Punditocracy Two: Print
excerpted from the book
What Liberal Media?
The Truth About Bias and
by Eric Alterman
Basic Books, 2003, paper
The veteran of nearly a half century of political reporting and
punditry, [David] Broder is not simply the most admired print
reporter in America, a position he has occupied for more than
thirty years; after Walter Lippmann, and perhaps James Reston,
he is almost certainly the most widely admired political reporter
of the century.
Broder's position inside Washington is
absolutely unique. In the mind of the Washington insider establishment,
he is virtue itself. He is a sacred cow in a business of beefeaters.
Ted Koppel might be equally respected, but his political views
remain a mystery. Broder's opinions are influential on both the
center-right and center-left. He has occupied the position of
"high priest" of political journalism-as named in Timothy
Crouse's The Boys on the Bus over thirty years ago-because, not
in spite, of his opinions. To examine Broder is to study the jewel
in journalism's crown.
When asked to elaborate, his colleagues
invariably point to his common sense and implacable level-headedness.
In a loving profile in the second issue of Brills Content, Michael
Kramer, then the editor in chief, waxed romantic about the pundit
he called "the class of the field." "There are
those the rest of us seek out for guidance," he sang. "They
are the calm, sober voices we reference to test our own theories
and check our own tendency to hyperventilate. This is particularly
true in political journalism where one person stands out-David
Broder." Later in the piece, Kramer explained that Broder's
"influence derives from the entirety of his non-hysterical
work, an oeuvre that has conferred on him an authority no journalist
has enjoyed since James Reston wrote for the New York Times."
LA Times Bigfoot Ronald Brownstein added, "Many of us take
Broder into account, and particularly in times of crisis, like
now, because he never loses his head."' In the winter of
2000, during the post-election crisis in Florida, Broder's beloved
colleague at the Post (and before that, the Washington Star),
Mary McGrory, felt compelled to write, "Dear reader: Be warned.
I am about to commit heresy. The consequences could be unspeakable
and any interdiction that falls on me might extend to you. It
is not too late to turn back. I'm about to tell you that David
Broder is wrong."
Broder's meticulous dedication to the
nuts and bolts of his craft, along with his disdain for the Washington
social scene, are indeed "awesome." Broder's Post column
is syndicated in more than 300 papers and he appears frequently
on NBC's Meet the Press, PBS's Washington Week in Review, and
CNN's Inside Politics. But unlike most pundits, he does not come
armed with supposedly inside information from partisan political
operatives. Rather he makes a conscious effort to focus on the
arguments the campaigns make and the views he understands the
voters to hold. He defines his technique with the modesty that
is almost unique by Beltway standards. "I am not a terribly
interesting or fluid writer and I don't have any deep philosophical
thoughts . . . so if I didn't do the reporting, I couldn't do
the column." Broder also eschews the familiar pundit/prediction
game. At a speech where he was being honored at the Kennedy School
at Harvard in 1999, he went so far as to issue a public mea culpa,
explaining that when Tim Russert asked his guests to issue predictions
about the 1998 Congressional races, "we ended up looking
like a bunch of jerks because none of us knew what was going to
happen in any of these elections and it wasn't a reporter's kind
of a role."
Sometimes Broder is identified in the
media as a "liberal," usually a centrist, but never
a conservative. Like Reston before him, Broder is a man of the
floating center. His deepest beliefs are process-related. Broder
believes with all his heart and soul in professional politicians
and in successful political parties, and is willing to subordinate
virtually all matters of substance to this belief. He believes
the trains should be made to run on time, almost without regard
of in which direction they happen to move. And Broder also believes
in taking almost all politicians at their words. He goes so far
as to admit that in recent years, he has tended purposely to shy
away, "maybe more than is justified, from writing stories
that I know will add to the depth of an already deep public cynicism
about what's going on in this country." This is the most
basic belief of the insider establishment. R. W. "Johnny"
Apple Jr., the New York Times's most revered correspondent, joins
Broder in cautioning against the kind of journalism that might
upset people too much. Writing in the wake of reports that George
W. Bush might have ignored specific warnings about a 9/11-type
attack, he warns, positing no evidence, Americans "crave
unity above everything." The problems with genuine "full-throated
debate" are its "costs: to national unity, to confidence
in the electoral process and to respect for leaders in general."
This is a deeply held belief of the ideological center and, in
addition to overt discomfort with democratic debate, it is also
profoundly "conservative" with regard to whose interests
in the system it seeks to conserve.
During the course of four decades at or
near the top of the heap of admired political pundits and reporters-and
Broder is unusual for being revered in both categories-he has
repeatedly demonstrated little patience with politicians who do
not honor the role of the permanent establishment at the expense
of democratic-inspired messiness and dissatisfaction with the
status quo. Back in 1968, he felt the anti-war activities of the
likes of Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy were "degrading
. . . to those involved"-as if ending the horrific Vietnam
War might not be worth a little indigestion in one's political
system. Like most members of the insider establishment Broder
soured on Nixon during Watergate and treated the humble, homiletic
Gerald Ford as a kind of God-sent gift to the nation following
Our Long National Nightmare. Jimmy Carter's anti-Washington populism,
not surprisingly, won little favor with him.
It was during the Reagan era, however,
when the search for solid, centrist ground yielded an island of
intellectual quicksand for Broder. As Edward Herman discovered
in a study of Broder's columns during this period, when the president
decided to bomb Libya in 1986 in order to try to kill Muamar Khaddafi,
Broder assured readers that "Reagan has been insistent that
every possible step be taken to spare the innocent." Just
how that tidbit of hard news was checked out, he does not say.
Broder repeatedly lauded Reagan for his "presidential"
qualities and "national leadership of a high order"
while dismissing his dishonesty and intellectual incompetence
as "overshadowed by the grace with which he functions as
chief of state in moments of national tragedy and triumph."
Reagan's opponents, however, are dismissed as "quick-lipped
liberals" who "pop off in opposition" to the Supreme
Court nomination of the extremist Robert Bork. During the Iran-Contra
scandal, Broder frequently dressed down those who sought to hold
the president to some Constitutional standard, preferring instead
to plead for the efficacy of the presidency, despite the nefarious
(and frequently criminal) purposes to which Ronald Reagan happened
to arrogate its powers.
Following the 1988 election, Broder would
prove no less indulgent to his bonding buddy, George Bush, than
he had been to Reagan, as Edward Herman demonstrated. During the
1989 Panama invasion, Broder referred to the signatories of a
letter to President Bush denouncing U.S. violations of the United
Nations Charter and the Organization of the American States' Agreement,
as "69 left-wing politicians and activists"-a description
that would have been news to the longtime former chair of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the late J. William Fulbright.
Their arguments, moreover, he insisted, were mere "nonsense"
and "static on the left." Similarly, during the debate
on the Gulf War, Broder mocked the Democratic opponents' "usual
spectacle of disarray" as they resisted giving George H.
W. Bush the authority he sought to launch a war with Iraq. In
doing so, Broder credited the administration's explanation that
it had actively sought a diplomatic solution before choosing war.
In doing so, he was being even more generous than was his usual
Bill Clinton, who was greeted with hostility
almost immediately by the Beltway establishment, received no such
indulgence from the dean. In line with the conventional wisdom
of the moment, Broder regretted in his column that that "the
Democratic Congress pulled Clinton to the left in 1993-94, to
the detriment of their party." And while his observation
was, in insider circles, so obvious as to be axiomatic, it was
also false. At Alan Greenspan's request, and immediately upon
taking office, Clinton dropped the stimulus package he promised
in his campaign with nary a peep from Congress. He pushed the
costly ban on assault weapons in the crime bill over the objections
of most in the party caucus. True, he pursued health care before
welfare reform, which turned out to be a political error, but
on that front he was being pushed by the extremely liberal senior
Democratic senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to do
just the opposite. Clinton pursued the NAFTA and GATT accords
to the delight of conservatives and establishmentarians and to
the chagrin of both his base and most Americans. The debacle over
gays in the military was foisted on Clinton by Sam Nunn and other
conservatives (within and without the military) who sought to
undermine the president's authority to carry out his campaign
promise. And David Broder, of all people, should know better than
to blame Congressional Democrats for the tax increase for which
Clinton forced so many in his party to risk their political lives.
The measure passed by a single vote and cost many Democrats their
jobs. While the Wall Street Journal editorial pages repeatedly
warned of impending economic catastrophe, the tax increase also
turned out to be one of the most responsible and successful pieces
of economic legislation in recent American history.
Broder also engaged in some decidedly
suspect historical revisionism when blaming Bill Clinton, rather
than Newt Gingrich and his minions, for the government shutdown
of 1995-1996.9 According to Broder's interpretation, noted on
the Daily Howler Web site, "Clinton forced exactly that kind
of government crisis. He convinced the public he was fighting
to save Medicare from the new GOP majority on Capitol Hill, and
saddled the Republicans with blame for the shutdown." But
as Broder surely knows, when Congress and the White House can't
agree on a budget the problem is almost always addressed by a
Continuing Resolution that keeps everything running at current
levels, while the new budget is hammered out. This time however,
Gingrich and the Republicans refused to accept the traditional
CR process. Instead they attached the entire text of their proposed
new budget to it and simply invited Clinton to capitulate. Broder's
history is simply the Gingrich spin.
Though famous for his calm, cool demeanor,
Broder's distaste for President Clinton boiled into irrational
anger during the Lewinsky affair. Much of his ire seemed to derive
from a belief, implicit in a comment he made to Sally Quinn in
the Washington Post, that Bill Clinton had no right to be in Washington
as president, despite his having been elected to serve there twice
by his fellow citizens. "He came in here," Broder told
Quinn, "and he trashed the place, and it's not his place."
What right, the dean of pundits seems to be asking, does a mere
president have to upset the comfortable mores of the establishment
that has ruled the city virtually undisturbed for decades?
Broder was so enraged by what he learned
of the president's behavior that it led him to make arguments
that were genuinely offensive to common sense. At one point, for
instance, he tried to argue that Clinton's consensual sex with
Monica Lewinsky and resultant dishonesties were somehow "worse"
than Richard Nixon's police-state tactics during Watergate. "Nixon's
actions," he reasoned, "however neurotic and criminal,
were motivated by and connected to the exercise of presidential
power. He knew the place he occupied and he was determined not
to give it up to those he regarded as 'enemies." In other
words, if a president uses state power to destroy his enemies,
his behavior is ipso facto more honorable than one who indulges
a personal weakness on his own time in a private manner. Broder's
argument is both morally and logically indefensible. His point
seems to be that personal failures in a president are inexcusable,
but the use of the means of the state to carry out his purpose,
no matter how evil or nefarious, well, that's what politicians
do. If you replace the word "Nixon" with the words "Stalin"
or "Hitler," the argument's logic remains unchanged.
Broder's coverage of the 2000 election
reflected an establishment bias in favor of George W. Bush. While
Broder may have had a few concerns about Bush's relative lack
of experience, these vanished with the naming of a Broder hero,
Dick Cheney, to the ticket. Again, Broder insisted on dismissing
the substance of anything Richard (or his wife, Lynn) actually
said in favor of the genial Reaganesque style in which he said
it. "Democrats will have no difficulty finding rhetoric and
policy stands by both Cheneys that will raise liberal hackles,"
he noted. "But his manner gives him immunity from the extremist
label. Voters who saw his televised briefings during the Persian
Gulf War remember the calm voice and thoughtful expression that
are his natural style." By choosing a man whom Broder considered
"a grownup" to be his vice president, Broder wrote,
Bush "gave evidence of his own sense of responsibility."
Repeatedly during the campaign, Broder
filed as if dictating from Bush/Cheney talking points. Broder
also accepted at face value Bush's claim that "in a Bush
presidency, abortion would not be outlawed ... until a lot of
people change their minds." But how to square that with Bush's
desire to appoint justices who emulate his heroes Clarence Thomas
and Antonin Scalia? Perhaps wisely, Broder ignored the question.
Broder even went so far as to argue that "Bush makes no more
verbal mistakes than most of us do." (Oh really? "Reading
is the basics for all learning"; "It is not Reaganesque
to support a tax plan that is Clinton in nature"; "I
understand small business growth. I was one";'4 and so on.)
Meanwhile the famously conscientious reporter repeated the fanciful
story of Gore's youth in the "swank Fairfax hotel."
In fact there was nothing "swank" about this extremely
modestly priced residential hotel where the Gores lived, as more
careful journalistic inquiries have demonstrated. Broder attacked
Gore's campaign for allowing "a man with a genuine history
as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal"
and for "exploiting the hoariest of Democratic arguments:
Don't let Republicans take your Social Security away." Again,
the substance of the claim was unimportant. Bush's plan really
did constitute a serious threat to the future of Social Security,
owing to its double-counting arithmetic. But to point this out
is considered "partisan" by the famously centrist dean.
During the Florida election crisis, Broder
made a few more gaffes that, again, almost perfectly reflected
Washington's own house of mirrored-wisdom. An alarmed Broder wrote,
"This nation has rarely appeared more divided than it does
right now," going so far in another column to compare the
election counting crisis to the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
making this Broder's "saddest Thanksgiving week since 1963."
But while Broder's sadness was no doubt genuine, the rest of the
country was doing just fine. Nobody seemed to care much for Bush
or Gore in the first place. It was only the denizens of the inner
Beltway who seemed unable to stand the suspense, and hence, demanded
over and over that the man who won the popular vote and probably
deserved to win Florida by any sensible counting standard concede
to the establishment favorite, George Bush. Broder led the pack
in creating a false sense of crisis around a fair count. Opinion
poll after opinion poll at the time of Broder's writings emphasized
the public's desire for an "accurate" result over a
"fast" one and demonstrated no particular concern over
Broder's primary complaint about Florida
was that of the typical Washington fixer: "All that was needed,"
he wrote, "was an agreement between the rivals on how the
tie would be broken. But that never happened. The necessary phone
call was never made. Instead, both of them immediately began deploying
the unholy trinity of contemporary American politics-lawyers,
campaign consultants and media advisers- and set out to win it
for themselves." Broder does not bother to explain just what
that agreement might have contained should the phone call have
been made. The important point is that it be left to the pros.
Broder's embrace of a host of unproven
conservative assertions under the guise of anti-ideological, sensible
centrism is hardly an isolated story. It is, in fact, the norm
rather than the exception, and it affects "liberals"
just as much as conservatives. Conservative assumptions rule the
roost in key locations of the "liberal" punditocracy
just as much as they do in the Broderesque middle. Consider the
case of liberalism's most venerable flagship journal, the New
Republic. While the Nation, which is to the left of TNR on just
about everything, has seen its readership rise to nearly 50 percent
higher than TNR's-122,000 to just 85,000, at last count-the latter
remains the weekly of choice for liberal Washington insiders.
This is in part due to its Washington base, but also because the
Nation is considered by non-liberals to be ideologically out of
the loop. The country's longest continuously published weekly
magazine is also hindered by the continued appearance in its pages
of a longtime Stalinist communist, Alexander Cockburn, whose unabashed
hatred for both America and Israel, coupled with his ravings against
such stalwart progressives as democratic socialist representative
Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the late Senator Paul Wellstone
of Minnesota, tarnish the reputation of its otherwise serious