Sunday January 20th, 2013
By Barrie Dunsmore
This past week, the PBS documentary program FRONTLINE was a retrospective of President Barack Obama’s first term. As are many of its programs, it was written and directed by Michael Kirk, someone I like personally and whose work I respect. This latest broadcast was a businesslike presentation of the obvious high and low lights of Obama’s first four years. It contained no glaring errors of fact and I am sure met all of PBS’s requirements that it be fair and balanced – which was precisely the problem.
Early in the narrative, we were told that on the evening of the very day Obama was inaugurated, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican House Leader Eric Cantor and several other top G.O.P. house and senate leaders met to have dinner and to lament their new status in the wake of the clean sweep Democrats had achieved in the November 2008 election.
But after much soul-searching, we were told they left in a buoyant mood because they had settled on a brilliant strategy- they would just say no. They didn’t then have the votes in the House to block legislation but in the senate they had the filibuster. And no matter what, no Republican would vote for any program proposed by the new president and his party- no matter what it contained or how good it was for country. And in this case they were true to their word.
Just saying no was a cynical strategy but it worked. The rest of the PBS program became mostly an examination of Obama’s failures, especially his failure to achieve the bipartisanship he had promised during his election campaign. According to this line of thinking, Obama shares equal blame with Republicans for the fact that Washington is totally paralyzed by partisan gridlock. Among some in the mainstream media Obama may deserve even more than equal responsibility because he is, after all, the president and somehow must possess special magic powers. He should be a better negotiator. And if only he would schmooze more with Republicans –who by the way continued to publicly state that their number one priority was to make him a one term president and acted accordingly- he would have been able to make Washington work.
This notion that both political parties are equally to blame for America’s dysfunctional government has been the theme, not just of this FRONTLINE program, but of most political reporting of the past four years. And I would argue, by essentially ignoring the reasons for the partisan gridlock, the main stream media has failed in its most essential task - to keep the American people adequately informed.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Two of this country’s most respected congressional scholars, who over several decades established a reputation not only for their expertise but for their bipartisanship, wrote this in their latest book. “However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”
That paragraph is from the introduction of a book titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Since its publication last year, I and lots of others have written about it. But I have noticed that a book of such significance did not seem to get a great deal of attention in the mainstream media. While the Washington Post gave it big play when it came out I have seen little if any mention of it in the New York Times. And apparently, according to recent interviews with the authors, their advice to the news media offered in the book’s conclusions, was neither appreciated nor heeded.
For nearly a decade, Dan Froomkin, wrote or edited the White House Watch column for the Washington Post website. Last month, in a blog for the Huffington Post, Froomkin wrote, “It is hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy. They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington….and now they are virtual pariahs.” According to Mr. Mann, “I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now think I’ve made the case for Democrats and therefore I have to be balanced with a Republican.”
In the final chapter of the Mann-Ornstein book, this was part of their advice to the news media, which owners and editors (and some top reporters too) evidently consider offensive:
(The media).."should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don’t treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way. Our advice: don’t seek professional safety through the unfiltered presentation of opposing views…..What’s the real story? Who is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages at what risks and to what ends?”
Mann and Ornstein are no longer invited to talk to leaders of news organizations. But if they were, this is part of what Mr. Ornstein says he would like to add. “I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What is the whole notion of a free press if you’re not going to report without fear or favor, what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth? If you don’t do that, you can expect a growing drumbeat of criticism that you’re failing in your fundamental responsibility.” Indeed they are.
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