For all the press attention swirling around Scott McClellan's explosive tell-all, there's a brewing back story that's making Katie Couric and Charles Gibson squirm. And they're not alone.
Few were surprised that McClellan's book exposed a Bush administration "political propaganda campaign" that mislead the American public about the war in Iraq. Some question the former press secretary's loyalty and timing, but no one -- with the obvious exception of the White House and its apologists -- questions the factual basis of his claim.
But McClellan takes it one further, implicating mainstream media for its role in "enabling" this propaganda. "The national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House" in spreading the president's case for the war, McClellan writes. The mainstream media didn't live up to its watchdog reputation. "If it had, the country would have been better served."
This should be a shock to everyone. The president's own spokesman (whose hands aren't clean by any means) lays a large share of the blame for Bush's pro-war propaganda on the media's "deferential" treatment of White House spin.
Still, many in the media refuse to admit that they were anything but dogged in challenging the White House's case for the war after September 11. Some, however, are starting to see things differently.
Thursday night, CBS anchor Katie Couric confronted McClellan' during an interview. She claimed that, while still at NBC, she asked a tough question about the Iraq war and was rebuffed by McClellan. According to Couric, the press secretary then called one of her bosses and threatened to deny her future access to the White House press gaggle.
But earlier Couric told her colleagues on the CBS News Early Show that McClellan's indictment of a complicit media is "a very legitimate allegation."
"I think it's one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism," she said. "And I think there was a sense of pressure from corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it. I think it was extremely subtle but very, very effective."
On Wednesday night, CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin said that network executives at MSNBC had pushed her not to do hard-hitting pieces on the Bush administration as the nation readied for war.
"The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation," Yellin told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
ABC News' Charles Gibson isn't admitting as much. "I think that the media did a pretty good job of focusing and asking the questions," he said. "It was just a drum beat from the government, and I think it's convenient now to blame the media, but I don't," he added. (This from the same anchor who called his questioning during ABC's now infamous April 16 debate "tough and intelligent").
It's the System, Stupid
It's telling that mainstream journalists are in a quandary over the role their media organizations played to "enable" propaganda, and whether they individually are indeed a part of the problem. Many genuinely are trying to do their jobs but are constrained by a corporate structure that promotes reporters with cozy access to political and economic power, while discouraging those whose questions and investigative reporting might rock the boat.
The roots of the problem extend beyond the performance of one or another reporter to a news industry that allows itself to be manipulated and cajoled by dishonest leadership. "Too many media outlets continue to tell the politically and economically powerful, 'Lie to me!'" write Bob McChesney and John Nichols in a Nation op-ed to be published next week.
According to McChesney and Nichols, responsible journalists have little say in setting the lead stories for large outlets. "The calls are being made by consultants and bean counters, who increasingly rely on official sources and talking-head pundits rather than news-gathering or serious debate."
The Situation Right Now
For all of their posturing, the Courics and Gibsons of the network newscasts are the fading faces of a system that's perilously broken. It's not just reflected in the declining audience for traditional news formats, but in the issues that they cover -- and those that they choose to ignore.
McClellan's memoir comes on the heels of an April 20 New York Times exposé, which revealed an extensive -- and likely illegal -- Pentagon program to recruit pro-war "military analysts" for nearly every major news outlet in America. Many in the newsrooms knew of these pundits' ties to the Pentagon -- as well as their involvement in lucrative military contracts -- but didn't bother to reveal the obvious conflicts of interest to their viewers.
While the story received scant coverage in the mainstream media, more than 100,000 activists have written their members of Congress to urge an investigation into the media's role in spreading pro-war propaganda. Bloggers and independent media are also still covering this issue, refusing to let Big Media off the hook
Congress has promised to investigate the Pentagon's role in the scandal, but it shouldn't end there. People should demand more of the companies that assume the mantle of journalism, but fall far short of its ideals.
Our democracy is in peril when mainstream media fail to question the official view and put the interests of ordinary Americans first.
This watchdog role is especially critical during a time of war and elections -- the time that we're in right now.