Speak nothing but good: A helluva week for the mainstream press


by Rich Broderick, June 21, 2008 • I remember reading a sly satire of what was then called The MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour in an old issue of Harper’s.

Taking aim at conventional wisdom and the mainstream news media’s reluctance to challenge the ruling class, the article took as its premise that this particular edition of the NewsHour was airing the night of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Weighing in on the topic were two guest commentators, one a “liberal,” the other a “conservative.”

The gap separating them was rather narrower than might be expected, with the conservative arguing that, as someone promoting potentially seditious ideas, Christ had it coming and the liberal demurring, but only to the extent of arguing that, while it was indeed true that Jesus posed a threat to the Roman version of public order, an enlightened penal code would have dictated that he merely be sentenced to life as a galley slave rather than put to death. Never once during the discussion did either of these authorities question the moral or legal right of the Roman Empire to oppress the Jews, or wonder whether, come to think of it, Jesus might actually have been talking about a spiritual rather than earthly kingdom, as he claimed all along, or might even have been what his followers said he was: God’s Only Begotten Son.

Speaking of the Romans, at least the swine left us a few good aphorisms; one of my favorites is “Speak nothing but good of the dead,” so I will refrain from saying anything personal about Tim Russert, who seems to have been a genial and hard-working enough sort. Rather I will confine myself to pointing out how over-the-top, how utterly disproportionate, the reaction to his untimely death has been in the mainstream news media.

Russert was one of the leading champions of conventional wisdom, a figure who epitomized the virtues – and the glaring deficiencies– of the American press. Yes, there was the obsessive and “professional” preparation for confrontations with the likes of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, the frank, no-nonsense tone of his interview style. But, no, just like most mainstream journalists, Russert failed to pursue any tough or persistent questioning of the disinformation that led us into the invasion and occupation of Iraq until after-the-fact, when it was too late to do much about it. In the lead up to war, he was just as sycophantic to the powers-that-be, just as faithful to what passed as conventional wisdom inside the D.C. Beltway as our two fictitious commentators on the MacNeill-Lehrer NewsHour, and just as skeptical and dismissive of skeptics of the invasion as Karl Rove or Richard Perle.

By a cruel trick of fate, his funeral cortege – like the potentates of the Soviet Union in its waning days, the mainstream press’s elaborate tribute to a fallen comrade was, in reality, an elaborate tribute to its own exalted self-image – occurred the same week that Scott McClellan made his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee to reveal secrets about the Bush Administration’s crimes and cover ups we’ve all known about for years.

Indeed, McClellan’s only surprising admissions were also not news, just unexpected coming from a former member of the Bush Administration and hence presumably a conservative. I’m referring to his observation that the myth of the “liberal” media is just that, a myth, and to his retroactive regret over how docile the Washington press corps was in swallowing and propagating all the patent lies, half-truths, and logical fallacies he, McClellan, dished out each day in the White House briefing room. A Washington press corps of which Tim Russert was a leading apparatchik.

None of which is going to have the slightest impact on the future behavior of that so-called “liberal media.” It has been amusing to see how vehemently the Washington press corps has denied McClellan’s claim that it was less than ferociously diligent in examining and analyzing any of Bush’s deceptions between 2002, when he had the whole country behind him, and the end of 2004, when popular opinion finally turned irrevocably against the Administration and it became safe to criticize his policies. This indignation and denial are as difficult to take seriously as the claims by Hillary Clinton or Al Franken that they were “deceived” by Bush about the threat posed to us by Saddam Hussein.

The reasons why nothing is going to change aren’t hard to pinpoint. The mainstream press has ceased acting as the Fourth Estate, guardian of our rights, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and turned into a mouthpiece for the Ruling Estate: what might be called the Unitary Corporate Executive. The corporate press, like the business conglomerates that own it, is fully vested in maintaining the current system of oppressive power relationships – a system that can survive only so long as no one points out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Or, in the case of George W. Bush, that the emperor is a reckless sadist afflicted by a strange messianic streak and armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

I feel sorry for Russert, as I do in a way for Scott McClellan, now being savaged by his erstwhile “friends” in the Republican Party and the mainstream media. But my compassion is tempered by the recognition that both men made a deal with the devil, and both reaped, in their own ways, the earthly rewards the devil is always willing to grant to those who do his bidding. In the old days, all he asked in return was our souls. Nowadays he seems equally intent on depriving us of our liberties.

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