The Mainstream Media And Its (Continuing) Discontents

The political right and the political left disagree on a lot these days. But when it comes to their deep dissatisfaction with the establishment media, they march arm-in-arm. Throughout this summer of tea party demonstrations and town hall discontent, conservatives have complained about being unfairly depicted as wingnuts by the mainstream media. Now the liberals are getting in their whacks, courtesy of an upcoming book by former Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge.

In his memoir, "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege . . . and How We Can Be Safe Again," Ridge asserts that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft pressured him to raise the terror alert threat level just prior to the 2004 elections. If true, this would confirm the worst fears of those Bush administration critics, who are still (rightfully) upset about the media's failure to aggressively challenge the former President's rationale for going to war in Iraq in 2003.

So what does it say about lessons learned when CNN assembles a roundtable to discuss the charges featuring former Bush-era officials, David Frum and Frances Townsend. Nobody from the left. Nobody from the center. Just a couple of neocons dropping by to tell Wolf Blitzer why Ridge is out to lunch.

Before you accuse Ridge of trying to hype his book, let's recall that he previously questioned the Bush administration's justifications for ordering high alerts for terrorist attacks in a very public way back in 2005. "More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it .. Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, `For that?' " he told reporters at the time.

Writing about Ridge's revelations, Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic - he's also a CBS News' chief political consultant - issued a retroactive mea culpa in a post about the sometimes tempestuous relationship between professional reporters and their critics on the left.

"Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence. [Addition: That's a hasty generalization. Many of the loudest voices were reflexively anti-Bush, but I can't accurately describe the motivations of everyone, much less a majority, of those who were skeptical. There were plenty of non-liberals who believed that the terror threats were exaggerated.] But journalists should have been even more skeptical about the administration's pronouncements. And yet -- we, too, weren't privy to the intelligence. Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit."

He touched a nerve. It didn't take long for the blowback. Marcy Wheeler's headline was Ambinder: Sorry I Was So Stupid But I Was Right To Be Stupid while Glen Greenwald in Salon offered a more nuanced but equally hard-hitting look at the shortcomings of the mainstream media.

"Evidence of manipulation) existed in abundance; you had to suffer from some form of moral, intellectual or emotional blindness not to see it. It's because they didn't want to see it, because -- as Ambinder said -- they trusted the Bush administration as good and decent people who might err but would never do anything truly dishonest. It's because only loser Leftist ideologues distrusted Bush officials and the overriding goal of establishment journalists is to prove that they are not like them, that they're much more Serious and responsible and thus would never attribute bad motives to government leaders such as those who ran the Bush administration."

"That's the same reason most establishment journalists instinctively oppose investigations of Bush officials: the people who rule over their Washington court may make mistakes, but they never do anything dishonest or criminal. They certainly don't blatantly lie. These journalists are the anti-I.F. Stones. And that's why political leaders know they can get away with blatant lying and lawbreaking."


But we deserve to get worked over. There's no argument that the run-up to the Iraq war will go down as a low point in the history of the 4th Estate. What with embarrassments like the New York Times' wildly inaccurate pieces about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, does it matter that the voices who urged a second look at the WMD claims often were loud or - according to some dainty folks - obnoxious? They turned out to be right. We're reminded of that each time another name gets added to the casualty list from Iraq.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.