The Bush-era fourth estate has come up short not only against the Big Lie of "fair and balanced" news but also against its equally cunning cousin: the Small Inaccuracy used to repudiate the damaging larger truth. CBS crumbled under the administration's mau-mauers over Memogate, while Newsweek managed to withstand the hazing it took for its Koran-in-the-toilet item—which, like the substance of Dan Rather's offending report on Bush's National Guard career, was not only accurate; it was old news. But why didn't the national media go on the offensive and re-educate the government, and the public, about the inevitable if regrettable price of a free press? Mistakes will be made in the proverbial first draft of history, and holding reporters to a standard of perfection would inhibit them from performing the vigilance crucial to our democratic system. The media had become so habituated to the paralysis of self-censorship that it took a fake newsman to diagnose their Stockholm syndrome, and when Stephen Colbert acidly chided the journalists along with the president at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, the audience was not amused.
The ways our free press has served the powers it was supposed to afflict range from the belabored (Judith Miller's WMD "scoops" in the Times), to the grandiose (Tom Friedman's op-ed manifestos for a new political species: the pro-war-if-it-works liberal), to the perverse (Christopher Hitchens's flogging, in Slate, of a left-wing fifth column so much worse than the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton complex). My favorite editorial pledge of allegiance was a syndicated column by Kathleen Parker welcoming the ministrations of Bush's domestic spies because, hey, she wasn't conducting any phone business more controversial than making appointments to get her highlights done.
We have become such "good Americans" that we no longer have the moral imagination to picture what it might be like to be in a bureaucratic category that voids our human rights, be it "enemy combatant" or "illegal immigrant." Thus, in the week before the election, hardly a ripple answered the latest decree from the Bush administration: Detainees held in CIA prisons were forbidden from telling their lawyers what methods of interrogation were used on them, presumably so they wouldn't give away any of the top-secret torture methods that we don't use. Cautiously, I look back on that as the crystallizing moment of Bushworld: tautological as a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto, absurd as a Marx Brothers movie, and scary as a Kafka novel.
So, is there a new, post-election normal? A recent Google search turned up some impressive, learned commentary comparing the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to the Enabling Act of 1933. A reader congratulated one of the legal scholars, human rights lawyer Scott Horton, for daring to defy Godwin's Law. Perhaps (to switch totalitarian metaphors) we are in the midst of a little intellectual Prague Spring.
Of course, that democratic interlude met a swift and terrible end. If the midterm election was a referendum on nothing more than Bush's competence, then the message the Republicans have gotten is: Next time, make it work.
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