Notebook — From the September 2008 issue

Elegy for a Rubber Stamp

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Speaking truth to power doesn’t make successful Sunday-morning television, leads to “jealousy, upsets, persecution,” doesn’t draw a salary of $5 million a year. The notion that journalists were once in the habit of doing so we borrow from the medium of print, from writers in the tradition of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, 

H. L. Mencken, I. F. Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Walter Karp, who assumed that what was once known as “the press” received its accreditation as a fourth estate on the theory that it represented the interests of the citizenry as opposed to those of the government. Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession.

On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless. Like Russert, who served his apprenticeship as an aide-de-camp to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, most of the prominent figures in the Washington press corps (among them George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Karl Rove) began their careers as bagmen in the employ of a dissembling politician or a corrupt legislature. Regarding themselves as de facto members of government, enabling and codependent, their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock-market touts as “securitizing the junk.” When requesting explanations from secretaries of defense or congressional committee chairmen, they do so with the understanding that any explanation will do. Explain to us, my captain, why the United States must go to war in Iraq, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of one or two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why K-Street lobbyists produce the paper that Congress passes into law, and we will show that the reasons are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be suspicious or scornful. Together with the television camera that sees but doesn’t think, we’re here to watch, to fall in with your whims and approve your injustices. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your vices in the rosebushes of salacious gossip and clothe your crimes in the aura of inspirational anecdote.

I don’t doubt that Russert was as good at the game as anybody in Washington, but why the five-star goodbye? Why the scattering of incense for a journalist who so prided himself on being in the loop that off-camera he assured his informed sources that nothing they said was on the record? For a second-tier talk-show host, his audience a fraction of the size of Rush Limbaugh’s or Howard Stern’s, whose stock in trade was the deftly pulled punch? Why a requiem mass for a pet canary?

The production values were so far out of line with the object of their affections that the memorial services collapsed into absurdity. Unless, of course, the mistake was to think of the proceedings as somehow Christian in character and intent, a variation on the singing of a Te Deum in the National Cathedral instead of as something more along the lines of Homer’s Greek heroes sacrificing a milk-white bull to Apollo. Seen as pagan ritual, even the highlight reels made sense. The Washington news media worship at the altars of divine celebrity, and maybe they begin to suspect that despite the promise of their ceaseless self-promotions they are not immortal, their market share hitting new lows, their audiences drifting away to Comedy Central and the blogs. How then to regain the favor of the god in whose image they believe themselves created? With the offering of a precious gift, and what could be more precious than “the ideal American journalist,” a “basic old American patriot,” and the “friend to millions of people”? Before leading the animal to slaughter, the old Greeks dusted its horns with gold.

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