The Washington Press Corpse
Beginning the Autopsy

The internal examination starts with a large, deep, Y-shaped incision that is made from shoulder to shoulder meeting at the breast bone and extends all the way down to the pubic bone....

The next step is to peel back the skin, muscle and soft tissue using a scalpel. Once this is done, the chest flap is pulled up over the patient's face, exposing the ribcage and neck muscles.

Why is the Washington press a corpse? Several reasons, probably. Jonathan Mermin outlines the most elusive one in his Fall 2004 article "The Media's Independence Problem," which Bill Moyer's quoted at length from in his recent speech. The article's not what you'd expect. The context is the discovery that Saddam didn't have any weapons of mass destruction. Mermin asks why there was so little questioning of motives and reasons for war on the run-up to it and why the press didn't report on the possible outcomes of a war that obviously would necessitate an occupation for some length of time. His answer? There's a tacit agreement among the Washington press that you don't raise an issue unless the administration or someone in Congress raises it first. As you might've guessed, the press and politicians are sometimes at cross purposes, and waiting for politicians to speak is hardly conducive to an independent (or free free) press. From the conclusion:
The job of politicians is to devise strategies to win elections, and successful strategies often entail blurring differences between the parties, which may require that important substantive points go unmade. This is one reason why we have a First Amendment, and why we are supposed to have a press that is independent of the government and free to say what politicians do not. If, in fact, journalists don't say much that politicians have not said first, then the press is not doing the work the First Amendment envisions.

What would happen if we had a First Amendment, but journalists let the government decide what the press should report?
For one thing, we wouldn't hear about the Downing Street Memo from most major news organizations.

[ADDED 4:17 pm] That said, Mystery Reporter 1 points to an earlier paragraph as showing the press' "Achilles heel" (you may have heard similar arguments before):
And why, he might have added, didn't the Post and other papers devote more time to pursuing the claims about the administration's manipulation of intelligence? Part of the explanation, no doubt, rests with the Bush administration's skill at controlling the flow of news. "Their management of information is far greater than that of any administration I've seen," Knight Ridder's John Walcott observed. "They've made it extremely difficult to do this kind of [investigative] work." That management could take both positive forms—rewarding sympathetic reporters with leaks, background interviews, and seats on official flights—and negative ones—freezing out reporters who didn't play along. In a city where access is all, few wanted to risk losing it.
[END of addition]

No matter your stance on the war, no matter whether you want the seas to run red with blood or for PETA to write the nation's dietary guidelines, read this article. Mermin's point applies to everybody. Unless, of course, you like a lapdog press corps and trust government officials with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. If you do, China's booming and they're taking applications.

BONUS: This NYT Book Review New York Review of Books article that Mermin mentions covers the dearth of reporting on Chalabi's bad intelligence, WMD debates among intelligence analysts and Judith Miller's questionable reporting. Very revealing.

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