The Los Angeles Times broke another story about the Republican loyalists who filled up FEMA's first tier -- implying that they were nothing but patronage hacks.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, always on message, rotely complains about "finger-pointing" and "blame-gaming," but the MSM is having none of that. The Roanoke Times editorialized about one briefing in which the hapless presidential flack "said no fewer than 16 times that the administration would not engage in 'finger pointing' or the 'blame game.'" But, the paper continued, "That is precisely the sort of evasion expected from those who have something to hide, something blameworthy." This Times is a liberal paper, it endorsed John Kerry last year -- but that's the point: the MSM is still out there, and it's having an impact.

How much impact? Let's look at the polls, which show that Bush's approval rating has dropped three or four points, to between 38 and 42 percent -- here's a graphic look at the same data.

So what happened? To put it plainly, the substantial pro-Bush contingent of the New Media -- that is, cable news, talk radio, and the Net -- was overwhelmed. Yes, the blogosphere could take down Dan Rather, but that was a dry and slow process of threshing out real and counterfeit typewriter fonts, military phraseology, and antique zip codes.

By contrast, Katrina is wetly overwhelming; even Fox News is in high dudgeon. So while a few bloggers are hacking away at the accreting conventional wisdom that Everything is Bush's Fault, that battle is being lost even before Bush's big "I take responsibility" concession on Tuesday.

In other words, the MSM got there firstest with the mostest. NBC News' Brian Williams arrived in New Orleans early and stayed. And while he displayed the familiar liberal myopia about underclass misbehavior, declaring that the looters looted because they had "nothing" -- even as the cameras followed them as they ripped off TV sets and other non-comestibles -- Williams nonetheless emerged as a star. In the words of Variety's Michael Learmonth, "Williams solidified his claim as the only certain heir to the Brokaw-Rather-Jennings mantle." That mantle is not as big as it once was, but the Big Three broadcasters still garner more than 25 million viewers a night.

And while CNN, strictly speaking, might not be part of the MSM, its heart is clearly with its elder brethren. Its president, Jonathan Klein is the former #2 at CBS. So it was easy for CNN talent, such as Anderson Cooper, to get into the MSM groove -- and to be rewarded with fawning profiles in the New York Times, which told its readers that Cooper "captivated" his audience.

Has the MSM paid any price for its liberal-tilting? Has the American public turned off all these nattering nabobs of negativism? Apparently not. A Pew Center survey, widely and gleefully reported, found that 65 percent of surveyed Americans rated the Katrina coverage as "good" or "excellent" -- an 11-point improvement over the public's assessment of the 2004 election. By contrast, only 28 percent felt that President Bush had done all he could have at the onset of the Katrina-crisis.

So is there any hope for the administration? And, more to point, for a fair and balanced media? And for a limited government to go with it?

Sure there's hope, for two reasons:

First, the MSM is still shrinking. It hasn't disappeared yet, and it may never go extinct, but new players continue to crowd into the marketplace, including Google News and now, even more dramatically, Yahoo!

Second, libertarians and conservatives have proven that they can win arguments, even in such touchy areas as race and poverty. There's a reason Republicans have won seven of the ten presidential elections since Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society. So by all means, let's compare the domestic ideas of the national Republicans to those of the national Democrats -- letalone the New Orleans Democrats. Let's put Rudy Giuliani up against Ray Nagin, and see which approach the country prefers.

Indeed, the realization that civil-serviced bureaucracy is not a good way to get things done has sunk in to some interesting places. For obvious enough reasons, The Washington Post, the hometown paper of the federal government, has long opposed privatization. Yet in a September 6 article, the daily had to admit that Wal-Mart could teach the feds something. Noting that the Arkansas-based company's philanthropic relief effort had "earned it near-universal praise," the Post added, "While state and federal officials have come under harsh criticism for their handling of the storm's aftermath, Wal-Mart is being held up as a model for logistical efficiency and nimble disaster planning, which have allowed it to quickly deliver staples such as water, fuel and toilet paper to thousands of evacuees." So keep hope alive!

In the meantime, Bush, and what remains of his domestic-policy revolution, is being buried under an avalanche of bad news, badly reported -- all part of the media-'Trina juggernaut. It's a big wave, indeed, a Category Five assault on the progress of the last five years.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

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