You might disagree with that premise, but I don’t think it can be denied. Bill Clinton was ripped apart for a nonexistent scandal (Whitewater) and for his personal failings (the Lewinsky matter). Al Gore was battered for minor exaggerations and for things he didn’t even say (such as the false assertion that he’d claimed to have “invented” the Internet). John Kerry was deeply wounded by the obvious lies of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has never really been held to account for offenses both high (launching a disastrous war on the basis of hyped intelligence) and low (Dick Cheney’s shooting an elderly hunting partner in the face).
In recent years, media observers such as Eric Alterman (“What Liberal Media?”) and Joe Conason (“Big Lies”) have tried to explain this conundrum. Now comes former Salon media columnist Eric Boehlert, whose “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush” (Free Press) documents in sometimes mind-numbing detail the ways in which the media routinely pick over every minor Democratic flaw while ignoring much more important instances of perfidy on the Republican side.
My own view — not entirely original — is that though much of our major media are imbued with a mild liberal cultural bias on issues such as gay rights, reproductive choice and the role of religion in society, that bias does not extend to the way they cover politics. Indeed, it often seems that the way liberal reporters make their bones is by tormenting liberal politicians. And with partisan Republican media such as the Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and the Wall Street Journal editorial page constantly charging “liberal bias,” life is much easier for journalists if they tilt to the right.
Boehlert’s book would have benefited from a stronger analytical tone. His methodology is largely one of documenting media somnolence in the face of outrageous behavior by Bush, Cheney, et al. and then asking his readers how the media would have reacted if a Democrat had engaged in similar offenses. Most of the material Boehlert offers will be familiar to readers who follow this stuff. The principal strength of “Lapdogs” is that Boehlert shows the easy treatment of Bush has continued since the 2004 election, thus updating the earlier work done by Alterman and Conason.
Slate’s Jack Shafer recently criticized “Lapdogs” on the grounds that Boehlert largely confines his critique to television news and talking-heads shows, giving a pass to our two most important news organizations, the New York Times and the Washington Post. If the Times and the Post aren’t part of the problem, Shafer asks, how can Boehlert complain that the media lean Republican? But I don’t read “Lapdogs” the way Shafer does; in fact, Boehlert cites numerous examples from both papers. A very short list would include:
- The Times’ decision to hold its Pulitzer Prize-winning story on the secret, no-warrant NSA wiretapping program from before the 2004 election until December 2005.
- The Post’s repeated editorializing in favor of the war in Iraq.
- The Times’ indulgence of Judith Miller’s flawed reporting on Iraq’s supposed weapons capabilities.
- The Post’s role in concocting that fake Gore quote about “inventing” the Internet, endlessly repeated by the sneering Washington press corps.
Boehlert gives due credit to media watchdogs such as the Daily Howler and Media Matters for America. Ultimately, though, that’s the problem with “Lapdogs.” The distinctive voice and edge Boehlert usually brings to his work is frequently missing here, replaced by his voluminous but not fully digested research.
Still, there’s a lot of valuable information in “Lapdogs,” and it shows how the goal of the right, as Boehlert puts it, “is to create a news culture where there are few if any agreed upon facts, thereby making serious debate impossible.” That is by far the most disturbing aspect of the media wars taking place today, and Boehlert does a good job of shining a light on it.