09/10/2007 12:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Media's Outrage Deficit

I was on a talk show recently in San Francisco's KALW radio, and the host raised an excellent question: Is the mainstream media's language, with its convention of bland even-handedness, adequate to describing the various outrages that litter our political landscape?

The answer is no. There isn't enough outrage in media coverage today. The U.S. government has gone off a cliff - several cliffs, really. Yet on some level in the media it still seems to be the mid-1990s, when the political stakes were considerably lower and partisanship ruled the day. (Not coincidentally, this was also the dawn of the Internet age.)

By outrage, I don't mean fire-breathing attacks. I mean uncompromising journalism that doesn't buy the stock explanation, that probes how and why things went wrong, and are going wrong.

On Sunday, Clark Hoyt touched on this issue in the New York Times, writing that he has frequently been asked versions of this question: "Why not just come right out and call Alberto Gonzales a liar, since, well, by any reasonable standard he is one?"

Hoyt concluded that "liar" is too loaded a term, and to have the New York Times throwing it around would degrade an already badly frayed political discourse. On this narrow point, I agree. To call someone a liar involves diagnosing personal corruption. This recalls Mary McCarthy's famous attack on Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Can you see Katie Couric making such a judgment?

But the real issue isn't a word, but rather, why don't mainstream media outlets tell it like it is? In other words, the Times or CBS or whoever could explore the whats and whys of Gonzales's massive dissembling in a way that makes it perfectly clear how outrageous it is. The Daily Show, for example, with its clip shows of administration spin, is quite good at this. Yet with some notable exceptions, the MSM don't do this in any systematic way. It's too adversarial - and that risks being branded as "partisan" or "liberal."

But the alternative is far, far worse. The media are still operating with a set of conventions that served them well for the couple of generations leading up to the Internet age. They assume they can be honest brokers, and that everyone will view them as such. This is based on the idea that high offices demand respect. Power is assumed to be exercised in the public interest, and that demands respect. The practice of journalism is good for democracy, and that demands respect. Respek!

But what happens when the exercise of power becomes consistently craven, tawdry, and disengaged from its basic aim, public service? What happens when public officials don't deserve respect - and don't respect the media's traditional role in democracy? The media lose not only their privileged place, but their own grip on reality, and with it their relevance.

Iraq is exhibit A. As far as Iraq goes, the political culture that dominates Washington right now has as its primary raison d'etre is not the ordinary functioning of government, or even the practice of electoral politics, but the manipulation of perceptions. Not even the public's perceptions, which seem pretty set that the war is a bust. Really, the whole Petraeus show is over the perceptions of a handful of politicians in Congress and that of the media itself. And the mainstream media - even after the White House sends Petraeus and Crocker over to Fox - seem determined to keep devouring the thin gruel that the White House has dished up for them.