Why report real "news" when you can just make up screenplay-ready fiction? That's the question Beltway reporters seem to be asking these days - at least if the coverage of Washington politicians these days is any indication. Tough Questions? Nah. Serious reporting? Nope. Basic facts? Ha, are you kidding? Just check out two snippets of "news" this week to see what I mean.
First, various news outlets fawningly reported that Joe Lieberman was the featured speaker at a conference on "civility" in politics. None of the coverage mentioned that Lieberman is the man who said his opponents aid and abet terrorists.
Then, in a New York Times story about the possibility that Republican Fred Thompson will run for president, we get biographical revisionism worthy of a top-flight public relations/crisis management firm. Here's the excerpt:
"Mr. Thompson came into the public eye -- and ear, considering his distinctive voice -- in the early 1970s when he served as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee. He then took on some lobbying clients, and was later asked to investigate a parole scandal in Tennessee. That episode led to a book and a movie, 'Marie,' in which Mr. Thompson played himself, kicking off his acting career. Elected to the Senate in 1994 to fill the remaining two years of Al Gore's term after he was elected vice president."
Notice anything smoothed over in there? Anything at all? Yes, that's right - there seems to be a strange-yet-massive 18 year gap in there between Watergate at his election to the Senate that is explained by a 6 word aside: "He then took on some lobbying clients." The throwaway nature of this line leads us to believe that Thompson's shilling for Big Money interests is just mildly interesting yet nonetheless extraneous narrative color - the kind of thing you might mention along with, say, someone's proclivities for a kind of music ("He then took on some lobbying clients and began listening often to Menudo"). Because in Washington, selling out to special interests isn't seen as controversial at all - it's just what you DO inside the Beltway. And reporters aren't about to - gasp! - point out that the latest presidential flavor of the month has spent far more time as a paid shill than as a public servant.
And boy was Thompson prolific. In the scant reporting that has even mentioned what Thompson has done for the majority of his political career, we find out the real story. Here's The Politico one month ago:
"Over about two decades of lobbying (during which he also acted and practiced law), Thompson made nearly $1.3 million and represented clients including a British reinsurance company facing billions of dollars in asbestos claims, Canadian-owned cable companies, and deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, according to government documents and media accounts from his first run for the Senate in 1994...'There's nothing wrong with lobbying. It's an honorable profession,' Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo said...A year after stepping down [from the Senate], he registered to lobby for British reinsurance company Equitas Ltd. The company paid him $760,000 to guard its interests against several bills seeking to protect businesses from asbestos lawsuits."
And here's New York Magazine:
"Critics point out that Thompson's aw-shucks, shit-kicker populism is more than a little bit phony. That he spent eighteen years as a registered Washington lobbyist, doing the bidding of such high-powered clients as General Electric and Westinghouse, pushing for the passage of the deregulatory legislation that led to the savings-and-loan crisis of the eighties."
So, let's recap. Joe Lieberman, the man who likens people who disagree with him to terrorists who want to kill thousands of Americans, is the shining example of "civility" in American politics. Meanwhile, a K Street insider who says it's "honorable" to have spent the majority of his time in politics lobbying for foreign governments, to protect companies from paying benefits to asbestos victims and to deregulate the financial industry is being profiled in the largest paper in the world without any of these details even being mentioned. How is this possible? Because Beltway reporters are too lazy or too deferential to power to do anything other than scribble out yet more false archetypes - in this case, the Civil Independent Senator and the Earnest Southern Actor-Turned-Statesman. After all, as I said at the beginning, Washington's new crop of "journalists" seem to be wondering why they should report real "news" when they can now just make up screenplay-ready fiction?