Friday, April 27, 2007

Great moments in journalism 

Remember the New York Times' Elizabeth Bulmiller describing that great moment in journalism, why the press didn't ask Bush anything at his March 2003 press conference?
"We were very deferential becauseā€¦it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."
And now we have a treasure trove of more great moments in journalism, from yesterday's TV show Bill Moyers Journal: Buying the War
First, here's one of those hard-hitting questions which some reporter actually did have the courage to ask at that Presidential press conference:
APRIL: How is your faith guiding you?
PRESIDENT BUSH: My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance.
Now here's some reminiscing about Big Brother, from the CEO of CNN:
WALTER ISAACSON: There was a patriotic fervor and the administration used it so that if you challenged anything you were made to feel that there was something wrong with that . . . And there was even almost a patriotism police which, you know, they'd be up there on the internet sort of picking anything a Christiane Amanpour, or somebody else would say as if it were disloyal.
Meanwhile, over at CBS, they really were trying to do stories on the Bush administration's push for war, but without actually being too... well, you know, critical:
BOB SIMON (60 MINUTES): And I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it in a way almost light, if that doesn't seem ridiculous.
BILL MOYERS: Going to war, "almost light"?
BOB SIMON: Not to-- not to present it as a frontal attack on the administration's claims. Which would have been not only premature, but we didn't have the ammunition to do it at the time. We did not know then that there were no mass-- weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
We only knew that the connection the administration was making between Saddam and Al Qaeda was very tenuous at best and that the argument it was making over the aluminum tubes seemed highly dubious. We knew these things. And therefore we could present the Madison Avenue campaign on these things. Which was a-- sort of softer, less confrontational way of doing it
BILL MOYERS: Did you go to any of the brass at CBS-- even at 60 MINUTES-- and say, "Look, we gotta dig deeper. We gotta connect the dots. This isn't right.
BOB SIMON: No in all-- in all honesty, with a thousand Mea Culpas-- I've done a few stories in Iraq. But-- nope I don't think we followed up on this.
There was even a quota system for talking to war opponents:
PHIL DONOHUE: You could have the supporters of the President alone. And they would say why this war is important. You couldn't have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.
BILL MOYERS: You're kidding.
PHIL DONOHUE: No this is absolutely true-
BILL MOYERS: Instructed from above?
PHIL DONOHUE: Yes . . . there's just a terrible fear. And I think that's the right word.
BILL MOYERS: Eric Sorenson, who was the president of MSNBC, told the NEW YORK TIMES quote: "Any misstep and you can get into trouble with these guys and have the patriotism police hunt you down."
PHIL DONOHUE: He's the management guy. So his phone would ring. Nobody's going to call Donahue and tell him to shut up and support the war. Nobody's that foolish. It's a lot more subtle than that.
And what is Tim Russert's excuse? He says it's all our fault, not his. Somebody shouldda called him and told him the real story:
BILL MOYERS: Critics point to September eight, 2002 and to your show in particular, as the classic case of how the press and the government became inseparable. Someone in the administration plants a dramatic story in the NEW YORK TIMES [the one about the aluminum tubes] And then the Vice President comes on your show and points to the NEW YORK TIMES. It's a circular, self-confirming leak.
TIM RUSSERT: I don't know how Judith Miller and Michael Gordon reported that story, who their sources were. It was a front-page story of the NEW YORK TIMES. When Secretary Rice and Vice President Cheney and others came up that Sunday morning on all the Sunday shows, they did exactly that . . . What my concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.
Or maybe is really all the Democrats' fault....yeah, that's it, its the Democrats!
BILL MOYERS: What do you make of the fact that of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department?
TIM RUSSERT: It's important that you have a-- an oppos-- opposition party. That's our system of government.
BILL MOYERS: So, it's not news unless there's somebody-
TIM RUSSERT: No, no, no. I didn't say that. But it's important to have an opposition party, your opposit-- opposing views.
Because that's what journalists do, after all -- search out those opposing views and make sure the public knows the whole story. Or, rather, that's what they WOULD do, if only it wasn't so much work . . .

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