The Woodstein Myth Is Dead
Corruption is king.
Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 17, 2000 edition of National Review Online
By Tim Graham
Many of us who grew up in the 1970s had it drubbed into our heads that journalism is a heroic profession that roots out corruption and wins the day for democracy. Its popular-culture zenith was the movie All the President's Men, in which our cinematic heroes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein saved the day for democracy by exposing the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. Unstated in this carefully calibrated myth is that corruption never roamed the country when John Kennedy was elected in 1960 with the help of vote fraud in Texas and Illinois, or when Lyndon Johnson brought his vulgar appetites for power to bear on a Democrat-dominated Washington. (Grab a dog-eared copy of Victor Lasky's It Didn't Start with Watergate if you're too young to remember, like I am.)
In the 1980s, the national media once again celebrated itself as the slayer of the "sleaze factor," the guardians of the nation's political ethics. Iran-Contra was to be elevated into a crisis in which Daniel Inouye and Warren Rudman saved the Constitution from Ronald Reagan's depredations. But throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the Woodstein myth is dead, a corpse beaten beyond recognition. Over the last eight years, the media have downplayed every scandalous revelation, mangled every corruption allegation into a morass of moral equivalence, and portrayed undeniably corrupt people (start with Webster Hubbell or Susan McDougal) as sympathetic victims of shadowy prosecutors who sing hymns as they jog. Corruption is king, and the media are a very callous palace court. Woodward and Bernstein buried this myth themselves by responding to the Clinton scandals with Carvillesque derision and lame excuses.
It may dismay us, but it should not surprise us, that the media have treated this current impasse with this same morally upside-down interpretation. Those who insist on following the letter of the law are presented as arbitrary and partisan. Those who insist on changing the rules arbitrarily to match their advantage are presented as the forces of fairness and deliberation.
Just this morning, ABC's Charles Gibson was pressing the case of the dimpled-chad brigades of Palm Beach County as the forces of fairness. He asked Florida Agricultural Commissioner Bob Crawford: "To declare that [the race is certified as a Bush victory], but wouldn't that be terribly awkward if you got into a situation where these counties produced a different result than you've certified over the weekend?" Gibson's question doesn't consider that perhaps the awkward-looking side ought to be the side that's still attempting to recount Gore into the winner's circle ten days after the election is over.
Typically, the media also cannot be counted on to referee the tone coming out of the Gore campaign, even though Gore claimed on Wednesday night that he wants both sides to calm down. Last night on MSNBC, reporter Chip Reid told Brian Williams: "If they do not succeed here, there was some interesting, even chilling talk today, I thought, from the Gore campaign. I talked to some aides there. One said that if George Bush does win, and win with the help of Katherine Harris, and Katherine Harris, they believe, will throw more road blocks in the way, and will do everything in her power to certify the election in favor of George Bush, and do everything in her power to make sure that that happens, they said that if George Bush does get into office with her help, the investigation into her role and this entire situation will make Whitewater look like a picnic. So they are already planning for the possibility that they lose here, and this turns into some kind of massive investigation after the fact. The ugliness would continue long after this is over." This revelation didn't even make the first hour of NBC's Today Show this morning.
The networks aren't buzzing about what conservatives are buzzing about: Gore flack Paul Begala's shameful commentary on MSNBC.com suggesting that Bush states are in red because those are the states where James Byrd was dragged to death, where the gay men Matthew Shepard and Barry Winchell were beaten to death, and where "neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color." Is that Gore's dream of stepping down the rhetoric?
In a typical media laugh line, Ted Koppel began a Nightline last August by complaining that Clinton's low personal approval ratings would mar Gore's reputation. "Al Gore has been perhaps the most active vice president in American history, and there's not a hint of scandal associated with Gore's personal behavior." If media stars like Koppel can tell people to ignore the illegal Buddhist Temple fundraising, the iced-tea toilet excusing, the Warnecke house pot-smoking, the Vietnam-with-a-bodyguard touring, the Tennessee tenant-trashing, the Internet-inventor boasting, the Farrakhan finessing, and the secret Russia-to-Iran arms dealing, to list a few, certainly they can ignore the Harris trashing and the election stealing.
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