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Media Can't Have It Both Ways On McClellan: They Were Either Duped Or Derelict In Duty

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It is not unreasonable to see Scott McClellan's recent litany of revelations as problematic. If you've been working the Bush-criticism beat on the reality-based side of the blogosphere, for example, McClellan's offering up a lot of chapter-and-verse confirmation. But he's been so fittingly cast in the role of the unreliable narrator, that all the good folks who are taking McClellan's content as validation are still likely wishing they had a better validator.

Still, it's clear that this is a nice problem to have. If you are, say, the White House, or, perhaps, the traditional media, being caught on the horns of What Happened is a much less enviable position. After all, if you're the Bush administration, you can get behind all the closed doors you want and place McClellan outside the loop until the cows come home - but the indisputable fact is that McClellan was the White House Press Secretary, and the administration's story nonetheless passed from Bush's lips to the American peoples' ears via Scott McClellan. And if you claim membership in that coterie known as the political press, any criticism of McClellan's dissembling comes eternally coupled with an inconvenient truth: the media failed to penetrate that dissembling.

And while there's no way to get fully past the fact that McClellan's book does something that's a little bit gauche - like a magician spilling the secrets of the trade - it's pretty clear that McClellan's indictment is aimed squarely at the administration and the press assigned to cover the administration. And like parasite and host, they are presently engaged in beating out a collective escape, by focusing their attention on the author of What Happened, and not the What that actually happened.

Jonah Goldberg is not the first person to make the facile joke that McClellan's title seems to be missing a punctuation mark. "Oddly missing a question mark," Goldberg sniffs, a quip echoed this evening by Chris Matthews. It is of little help that McClellan himself performed his duties with a cloddish lack of grace. If there was ever a man you could picture offering up a dazed, "What...happened?" it was McClellan, a man who, in the performance of his duties as Press Secretary, often came off as the sort of man most likely to get worked like a speedbag by the forces of history. But there is, nevertheless, a point to McClellan's title being a declarative sentence - the what is what mattered.

And, fittingly, the "what" is what doesn't make it into Goldberg's searing critique. Observe the following paragraph, where Goldberg seems to be missing some nouns:

I have not read the book. I will once I finish eating the contents of my sock drawer (which ranks slightly higher on my to-do list). But in interviews, McClellan's argument boils down to the fact that the White House employed a high-pitched media campaign to persuade the American people and push the press to more favorable coverage.

A campaign to persuade the American people of what? Push the press to more favorable coverage of what? The answer is in McClellan's book: chiefly, the Iraq War, and everything that followed. This is the crux of McClellan's story, and it's precisely the thing that someone like Goldberg would rather you didn't dwell, preferring that the focus remains on McClellan, a "feckless crapweasel" who has merely "coughed up a time-honored hairball of capital culture." Just another disgruntled employee, folks! Nothing to see here!

The administration, having had a month to prepare to fend off this storm, has collectively decided on a similar line of defense. And, hilariously, it's ripped right from the pages of pulp sci-fi: SCOTT MCCLELLAN HAS DONE GOT HIS SELF BODYSNATCHED! That's right! This is not the Scott McClellan we knew! This new Scott McClellan is puzzling! Someone has replaced Scott McClellan with the rich, mountain-grown crystals of the Planet of the Doppelgangers.

And they might have gotten away with it, too! But those meddling kids at TalkingPointsMemo have assembled a tour-de-force mashup of administration response to McClellan that I think reveals precisely who the pod-people are:

Cut to the shot of Donald Sutherland pointing and screaming at Veronica Cartwright, right? Of course, about halfway through, Chris Matthews complains that Ari Fleischer is using the administration's talking points, noting a degree of "synchroncity" and "regimentation." And from somewhere, deep within the recesses of your mind, a memory emerges from the ooze of a time nearly forgotten. What are the words we used to have for what Chris Matthews is doing? How did ancient man express this idea?

That's right: it's called journalistic rigor. And you start to feel like maybe you've been cheated. Chris Matthews is only sorting out this talking-point ostinato technique now? You no doubt recall watching Comedy Central's Peabody Award winners, Stewart and Colbert, creating similar talking-point mashups on a weekly basis. Where has this journalistic tenacity been these many years?

Well, if you ask the media, they'll tell you it never went anywhere. Indeed, Mr. Stewart, just last night, presented a video mashup of various media figures congratulating each other for their heroic coverage of the Iraq War.

Oh, and you remember that coverage, right? Coverage so finger-licking accurate that a sizable chunk of the population is still under the impression that Saddam Hussein is tied to 9/11? Scrutiny so airtight that the Pentagon managed to fund a parade of card-carrying, retired military officers to propagandize on the White House's behalf, unmolested and undetected. A commitment to objectivity so constant that no end of bona-fide experts, armed with indisputable facts, have been glibly turned aside with a "But some say..." and a weak shrug that says, "Sorry! That's how this fair and balanced thing works! Up next: nautical vessels seem to be successfully circumnavigating the planet as if it were some sort of sphere...but we'll talk to a bunch of weirdos in funny hats that warn that your next Carnival Cruise could fall RIGHT OFF THE EDGE OF THE EARTH!"

This is not to say that solid scrutiny cannot be found in the press. The Michael Wares, the Bill Moyers--they're out there, getting it right. And as we saw with Jessica Yellin the other day, from time to time, we get the occasional admission, the brief glimpse behind the curtain. But for most of the media, Scott McClellan presents a big problem. Among the cliquish media elites, McClellan is typically thought of as an inept operator, a clueless hack, (or, putting it kindly, like Howard Kurtz, "pleasant but ineffective"). But now that he has admitted to broadly inveigling and obfuscating the truth on behalf of the President, it's hard to retroactively paint McClellan as some sort of master deceiver. Either McClellan successfully played the press for a dupe, or the press, unduped, were derelict in their duty.

Like the administration, the press has decided to focus exclusively on McClellan's credibility in lieu of an exploration of the What. And so we get performances like the antic stupidity of Tim Russert on this weekend's Meet The Press, who opened his show on a mission to prove that McClellan, at various points in the past, said a bunch of stuff that was wholly different than what he was saying now. The "gotcha" atmosphere, however, was pure smoke and mirrors. After all, no one woke up Sunday morning needing Russert to prove that McClellan changed his tune since leaving the White House - McClellan had written a whole gollydarned BOOK on that very topic.

Even Dan Kennedy, who's flat wrong in his contention that "There is nothing in What Happened that is interesting beyond the identity of the person who wrote it," is willing to admit that Russert put on a spectacle so foolish, that NBC would have been just as well served by asking an average hobo to host Meet The Press:

On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Tim Russert was at his mindless worst. The entire interview consisted of observing that McClellan had said one thing then and another thing now. It's bad enough when Russert does it to a politician whom he wants to portray as a flip-flopper. In McClellan's case, though, it was ludicrous.

The entire point of "What Happened" is that McClellan believed one thing when he was press secretary, and has come, through the course of writing his book, to believe something else entirely. McClellan explains this well in the preface. If Russert had focused less on "you changed your mind" and more on "why did you change your mind," it would have been a far more valuable exercise.

It would have also been a "far more valuable exercise" if Russert had gone all gotcha on McClellan back when it would have done the country a lick of good. Marketwatch's Jon Friedman gets it right:

The media, however, should derive no satisfaction from this memoir. McClellan writes about the skill with which the Bush White House manipulated reporters, who arguably allowed that to happen.

For that reason alone, it would be a "far more valuable exercise" to explore whether there's any credence to McClellan's claims, and apply some better-late-than-never fire to feet of the administration using the road map that McClellan lays out. If, at the end of the day, that path leads to no other conclusion than that we've got a book that documents a litany of pure disgruntlement, then we can hang McClellan high one last time for auld lang syne. But it seems to me that if the White House and their allies want to take that position from the outset, the press should begin their pursuit from an oppositional position.

As of right now, McClellan can still hang his hat on the What, as he did yesterday on CBS' The Early Show:

McCLELLAN: These are some unpleasant truths and hard realities that I'm trying to address in the book. And no one is really refuting the key themes and perspectives in the book. What they are doing is taking some of these personal attacks and misrepresentations and trying to shift this focus away from what this book talks about. I think it's important to get it back on the larger message in the book.

Remember, those "unpleasant truths and hard realities" are the What that Happened, and the one thing that no one can deny, is that it Happened to you and me.