Wednesday, February 18, 2004
Netizens, start your engines.
Now that the four-year-old Bush AWOL story has broken through the mainstream media filter, now that Washington journalists are widely characterized as cowed, intimidated and bullied by a White House that threatens to deny them access -- now is the time to begin this blog.
Would you be surprised to learn that (as White House reporters are browbeaten daily) a seat in the fourth row of the WH briefing room is occupied by a volunteer for a rinky-dink right-wing "news service" whose reporters include a personal trainer, a scout camp director, an aerospace employee, and a high-school student? This volunteer, credentialed by the White House, is a denizen of the barely credible web forum freerepublic.com. Read down; this gets worse.
And so this blog begins.
It has a GOAL and a MISSION -- separate, yet somehow related, and equal in importance.
The GOAL is to develop and promote a citizens bill of rights that will compel the White House to communicate with the American people through its intended representatives -- the designated community of journalists -- in a way that transcends any party affiliation or political agenda.
The MISSION is to display the genius of netizens in the most obscure and transitory places of the Internet, especially as they have developed a national sub-conversation that honors democratic values, yearns for transparency, integrity and meaning in government, and pulses with an ardent desire for an American supremacy that has nothing to do with empire or greed and everything to do with human progress and enlightenment. I'll turn to this mission in a few days.
A citizens bill of rights for White House coverage is necessary because the domination of the government over the Washington press corps has allowed anti-democratic and divisive policies to harm our land and the world.
The American press, tasked only with sufficiently informing the people that they may choose leaders who will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, has failed them. The result has been a near coup against a sitting president, a de facto coup through the appointment of George W. Bush, attacks on the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights, usurpation of powers to the executive branch, and an illegal war.
Many bright pundits and authors have correctly chronicled the bullying of the press by this White House. The problem is always stated as the bugaboo of access. The message is this: Yo, reporter. Get uppity and do your job as watchdog for the people's interests, and you're on ignore. Get really uppity and you'll be getting diatribes on the phone and so will your boss!
Robert Kuttner writes:
"...the White House staff works systematically to isolate reporters who do ask impertinent questions, by denying them access. It hammers their editors and producers. Until now, these pressure tactics have caused many reporters to pull their punches." KuttnerProspect
Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect blast the resulting intimidation of the correspondents:
"Come now. This isn't Pacifica Radio we're discussing here. These are the largest, richest, most powerful media corporations in the world, billion-dollar babies with plenty of resources at their disposal. What's one presidential administration to them? In time, Bush will be back in Crawford swatting Titleists. The Sulzbergers and the Grahams, to say nothing of General Electric and AOL Time Warner, will never be removed from office. That their journalists in Washington -- with a small but still significant number of admirable exceptions -- have quietly caved in to these conditions may or may not be unethical, but it is disgraceful. That the owners have let it happen will be their shameful legacy." alterman
And David Shaw's review of the relationship between the White House and the correspondents is a must-read. latimesshaw
The repeated citing of access as the reason for news withholding begs the question: Why is no one in the big wide world of journalism doing anything to free the press from this perceived stranglehold -- a hold that makes the WH political director and the press secretary nothing more than domestic dominatrices?
It wasn't always this way.
It doesn't have to be this way.
And there's precedent for another way.
The locus of the trouble can be traced back to the end of World War Two, when -- for some apparently short-sighted reason -- the power to credential journalists was transferred from the White House Correspondents Association to the White House press office. White House Correspondents Association It is this transfer of the credentialing process that puts the whip in the hand of the White House. Returning the credentialing to a strengthened White House Correspondents Association would immediately diminish the ability of the White House political apparatus to bully reporters.
Eric Alterman quotes Ken Auletta's recent story in the New Yorker (not available on the Internet):
"In the Bush White House, meanwhile, journalists have been forced to do their jobs under profoundly onerous conditions. In his much-discussed January 19 New Yorker article, Ken Auletta detailed the multiple ways in which the Bush administration has successfully shackled reporters. Among the straitjacket techniques detailed there and elsewhere: limited (or no) access, interviews granted on restrictive terms, rare presidential press conferences, and substance-less 'availabilities' in which reporters get to ask Bush two or three questions, which they have been told had best relate to the topic Bush wants to discuss. The reporters described by Auletta's diligent reporting seem to believe themselves all but powerless to resist."
Just up Pennsylvania Avenue, a different dynamic exists in the Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondence. The press organizations covering Congress have tremendous power because their sole ability to extend press credentials is codified. This liberating fact provides precedent for the restoration of credentialing to the WHCA.
Let's take a look at the bogeyman of credentialing practiced by this Bush White House. Let's go back to the fourth-row seat designated for the news service mentioned above -- Talon News Service.
The nine volunteer "reporters" of Talon News Service are available for your inspection at Talon. The roster includes (as mentioned above) a high-school student who cites as favorite reading the fundamentalist Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest; a "reporter" who dutifully lists his work history as "cleaning my family's bar" and sometime camp director; a personal trainer; an aerospace engineer; and a couple of self-proclaimed freelancers.
The Talon reporter assigned to cover the White House is Jeff Gannon, whose product from this plum position is a one-minute daily webcast on Talon's site and a weekly broadcast over the radiofreerepublic.com network. Freerepublic.com is the faded home-base of the Clinton haters; a message board where some dirty tricks against liberals are hatched (the recent bogus photo of Kerry and Fonda originated there) and a whole lot of blind Bush-kissing continues. Freerepublic's shrill, extremist rallies in Washington attract only a handful of people.
Talon News Service is obviously a silly and kooky wannabe outfit. And yet a precious seat in the fourth row of the White House briefing room is Gannon's. He boasts on freerepublic about asking questions designed to elicit "gasps" from the real correspondents.
How and why did Talon gain permission to access White House briefings while the same White House threatened denial of access to correspondents from media giants NBC and CNN and The Washington Post? And doesn't Talon's inclusion cement the critical need for reporters to be credentialed through peer review?
The White House press hasn't always been cowed. It doesn't have to be this way, and there is precedent for another way.
And yet (again) there is no apparent effort by journalists to remedy the problem of intimidation and manipulation by political operatives and agents of the opinion shapers.
Eric Alterman provides several recommendations to the correspondents in his most recent column:
1. Go beyond the "he said, she said" and tell us what you believe to be true and important about a story.
2. Challenge the master narrative with genuine investigative reporting.
3. Show proportionality in covering controversies.
4. A little solidarity on behalf of the truth, please.
5. Don't let non-news organs drive the news cycle.
And there does exist a Citizens Bill of Journalism Rights, a thoughtful document prepared by the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ). The principles of this document are these:
- Proof that the journalists' first loyalty is to citizens.
- That journalists maintain independence from those they cover.
- That journalists will monitor power and give voice to the voiceless.
- A forum for public criticism and problem solving.
- News that is proportional and relevant.
As valuable as they are, neither journeyman hints to reporters nor the CCJ document can solve the problem of a punitive, manipulative, secretive White House abusing the members of the press.
Enter the GOAL of this blog.
The Peoples' Bill of Rights for White House Transparency (working title for a document in progress).
1. The White House Correspondents Association shall be the sole credentialing authority for entry to press events and briefings.
2. The president shall appear before the White House press corps for a regularly scheduled monthly conference of no less than two hours.
3. Questions will be asked of the president in an order to be determined by the White House Correspondents Association.
4. No questions will be submitted in advance to White House employees. No suggestions for questions will be communicated from the White House to reporters.
5. No credentialed members of the press will be denied access to any press event except by the decision of the White House Correspondents Association.
6. Members of the White House press shall not accept faxes, phone calls, e-mails or other communications from the political office of the WH, from political campaigns, from the RNC, the DNC, or lobbyists or other politics-based agents, unless the reporter has initiated the contact. Such entities may provide copy of any background material to a WHCA library where it will be available for reporters.
7. There shall be no contact between political advisors to the White House and reporters for the purpose of punishing members of the press for their coverage. If the White House has a complaint, it shall be made in writing by the press secretary and submitted to the White House Correspondents Association, with any remedy or admonishment to be made by the Association to the correspondent in question.
We might even include something tangential:
8. There shall not be any disinformation issued about the whereabouts of the president and members of his cabinet, except as approved and communicated by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Well, you're getting the idea. It's a work in progress. Suggestions gladly accepted.
Some may say that any such delineation of responsibilities and prohibitions borders on First Amendment issues. Nonsense. The goal is transparency. The intent of the measures is to strengthen the power of the press and free it to inform the people without any sort of political encumbrance, no matter the ideology of the bully.
Others may say that no entity exists with the authority to force such measures on the White House. That's possible at this time. But I dare anyone to stand in the way of the American people if they desire such a change. (If the Republicans had thought of such a document that could force Bill Clinton to break certain silences, they would have found a way to make it happen.)
Indeed, Bills of Rights have been adopted by Congress with the intent to regulate other professions and businesses and agencies. Patients rights. Consumer rights.
The goal for the GOAL is to devise a finished and polished document (with feedback from the Internet community) and then to promote the proposal in some broad way that will also reach those who do not get information from the Internet.
Better blogware will be needed soon, to facilitate the interactive intent. If you already want to sponsor this effort in any small way, Paypal support is welcome -- user name firstname.lastname@example.org. Correspondence is also accepted there.
The goal for the MISSION is to begin to showcase the heartfelt work of netizens. Starting in just days.
(content copyrighted -- may copy and distribute with URL and credit)