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2006-06-07

How the Press Rolled Over for Bush: Media Critic Eric Boehlert Takes on the Corporate Media

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We speak with journalist Eric Boehlert about his new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush." In it he argues that the mainstream media essentially gave up its role as defenders of the public interest and instead succumbed to pressure from the Bush White House and the conservative right. [includes rush transcript]

We take a look at media coverage of the war, the Bush administration and other issues that have or should have made headlines during the last six years.

Journalist Eric Boehlert argues in his new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush" that the mainstream media essentially gave up its role as defenders of the public interest and instead succumbed to pressure from the Bush White House and the conservative right. Bohelert writes that the reasons for this were many including a "consolidated media landscape in which owners were increasingly — almost exclusively — multinational corporations; the same corporations anxious to win approval from the Republican -controlled federal government to allow for even further ownership consolidation. The press timidity was also fueled by the Republicans" tight grip on Congress...and the mainstream media’s natural tendency to revere Beltway power...The timidity was also driven by Beltway careerism; by media insiders who understood that despite the cliché about the liberal media, advancement to senior positions was actually made doubly difficult for anyone with a reputation for being too far left, or too caustic toward Republicans."

Boehlert argues that the administration used a variety of tactics to undermine and control the press including curbing access, bullying reporters, hyping terror alerts, paying off pundits and producing fake newsreels or VNRs.

  • Eric Boehlert, journalist and contributing editor to Rolling Stone Magazine. He is a former senior writer for Salon and author of the new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

RUSH TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: Eric Boehlert, welcome.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: What were these tactics?

ERIC BOEHLERT: Well, I think the Bush administration came in with a very clear, sort of push-back agenda versus the press. They really broke with modern tradition that the press was going to sort of act in the public interest and act on behalf of the public. Bush was going to essentially walk away from press conferences, for instance, the fewest press conferences of any President in modern history. They really didn’t even seem to — they didn’t even really feign interest in having sort of an open dialogue with the press. There was all sorts of restrictions on the information. There were sort of veiled threats about — in terms of reporters early on who showed that they were going to be sort of aggressive. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer famously noted that one sort of tough question at a White House briefing had been "noted in the building." That sort of set the tone early on, and I think they just continued with the sort of pushback agenda against the press.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the close personal relationship between reporters and the people they cover.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Name some names.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Well, I point out in the book, that’s not new. I mean, you know, Ben Bradley, when he was the editor of the Washington Post was John F. Kennedy’s neighbor and close confidant for years so that’s been going on inside the beltway for a long time. But I think recently the titanic shift in terms of how the press has dealt with this White House compared to the last one I thought maybe it offered some clues as to sort of this shrieking timidity.

I looked at, for instance, Ted Koppel and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Good friends, you know. They don’t really talk about it, but if you’re in the beltway, you know from sort of these roast dinners that they’re very good friends. They hang out together, which is interesting, but then I went back and looked after Colin Powell gave his famous U.N. presentation right before the war, a presentation that has been sort of even dismissed by him as sort of a fiasco and an embarrassment. A year after that he gave three sit-down, exclusive interviews with Ted Koppel. His presentation to the U.N. literally never came up. I mean, Ted Koppel asked him 60 questions over three exclusive interviews and they simply did not talk about what was Colin Powell’s most embarrassing episode. Bob Schieffer was a good friend of President Bush. Bob Schieffer’s brother was a former business partner with President Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: An ambassador?

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right, Got exclusive interviews when Bush was governor. Bob Schieffer talked about in his book, The History of Face the Nation, how proud he was of an interview Bush gave "Face the Nation" during the New Hampshire primaries, so it was almost sort of like a father-son relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: This is particularly interesting given that Dan Rather was forced out of his position as anchor and Schieffer replaced him.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right, when Dan Rather was forced out, the head of CBS announced, you know, "The White House," you know, "doesn’t hate CBS anymore" because they have Bob Schieffer in the anchor chair. I mean, that’s not to say Bob Schieffer isn’t a professional journalist and doesn’t do a relatively decent job, but he’s very close with the Bush administration, and I think it sort of gives some — it offers some signs as to explain this really bizarre behavior that we’ve seen over the last five or six years.

AMY GOODMAN: Other journalists?

ERIC BOEHLERT: Who else do I talk about? Well, Tim Russert is famous for his closeness with the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys. He’s had exclusive access, almost exclusive access, to Dick Cheney for the first four years in terms of "Meet the Press."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you know, you talk about him being famous for this and all these different journalists and relationships. Most people in the country know nothing about this.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Yeah. As I point out in the book, if you’re not part of the beltway culture, if you don’t follow it professionally, you don’t know that these people are all sort of having cocktails and hanging out and buddy, buddy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about this, because you point out in the book, the whole interaction in the debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney, the vice presidential debate

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right, right, right. It was one of the famous moments from the vice presidential debate. Dick Cheney, his big one-liner that night was when John Kerry walked onto the debate stage —

AMY GOODMAN: Edwards

ERIC BOEHLERT: I’m sorry — Edwards walked onto the debate stage. Dick Cheney said, "This is the first time I’ve ever met you," and the clear implication was that Edwards was a, you know, total newcomer, wasn’t up to the vice president’s — for the job. But he had met him. As we learned almost immediately after the debate, they had met three previous times, and one of the times was on "Meet The Press." But right after the debate, Tim Russert goes on TV and talks about the debate, talks about this putdown that Cheney had unleashed on Edwards and never explains that they met on his show, and he knew they met on his show, and he just sort of played dumb all night while people talked about Dick Cheney’s sort of devastating putdown. It just doesn’t make any sense. If you know that, why don’t you talk about it? And again, at the time Russert had incredibly good access to Dick Cheney and the White House so maybe that explains why he sort of looked the other way.

AMY GOODMAN: You also write about Gwen Ifill and Condoleezza Rice.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right, they are good friends. Condoleezza Rice said at a function, talked about how they’d had dinner together, and Gwen Ifill was such a great cook, and this was right at the time when Condoleezza Rice was in — got in trouble for not being up to speed, not reading an entire N.I.E. report. This was the whole Joe Wilson, aluminum tubes from Africa, and her explanation at the time was, 'well, I didn't read the whole report,’ but within weeks she had told Gwen Ifill two completely different explanations. But Gwen Ifill didn’t ask her the obvious follow-up question: 'Did you read the report or did you not?' And again, the fact that they’re buddies and have a close social friendship, maybe it explains it. I don’t know what else explains the sort of timidity that we’ve seen.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Boehlert, you most recently wrote about Wen Ho Lee and the settlement that’s gotten almost no attention. Can you briefly explain the significance of this for people who don’t even know what the case was about?

ERIC BOEHLERT: Wen Ho Lee was charged with being essentially a spy for the Chinese, and the case was brought —

AMY GOODMAN: Los Alamos scientist

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right, a Los Alamos scientist. This was in 1999, and it was brought front and center by the New York Times, who went overboard, incredibly aggressive coverage about how he had stolen the crown jewels, etc., etc. The case crumbled. All but one of the charges was thrown out. The federal judge apologized to Wen Ho Lee on behalf of the government, completely railroaded.

AMY GOODMAN: He had been held in solitary confinement for months.

ERIC BOEHLERT: For almost a year.

AMY GOODMAN: In New Mexico.

ERIC BOEHLERT: And so he filed a private civil suit. He’s trying to find out who from the government leaked to the press about him being a target, personal information about him, and his lawyers wanted to go to the reporters and find out. It was another one of these sort of showdowns over subpoenas, and eventually, last week five major news organizations settled with the government, hand in hand with the government, and agreed to pay Wen Ho lee $1.6 million. Unprecedented, a, for any media company to pay a lawsuit like this to go away in terms of the First Amendment, and also unprecedented to team up with the government, but as I wrote, it was only fitting since they had teamed up to smear him in 1999. So it was fitting that they teamed up to sort of make the whole thing go away.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Eric Boehlert. His new book is called Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. You also talk about the Valerie Plame case.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And the — what you describe as just a serious abrogation of the media to cover this while the government investigated.

ERIC BOEHLERT: It’s the most serious — it’s become the most serious criminal investigation of the Bush administration, and if you look at when the story first broke in September of 2003 when the Washington Post found out there had been this coordinated effort to smear Joe Wilson by putting out word that his wife worked at the C.I.A., until the time Scooter Libby was indicted in October 2005, two years, the coverage there wasn’t what it should have been, and certainly wasn’t what the press had given criminal investigations during the Clinton years, investigations that most oftentimes went nowhere. For instance, I looked at the network news — signature network news programs: "60 Minutes," "60 Minutes II," "Nightline," "20/20," "Primetime Live." Two years, those shows totaled, were on — aired almost four hundred episodes. There was not one news report on the Valerie Plame investigation. And I looked at "Nightline" which is obviously on much more often. In two years they did three segments on the Valerie Plame investigation compared to the first two years of Whitewater they did 19 programs on an investigation that we all know went nowhere — clearly a double standard in terms of the seriousness which they showed for a criminal investigation which still haunts the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And in this case, you had the reporters themselves the key players in this.

ERIC BOEHLERT: Oh yeah. So that’s the other angle. I open the book, really with Bob Woodward, with his infamous sitting on the scoop that he also had gotten this leak about Valerie Plame — waits until after Scooter Libby is indicted to make this stunning announcement. He had also —- he was part of this leak, never said anything for two years. Said it wasn’t important, said it was trivial, but he did go on TV to sort of denigrate the whole investigation. I mean, this is a guy -—

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t he call the prosecutor a junkyard dog?

ERIC BOEHLERT: A junkyard prosecutor, and said essentially it was a waste of time, and this sort of information swapping happens all the time. This is the guy — You know, talk about from watchdog to lapdog — Bob Woodward of all people with his Watergate background, but all the other reporters. You know, the argument was, 'well it was a confidential leak; you have to protect your sources.' You don’t necessarily have to protect sources if they’re lying and doing it anonymously and doing it to score political points. I don’t think reporters have to go to the deck to protect people who are just using them. And again, Tim Russert, the reporters at Time magazine, they could have made noise during 2004. They knew important information but they sat on it all through the 2004 election and it was only after that the special prosecutor — What I point out in my book and you mentioned, the special prosecutor essentially did the job of what reporters used to do. Even without his subpoena power, he was the one asking questions that reporters absolutely did not — for two years did not want to know anything about.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Boehlert, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His book is called Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.

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