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Saturday Jul 29, 2006

LiberalOasis Interviews Eric Boehlert, Author of "Lapdogs"

The canon of 21st century media criticism starts with Eric Alterman's "What Liberal Media?" and continues with Eric Boehlert's "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

LiberalOasis recently conducted an email interview with Mr. Boehlert -- whose work is often found at Salon.com and The Huffington Post -- on the state of today's mainstream media. A verbatim transcript follows:

LiberalOasis: What has been the reaction to Lapdogs among working reporters and editors? Knowing nods or cold defensiveness?

Eric Boehlert: A couple knowing nods, but mostly journalists and media outlets have strained mightily to ignore the book and to refuse to address the very troubling questions it raises about what has been a near complete collapse from the Beltway press corps and how it functions under Bush.

My publisher and I knew that if I wrote a book critical of the MSM that it would then be difficult to get the MSM to acknowledge the book, let alone pay attention to it.

That said, we've both been a bit taken back at the MSM's blanket denial about "Lapdogs" and the absolute fear of dealing with the contents of the book.

"Lapdogs" is the classic skunk at the Beltway party. The fact that the book is brimming with facts and footnotes and is impossible to simply dismiss is why the major players have chosen to wish it away.

(My hunch is that "Lapdogs" will never, ever be mentioned in the pages of the New York Times, which normally lavishes attention on the intersection of media and politics. The book, from the Times perspective, does not exist.)

In other words, the MSM's reaction has been utterly predictable and only re-enforced the contents of the book.

LO: What is the root cause of the media's failings?

Political bias among reporters and editors? Corporate conglomerates more concerned about profit margins than good journalism? Excessive intermingling of the political and media classes in Washington?

EB: The two main causes are the fear of the "liberal media" charge, teamed with a clear careerism at play within the Beltway; the clear understanding among savvy players that the surest way to derail a job track is to be identified as overly liberal or caustic towards Republicans.

By contrast, the surest way up the ladder is to strenuously stick to the spoken and unspoken Beltway guidelines that demand Democrats be mocked and Republicans, and especially Karl Rove, be held in awe for this unmatched political skill, despite the fact Bush himself is an historically unpopular two-term president and the Republican-controlled Congress is viewed by the vast majority of Americans as a colossal failure.

LO: Even though Bush's approval ratings mired in the 30s, do you find the mainstream media is still timid of the Administration?

EB: Timidity still reigns.

Just look at the coverage of the on-going Middle East coverage and specifically how the MSM had portrayed Bush during the crisis.

Look to the Newsweek and Time whose recent "Crisis in the Middle East" cover stories strained to depict Bush as a man in motion, a man trying to put out a crisis; and man doing something.

The truth however, was obvious yet less appealing; the Bush White House had decided to do absolutely nothing about the violence and had no plans to do anything.

In fact it actively opposes a cease-fire to stop the killing of innocents on both sides.

That is an absolutely radical foreign policy approach, yet the press refused to spell that out in plain English and instead has bent over backwards to dress it up as something it was not -- i.e. Bush is manically trying to make peace.

That's literally propaganda.

LO: Clearly, there's been a change in the White House press strategy, with Bush holding more press conferences than the last term, and sad sack Scott McClellan replaced with TV/radio personality Tony Snow.

Beyond trying to goose sagging poll numbers, what do you think is the underlying motive behind these shifts? Does the White House now have a friendlier attitude towards the press, or is it part of the same manipulation game?

EB: I still think the White House holds the press in contempt and doesn't think the press serves a unique role in a democracy.

But I think they discovered that its strategy of stiff-arming the press did not work in that it made it difficult for the White House to get its story out, so it had to adjust particularly as Bush's approval rating imploded.

LO: Is the media game rigged against Democrats? Or are there strategies that Democrats could adopt to better grapple with the modern culture of the Washington press corps?

EB: It's partially rigged, but Democrats have to shoulder some of the blame and more importantly have to get a spine and start fighting back against the press.

I'm not suggesting Dems launch a phony, hateful jihad against the press the way the online wing nuts do. But Dems in Washington, D.C. need to cure themselves of the notion that deep down journalists really are the friend of Democrats and that in the end they'll come around.

Gore made that mistake in 2000 (he also fretted way too much about what the editorial page of the New York Times might say about him if his campaign went into attack mode), and Kerry made the mistake in 2004 (assuming the press would pull the curtain back on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hoax.)

Democrats, and particularly the DNC need to understand that it really doesn't matter what it's message is, if it can get through the MSM's distorted Beltway filter than it won't matter.

LO: Slate's Jack Shafer was critical of the thesis of Lapdogs. He wrote:

"I resist the simple arithmetic that states bad TV news coverage and stupid TV commentary equals a 'timid D.C. press corps.' Any convincing critique of the mainstream media ... must take down the two biggest dogs, the New York Times and the Washington Post, which throw more reporters at the political coverage than any other news organizations and provide most of the press corps its marching instructions. On this score, Boehlert doesn't even try."

Is that a fair criticism?

EB: It was a blatantly unfair criticism and I emailed Shafer about it.

I said Jack, I'm looking at the index of "Lapdogs" and it indicates the Washington Post and the New York Times are mentioned on roughly 140 of "Lapdog's" 320 pages, so how on earth can you write I didn't even try to take on the Post and the Times? Really bizarre.

LO: NY Observer's Gabriel Sherman contended that Lapdogs has "contribute[d] to the erosion of the public's faith in our establishment media" which unwittingly serves the interest of whom you deem the "press haters" of the Right.

Are you concerned about negative repercussions from your work?

EB: The Observer review, like the Slate review, really set out to re-assure readers that the MSM is great, there's nothing odd going on. In other words, "Move along folks, nothing to see here." If the reviewers had to ignore what was actually in "Lapdogs," so be it.

For instance as you noted above, the Observer review suggested liberal media critics are just doing what conservative press critics are doing. That, despite the fact that I dedicated an entire chapter explaining how conservative press critics are nothing like those on the right.

But the Observer, like Slate, simply ignored the portions of the book that didn't fit into their narrative. Again, they simply proved the point of my book.

And I actually laughed out loud when I read the portion of the Observer review that basically reprimanded ungrateful liberals because we were only making things worse by criticizing the press.

LO: As saber-rattling with Iran continues, do you think the mainstream media has learned any lessons from its pre-war Iraq reporting, or are conservatives succeeding once again in pressuring the media and distorting the coverage?

EB: The fact that neocons like Bill Kristol and Frank Gaffney continue to waltz in and out of D.C. television studios as foreign policy "experts," despite the fact that they got everything wrong about Iraq, is pretty mind-boggling.

Indeed, there seems to be an almost gentlemen's agreement within the Beltway not to make the neocons feel bad or uncomfortable about being so shockingly wrong about Iraq.

And now they're invited to spread their "wisdom" about the dangers of Iran.

Suffice to say, if liberals had been that wrong about Iraq, they would never see the inside of another Beltway Green Room again.

LO: What should average news consumers do to help improve mainstream media coverage and counter the efforts of conservative "press haters?"

EB: Consumers need to be in touch with journalists, and hold them accountable factually. Let the wing nuts send out the hate emails calling reporters Godless traitors, etc.

Progressives (i.e adults) ought to stick to the facts and forcefully demand journalists' work live up to longtime industry standards.

LO: To end on a positive note: who is the most underrated mainstream media reporter?

EB: I like David Shuster at MSNBC.

Not because he breaks the mold or hates the White House or anything like that. (He doesn't.) It's just that he doesn't seem to be afraid of the facts and the consequences of reporting them.

It's pretty basic, but in today's Beltway environment, simply doing the fundamentals makes you stand out journalistically. Sad but true.

Posted by Bill Scher on Jul 29, 2006 email post email Spotlight / / You are in Media
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