"Gather the facts as quickly as you can. And then distort them at your leisure."
The truth always disappears a little at a time. But in the era of the Bush administration we often are given the opportunity to watch it vanish before our eyes. This happens without many of us even being aware of the loss. The latest vanishing acts were on ABC News Nightline and FOX News. But you have to pay close attention to notice the absence.
When Terry Moran anchored Nightline's report Wednesday, the program led, naturally, with the Brit Hume interview of Vice President Dick Cheney. The show's reputation, acquired during Ted Koppel's able tenure, was to go after the facts with relentlessness. Moran's piece on Cheney was more of an insipid feature story about a beleaguered public servant who had been sorely wronged by the countrymen and media he was trying lead. And he was now, graciously, opening up to his constituents.
"It was," Moran's saccharine-laced voice intoned, "a different side of Dick Cheney," which, I suppose, we were all getting to see. Neither Moran nor his producers bothered to mention the conservative, Republican tenor of FOX News as a possible reason that the vice president chose the network. Cheney need not worry about getting grilled over the varying versions of events when he was sitting across from the admittedly conservative Hume. Instead, the VP got a venue where he struggled to show he was empathetic and almost, but not quite, sorry. The near miss to actual reporting was when Hume dared to ask a question about drinking.
But what about all the others that never got asked? "Mr. Vice President, can you reconcile Katharine Armstrong's varying explanations of what she did or didn't see? First, she said that Harry Whittington didn't alert you that he was behind him and that it was his fault for that reason. But she later said she was 100 yards away sitting in a pickup truck. She couldn't have heard him from that distance. She also said she saw Mr. Whittington fall but later said the first thing she knew something had happened was when she saw your medical team racing toward him. What the hell is true and what isn't, Mr. Vice President? If Ms. Armstrong is so inconsistent with information, why'd you trust her to talk to reporters? And do you think that if you weren't the vice president, and you discharged a shotgun and sent someone to the hospital, that the police would have let you get away with not talking to them until 16 hours, the next morning?"
None of that from Brit Hume, though. Mostly, we got a lot of, "How did you feel?" questions from the FOX anchor. And Nightline, which had hours and hours to seek out alternative sources for questions to be raised in its own reporting, in many respects, failed even more miserably. The piece that Moran narrated asked no real questions about what had transpired on the Armstrong Ranch and, when it sought out reaction, ABC's producers managed to round up two sympathetic Republican operatives, Ed Rollins and Tori Clarke. Unchallenged by Moran or the producers who conducted the interviews, they both spent their respective on camera time minimizing the VP's failure to act responsibly and their confidence in how little of a political effect it would have on the White House and the GOP. The piece concluded by leaving viewers with a departing thought delivered by Clarke, who admonished that the Democrats would be making a mistake by trying to utilize the incident for their political advantage.
What in the hell happened to objectivity, or at least its pretense? Were there no Democrats or any other skeptics in Washington that Nightline might have interviewed? No critics available on deadline? The tone of the entire Moran piece was that of an apologia from both the network and Cheney. The VP was, of course, forced into his acknowledgement but ABC willingly leaned over to polish his boots for the appearance on FOX.
Songwriter John Prine might have been right long ago. It's time to "blow up your TV, move to the country...." Ted Koppel has left the building. The demographers and the marketeers are in charge.
And for now, we are acting like unwitting consumers.