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(The Guardian, January 13, 2003)
Where are the pointy-head liberals now? The change can be summed up in Woodward's own career. As the Watergate investigator, he not merely protected his sources, he glamorised them. Now, still on the Post staff, he functions as a semi-official court stenographer to the Bush White House. And it is notable that those who talk to him - such as the president himself - always play the heroic role in his stories. . . . In the American press, day after day, the White House controls the agenda. The supposedly liberal American press has become a dog that never bites, hardly barks but really loves rolling over and having its tummy tickled. . . . Day after day, rightwing radio talk hosts dominate the airwaves, deriding opponents and cutting off callers who argue. . . . On TV Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, pursuing a thinly disguised rightwing agenda, has taken over the No 1 cable news spot from CNN; Bill O'Reilly, the host of its flagship show, makes Limbaugh seem wishy-washy. An attempt by the No 3 channel, MSNBC, to counter this with a liberal alternative by bringing the old master Phil Donohue out of retirement has been an embarrassing failure. . . . "It's not that the press is uncritical of the people it covers," says Steven Weisman, the New York Times's chief diplomatic correspondent, "but it's critical the way a sportswriter is critical, calling the points and measuring success or failure based on wherever the administration wants to be. So in a situation like this, when the administration is set on waging a war, is enacting its programme and is winning seats at elections, then in a funny way the press becomes like a ga-ga sportswriter. Except for scandals, the press is unable to set the agenda in this country." . . . Only about a dozen cities still have competing newspapers, and even there the competition is usually notional: either the main paper - as in Washington and Los Angeles - is so dominant it can ignore the opposition or the papers have joint operating agreements to cut costs. The major papers are so fat with ads they hardly notice that circulation is drifting ever downwards. The pressure on editors is not to increase sales but to maintain the industry's phenomenal record of profitability, which is not quite the same thing. . . . And political courage is especially rare. reporters in Washington are kept in line by the standard threat: annoy us, and your stories dry up. . . . In the face of this, only one White House reporter, Dana Milbank of the Post, regularly employs scepticism and irreverence in his coverage of the Bush administration - he is said to dodge the threats because he is regarded as an especially engaging character. It is more mysterious that only the tiniest handful of liberal commentators ever manage to irritate anyone in the government: there is Paul Krugman in the New York Times, Molly Ivins down in Texas and, after that, you have to scratch your head. . . . Even that cannot explain how the papers cravenly ignored the Trent Lott story. Lott, the veteran senator from Mississippi, made his pro- segregation statement on a Thursday, in full earshot of the Washington press corps. The Times and Post both failed to mention it. Indeed, it was almost totally ignored until the following Tuesday, kept alive until then only by a handful of bloggers. If there is a Watergate scandal lurking in this administration, it is unlikely to be Woodward or his colleagues who will tell us about it. If it emerges, it will probably come out on the web. That is a devastating indictment of the state of American newspapers.

posted by Lorenzo 5:37 PM

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