The earnest reporting in the past two weeks that conservative commentators Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus took money from the feds to promote a political agenda doesn’t strike me as an epidemic of Humpty Dumpty proportions. In an environment where Bush-despising journalists are searching for any crumb of Republican impropriety, Williams’ Alan Freed-like pocketing of $240,000 from the Department of Education is a whole loaf of rye. But American citizens will muddle through these footnotes. Besides, it’d be churlish to deny Democrats their pleasure at finally kissing the right frog: It won’t make up for John Kerry’s loss in November, but you take what you can get.
And, as one mass media consumer who relished Howell Raines’ well-deserved and overdue ouster at the New York Times, I’m not complaining.
What is irritating, however, is the self-righteousness from mainstream journalists who are no strangers to conflict of interest. Who knows what not-yet-revealed payoffs lurk behind the doors of the country’s news companies—the scalps of Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and Williams are surely just the start—but for the time being there’s no better example of a slippery character than Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic who moonlights for CNN with his weekly show Reliable Sources. Never mind that Kurtz goes easy, to put a charitable face on it, on the troubled cable network in his Post columns, but that he writes about the perceived lack of ethics in others can only be described as the recklessness of a Man Who May Be Next.
Kurtz, in piece on Jan. 29, repeated the accusation that Post colleague Charles Krauthammer and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol were on the journalism watchdog griddle because they attended—along with several other Beltway Big Thinkers—a White House meeting on Jan. 10 with two Bush officials, and then praised Bush’s inaugural speech. (Kurtz, by the way, seldom breaks any original media news.) Kristol, who enthusiastically backed John McCain in 2000 against Bush, and has advocated the firing of Donald Rumsfeld—which ought to be inoculation enough from the charge that he’s a toady for the administration—says he had nothing to do with the speech.
Kurtz was at it again on Jan. 31, in an article about CNN’s rival, the pitiful MSNBC, and its president, Clinton crony Rick Kaplan. The critic, who doesn’t divulge his CNN connection in the column, perhaps assuming that he’s such a household name that viewers needn’t be bothered with such disclosures, collected both negative and positive quotes about Kaplan, described some of MSNBC’s new shows and cited statistics showing that ratings have gone down during his tenure, just as they have at Fox and CNN. He concludes: “So why isn’t Kaplan talking to the press? Maybe he’s waiting until he has more to brag about.”
CNN’s founder Ted Turner, since banished to the foxhole of his imagination, spiced up a speech at a conference for tv executives on Jan. 25 with more Nazi analogies directed at Fox News. “Adolph Hitler was more popular in Germany in the early 30s,” he said, “than people that were running against him. So just because you’re bigger [than CNN], doesn’t mean you’re right.”
Last weekend, on PBS’s Journal Editorial Report, the Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz, arguably one the five most important journalists of her generation, took a dig at Turner. She said: “Of course Fox has been destroying CNN in the ratings. But, you know, Ted Turner has a very long record on this sort of thing. And the Hitler analogy is vile, whether it’s by Ted Turner, or whether by the political class that threw it around during the election year… I would not be willing to wade into the psychological marshland that is Ted Turner’s mind on the matter of Hitler. But let me just say that the whole thing was worth it this week for the comment that explained all this by the Fox News official who said, ‘Ted is understandably bitter. First he lost his network, then he lost his ratings and now he’s lost his mind.’”
Jonathan Alter was on his high horse in the current Newsweek, offering fatherly advice to bloggers about the responsibilities of journalism. He’s afraid that further outings of conservative pundits on the take will dribble, rather than burst, out, since “Democrats don’t control Congress” and—I doubt Alter’s being ironic—reporters haven’t found the time to unmask the propagandists since they’re “stretched too thin” with the rigors of deadlines and “frequent TV gigs.” Alter’s no stranger to the tube; the nadir of his career, at least in my opinion, was his Turner-like ranting on election night in 2000 when he declared that Al Gore ought to be declared the winner, regardless of the electoral college, because he won the popular vote.
Alter concludes his civics lesson aimed at bloggers, the “pamphleteers” of the modern age (another startlingly original notion), who are “often blinded by bias.” “Journalism should not be a closed shop,” Alter generously notes, “accessible only be the credentialed. Anyone—even Armstrong Williams—can hang out a shingle on a Web page or play a reporter on TV. But with that right comes certain obligations, enforceable only through public ridicule: respect facts, even inconvenient ones; say something critical of the ‘good guys’ once in a while, if only to prove your independence.”
That’s a swell thought, I guess, but would only be taken seriously if Alter didn’t work for Newsweek, which is a primer for bias in the magazine industry.
The Times’ Maureen Dowd, prepping for her inevitable series on the Oscars, did her usual fifth-tier impersonation of Russell Baker (in his prime) on Jan. 27, declaring that she, too, could be bought. But first she savages Williams, who, by this time was held in the same esteem as Jason Giambi. She writes: “Mr. Williams helped out the first President Bush and Clarence Thomas during the Anita Hill scandal. Mr. Williams, who served as Mr. Thomas’ personal assistant at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when the future Supreme Court justice was gutting policies that would help blacks, gleefully attacked Professor Hill, saying, ‘Sister has emotional problems.’”
I can’t wait for Bush to nominate Thomas as William Rehnquist’s replacement as chief justice, not only for the country’s sake, but just to relish Dowd’s reprisal of the ‘91 “scandal” involving Thomas and Hill. It was a scandal, of course, that members of the U.S. Senate could lynch Thomas for the crime of being a black conservative, but I guess that’s now what Dowd has in mind.
But let’s skip to the “funny” parts of her recent column. “I still have Christmas bills to pay. So I’d like to send a message to the administration: THIS SPACE AVAILABLE. I could write about the strong dollar and shrinking deficit. Or defend Torture Boy, I mean, the esteemed and sage Alberto Gonzales.”
If there was anyone in Times management who possessed the keen mind of Gonzales—a reach, I know—Dowd would now be hanging one of Alter’s shingles in Dupont Circle. Maybe with Armstrong Williams.