Punditocracy Two: Print

excerpted from the book

What Liberal Media?

The Truth About Bias and the News

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 custom.

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 the delay.

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 contributors.

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