Monday, November 20, 2006

The weirdos in charge

Over at CBS, Dick Meyers has an interesting -- and revealing -- essay on how the media does and does not cover politicians -- in this case, the Republicans that took over the House in 1994 and ran it for the next 12 years.

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do....

The iconic figures of this era were Newt Gingrich, Richard Armey and Tom Delay. They were zealous advocates of free markets, low taxes and the pursuit of wealth; they were hawks and often bellicose; they were brutal critics of big government.

Yet none of these guys had success in capitalism. None made any real money before coming to Congress. None of them spent a day in uniform. And they all spent the bulk of their adult careers getting paychecks from the big government they claimed to despise. Two resigned in disgrace.

Having these guys in charge of a radical conservative agenda was like, well, putting Mark Foley in charge of the Missing and Exploited Children Caucus. Indeed, Foley was elected in the Class of '94 and is not an inappropriate symbol of their regime.

He goes on, recounting Gingrich's piousness even as he cheated on and divorced two wives, the spectacle of Dan Burton and Robert Livingston and Henry Hyde and the rest.

What you take away from this piece probably depends on what you bring to it. On the one hand his description of the House GOP leadership is spot on, as far as it goes, as is his noting that the media undercovered the contradictions and personal pecaddillos of a group that was, after all, running on a moral slate.

But you could also point to this as evidence of liberal media bias ("See? He harbored secret dislike for Republicans!") or conservative media bias ("See? They covered for the GOP for years!"). Or perhaps simple incompetence, because providing the public with unvarnished images of their leaders is one of the roles of the media, and Meyer is admitting to a manifest failure.

That's not entirely fair, of course: in a world where journalists are supposed to be objective, it can be difficult to sort out what personal observations are legitimate news and which are not, and most reporters will err on the side of caution. But that can breed a general timidity that serves nobody well. And few people are well-equipped to deal with the spin and criticism and outright threats (to access, to livelihood, to reputation) that come with covering politics. If you know your every decision will be criticized by someone, it's easy to start second-guessing yourself all the way to self-censorship in the name of politesse.

Still, that's a known risk, and while I don't wish to minimize the size of the problem, it's really no excuse. Develop ways to navigate those shoals or get out of the business. Or become a columnist, where there's less need to separate one's reporting from one's personal beliefs.

Most importantly, though, Meyer (and other reporters) need to learn from their mistakes and don't make them again. Man up, take a deep breath, and call it as you see it. Because integrity is ultimately a reporter's only asset, and the only thing they'll look back on with pride in later life. Don't sell it out because you don't want partisans to say bad things about you.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the frankest assessments of the republican leaders of the last 12 years.
40 years of being in the minority had turned the congressional republicans into blood hounds when they gained the majority. Hypocrisy will be one word that historians will use a lot in describing those leaders and those 12 years.
GK

11/21/2006 10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I did work forensic psych for nearly 2 decades so I always had them pegged as psycho cases.

That said, I hold my party accountable for the mess too. Why on earth did we select Kerry as the best alternative we had to offer??? Nearly any even remotely viable candidate would have won in '04 but we had to go and run Kerry.

Do I personally hate Kerry? No, not particularly and I even voted for him in the general election because what other choice did I have but.....any basic understanding of American demographics should have clued us in to the fact that only the most extreme hatred of Bush would have gotten Kerry elected.

11/21/2006 5:31 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

GK: Agreed, and perhaps it will get people shut of the whole "family values" line and force them to focus on actual policies and such. Rigid ideology has proven to be a poor substitute for pragmatism.

Mama: Kerry was a flawed candidate, no doubt about that. It was clear even then that Bush won re-election mostly because Kerry was so noncompelling -- and even then it was a close run thing. In other words, there was an anti-Bush backlash in 2004 -- but Kerry was a weak enough candidate that Bush survived it. Two years later, the anti-Bush wave -- even stronger for the delay -- swept the GOP from office.

I hope the 2008 bunch will be stronger. We'll see.

11/22/2006 2:04 PM  

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