TD Blog Interview with Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a regular contributor to Salon and the Huffington Post, as well as to Rolling Stone, is the author of “Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush“, an exigesis of documented instances in which the Mainstream Media (MSM) has defaulted on even the pretense of fairness and objectivity, as demonstrated most clearly by the contrast between the picayune obsessions with seemingly minor scandals of the Clinton Administration versus the extraordinary deference shown to the current Bush Administration under virtually any and all circumstances. On June 1, 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Eric Boehlert, by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected where appropriate by Mr. Boehlert.
The Talking Dog: The first question I ask (my own answer being “across the street from the WTC”) is where were you on September 11, 2001?
Eric Boehlert: I was in the backyard of my house in Montclair, New Jersey, with my then one year old son. I had come back from taking my daughter to pre-school. It was a clear, beautiful day. A neighbor came out to tell me that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. I went back inside and spent the rest of the day glued to CNN.
The Talking Dog: Let me say I think you’ve done an incredible service by documenting the sometimes quite apparent and sometimes quite blatant biases of the Main Stream Media (“MSM”), particularly in disparities in coverage between this Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration, that many of us have been observing for years. My question, though, is kind of a meta-question, to wit, since the MSM, i.e. television and radio (including cable) and newspapers are profit making businesses whose survival is dependent on the goodwill of advertisers, is it particularly surprising that such institutions have an intrinsic bias toward whatever political party is likely to have a pro-business orientation? To continue my longwinded question, isn’t it true that Democratic candidates have ALWAYS gotten a tougher time from the profit-making media than Republicans (I’m reminded of the line from Citizen Kane– you supply the prose and I’ll supply the war)? Or would you submit that the current cycle is particularly worse than things have been historically?
Eric Boehlert: Before 2004, when a long tradition was broken, more Republican candidates got the endorsements of newspaper editors than did Democratic candidates, certainly for President. As to the issue of business interests, I really don’t think that the press has to lay down for Republicans just because they are a business. They should be more dogged. I just don’t think the business perogative and the need to make a profit is any sense inconsistent with the press being objective and seriously doing their jobs. You could certainly see that the press was capable of being dogged and aggressive, as they were in the Clinton era when any scandal no matter how minor or even real was pursued, as opposed to the Bush era.
The Talking Dog: Why this difference?
Eric Boehlert: Mostly, the media has a tremendous fear of the liberal bias charge… there seem to be rabbit ears up trying to detect anything like that. Conservative carpings about this over the years have paid dividends. Journalists now bend over backwards to show that they don’t have a liberal bias, and they have certainly proved it during the Clinton years, and again, during the Bush years…
The Talking Dog: But this isn’t a totally new phenomenon… I mean, for example, Carter was treated much more harshly by the press than Reagan was, wasn’t he?
Eric Boehlert: Certainly, after Nixon, there was this big concern among the press that they maybe they were too hard on Nixon… But certainly the press seemed just as dogged in pursuing Carter, though under Reagan, the press bent over backwards to prove that they weren’t liberal… just as they later proved it by how much they despised Gore and mocked Kerry… as I said, the “liberal bias charge” has paid its dividends and been very effective at getting the press to be concerned over this…
The Talking Dog: So Richard Mellon Scaife and others have been effective in doing this…
Eric Boehlert: Tens of millions of dollars have been spent setting up what has been called “the Noise Machine”. It has been very successful, and everyone inside the elite press corps seems to know the rules and guidelines… For example, President Bush is uniformly and universally described as “charming”, and “authentic” and the White House message is always “disciplined”. The words “lie” and “Iraq” are never, ever to be spoken together. Again, that liberal bias charge has provided benefits to conservatives. It’s most ironic, of course, as the liberal bias charge isn’t true! There is a notion that there is a far reaching conspiracy among journalists to slant the news… it’s not just one of the kookiest conspiracies out there… of course, it’s not true.
The Talking Dog: You are, of course, a regular contributor to the on-line media (Salon and Huffington Post, of which I’m aware). What are your favorite blogs?
Eric Boehlert: That would include the Huffington Post, Daily Howler, Eric Alterman’s Altercation, Romenesko, Fishbowl NY and DC, James Wolcott, Americablog, Tapped, and others…
The Talking Dog: Bloggers have an awful tendency to be snarky and picayune on some things… so… let me just tell you that in the course of your litany of (well-documented) challenges to the accuracy of the reporting of others, that your own book (at p. 5) contains a factual error, to wit, Joseph Wilson was not U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, as you said, but rather was US Ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome e Principe; in Iraq, he was Deputy Chief of Mission and Acting Charge D’Affaires, but not actually the ambassador… assuming, as I do, that you’ve got a best-seller on your hands, how would you respond to the inevitable attacks (and they’re coming) that this factual error undermines your objectivity and ability to act as a fair media critic?
Eric Boehlert: Well, certainly Joe Wilson was the acting ambassador, and met with Saddam Hussein to negotiate for the protection of American citizens and others… I certainly feel bad about any errors in the book, including spelling errors or anything of that nature, and I certainly take responsibility for it. The book was produced very fast– there are events in the book from as late of March of this year, and it hit bookstore shelves in May, which is almost unprecedentedly fast. In any event, I would argue that I am not suggesting that the press is reckless or makes spelling or factual errors. I am arguing that the press has fallen down on the job against people in power, and that the people in power are no longer held responsible for their activities, and that this has been caused by a Republican long term process to infect the process with fear of a liberal bias, and as such, that error is of no moment to that argument.
The Talking Dog: Let me commend you on pointing out that a certain network news anchor and Sunday talkshow host has a brother who was George W. Bush’s business partner, and served in such important Ambassador posts. This seems kind of a significant fact. I’m sure there are other similar cozy relationships out there (besides Andrea Mitchell being married to Alan Greenspan… or even counting that)… I saw a suggestion that you might consider a sequel to pursue this particular angle of the unnaturally close and incestuous media/government relationship… How about that? How would you comment on this issue?
Eric Boehlert: In the classic model of an objective press, we would not want to see a socially intertwined relationship between politicians and the elite journalists who cover them. Of course, this is nothing new. Now, if journalists had made friends with officials in the Clinton Administration, just as they have with officials in the Bush Administration, we might argue that there is less of the double standard… But this explanation doesn’t seem to explain the press corps actions between Clinton; they were not friends with the Clinton officials and are friends with the Bush officials. There is most definitely a double standard, and maybe it is explanatory of a good deal. For example, the example you note, Bob Schieffer, got some key exclusive interviews with Bush, with whom Bush has gone golfing, gone to minor league baseball games with, his brother is a business partner and ambassador… in Schieffer’s book, he noted that Bush gave him “a wonderful interview” around the New Hampshire primary, whereas Schieffer actually mocked Gore for the interview Gore gave him. No one ever seems to talk about this…
The Talking Dog: Do I recall correctly, or didn’t Schieffer even moderate a debate in which Bush was involved? Where were the Kerry people on this?
Eric Boehlert: I think Schieffer did indeed moderate a debate, and again, even the Kerry people didn’t talk about this, Another example I cite is the friendship between Colin Powell and Ted Koppell– no one talks about it. But on Nightline in three exclusive interviews with Powell, Koppell ignored the famous U.N. presentation made by Powell–ignores it. When a man as smart as Ted Koppell does something like that, it certainly makes you question whether their personal friendship has something to do with it. And again, no one talks about this.
The Talking Dog: You thoroughly document L’Affaire Kenneth Tomlinson, the embattled and disgraced Bush Administration appointment to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. By your account, the MSM appears to have actually covered that matter reasonably objectively, and Tomlinson himself was duly drummed out for his own financial improprieties. Now… even though Tomlinson’s own motives (“to get Bill Moyers”) may have been jaundiced, isn’t that an example of the press actually functioning reasonably? The fact is, despite the intended pressure, both PBS and NPR remain trusted-as-objective organizations, do they not? How would you respond to my suggestion that this is the case because they are NOT profit-based institutions (despite their big corporate grants)?
Eric Boehlert: Polls show that PBS and NPR are not merely the most trusted sources of news and information, but other than national defense, they are invariably at the top of the list of the best use of taxpayer money. They are held in very high regard by most of the public. It would be nice if they didn’t have to worry about these things, but public broadcasting is also perennially worried about the liberal bias charge… while they don’t have sponsors, they worry about Congressional budget cutting. Hence, PBS and NPR end up suffering from the same timidity as most of the press… their reporters also bend over backwards trying not to give credence to a “liberal bias”, lest they trigger Congressional cuts in funding.
The Talking Dog: Similarly, on L’Affaire Terri Schiavo, let me preface my question this by saying that in my personal view (which I submit is worth exactly nothing, as, btw, is the personal view of everyone with the opposite opinion) Michael Schiavo is probably a bad guy; I also think Florida’s rule is monstrous– but it is the rule; it led to a monstrous outcome. WITH ALL THAT, I STILL think Congress and the President (not to mention JEB Bush and the state legislature) overreached in feigning the authority to pass a private bill designed to change the outcome in one case without changing the underlying rule on which the case was decided, because that kind of direct political intervention in the judicial process is, aside from unauthorized constitutionally, most unwise politically; we want to give judges the rules, and they get to decide cases based on them. If the legislature doesn’t like the outcome of a case, it can change THE RULE. In the Schiavo case, both the state and national legislatures thought they could have it both ways– by not changing any basic rule (such as requiring living wills in this kind of case, for example) but insisting they could change the outcome. This is outrageously dangerous and arbitrary, of course, and I think most people get that. My question (if you’re still here!) is whether, in fact, that IS the story– and, despite the press’s asinine “horse-race” coverage here (making it “the husband” vs. “the parents”) based on the poll numbers you present showing that the overwhelming evidence that most people opposed the political intervention, the public “got it”. Or, put another way… isn’t the ultimate outcome of how Schiavo was covered “good news” in the sense that the public “got” that the Republican Congress and President overreached to try to overturn a specific court case for the crassest of partisan political reasons?
Eric Boehlert: Certainly, the Schiavo coverage was a debacle on so many levels. You are correct: the big issue of the uniqueness of legislators attempting to overturn the result of one case, and the President cooperating in it, was completely overshadowed by the coverage. In this case, the press was spooked by fear of the “anti-religion” charge. When polls were done, every result showed that the American people did catch on: strong majorities thought that the legislative intervention was unfathomable, and even stronger majorities–including majorities of self-identified conservatives– believed that the Schiavo intervention was being done for political interests ALONE. So yes, I agree that the public did pick up what happened, amidst awful coverage– that our courts should not– cannot– be overruled by the legislature just because the legislature doesn’t like the outcome of one case. Of course, the press didn’t acknowledge the polls. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times made almost no mention of the polls during their first week of Schiavo coverage. Instead, seemingly spooked by the anti-religion charge, they insisted that there was a genuine “national debate”, instead of a politically motivated opportunistic intervention. How could there be a national debate when most of the country was in heated agreement that Bush had wildly over-stepped his authority?
The Talking Dog: Doesn’t this give one some cause for hope, because of the public’s ability to cut through b***s*** as presented by the press and its filters?
Eric Boehlert: I would say that this is a false hope– a hope that the American people can, time and time again on every issue, get through a misleading presentation. Certainly, on Schiavo, as on the Clinton impeachment, the public figured out the Republicans’ clear political motives, despite sloppy journalism. But journalism has a function: it is supposed to educate. We are not suposed to get to the point where things get so bad that people have to figure things out on their own.
The Talking Dog: Following up on the last question, one of my own hobby-horses is thematic, to wit, the government’s (specifically the president’s) abuse of power– exceeding the constitutional limitations on it to declare himself judge, jury and jailer at his sole discretion for example. I’ve noted, for example, a remarkable reticence to cover Guantanamo, leaving an opening for myself, for example, to represent a not insignificant part of the world’s journalism on that subject… and there seems to be no coverage at all of similar detentions at Bagram in Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, and the CIA ghost prisons, for example. Again, do you think this is because the media is too biased to open up this can of worms and risk the wrath of Rove, because they fear the public writes everyone we detain off as terrorism and the press doesn’t dare be controversial, or simply, it’s none likely to garner ratings for the profit-making media entities, or something else… especially fear of being called “soft on terrorism”? And again, aren’t the Democrats somewhat complicit in this by having not made this an issue on their own?
Eric Boehlert: There is no question that there is a fear of being perceived as “soft as terrorism”. Certainly after September 11th, and especially after the Iraq war, there has been a whipped up patriotic fever, and the press was expected to retreat in the face of that. In some sense, we can say the press did their job– that’s what led us to even find out what has been happening with Guantanamo and the enemy combatants… The same thing for Abu Ghraib, the press deserves some credit for breaking the story. But after breaking the story, we find that the press is very uncomfortable– it just doesn’t have the stomach to press the issue– it fears being called for having an anti-American bias or being against the soldiers… But yes, Guantanamo, but for the press, would still be a secret. Indeed, the other facilities you mention would also be completely silent but for some degree of attention from the press. There is timidity out there– the so-called war culture, and the press “understands its job”… But taken as a whole– including newspapers, cable and the network news– the media seems to have no stomach or interest in dealing with the tougher questions, for example, such as torture, at all.
The Talking Dog: Let me commend you on your discussion of President Bush’s National Guard service; despite viewing column inches, yards and miles on the subject, I had not before reached the critical issue you succinctly arrived at, to wit, the missing year (which we of blog-world all knew about) but your addition of the “make-up time” in Texas for that period Bush went missing from his service in Alabama (or “AWOL” as many bloggers would offer) was not authorized by military regulations, and almost without doubt, strings were pulled that were sui generis to then Lieutenant Bush to get him his sanitizing “honorable discharge”… My question is this… While the TANG story was outrageously under-covered in the critical 2000 Election cycle, by the time 2004 rolled around and Mary Mapes and Dan Rather decided this was a story again, the public had long since factored this in to their assessment of Bush (i.e. most people already assumed that like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush pulled everything he could to avoid service in Vietnam)… In short, while 60-Minutes was sitting on an Abu Ghraib story (and I’m told sat on a Guantanamo story as well), the “hard-hitting” story it chose instead was stale, irrelevant to most people, and frankly, nothing new (unlike your coverage). As such, in my view, Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and the rest, at least those responsible for the decision to go with this story, anyway helped finish off Kerry by handing such an easy sideshow to the MSM (i.e. their own lack of professionalism in the course of an attempt at a Bush “hit-piece”). How would you comment on that? (I realize that you believe that given how the war was handled, Bush’s Guard service may have been more important in substance, but my point is that it was less important to the voters than the perception of “toughness”…)
Eric Boehlert: CBS botched the story. They couldn’t authenticate the memos. Dan Rather… lost his job for that story. Indeed, the entire 60-Minutes II program is now off the air… gone. There are unspoken rules out there: do a story critical of Bush, if things get tough and blow up, you may lose your job, and your show may be canceled. I submit that this was still big news in 2004. Iraq was invaded on the backs of National Guard members– many parents and even grandparents were sent to fight a war having been turned into full-time soldiers, really for the first time ever that such dependence on Guard troops was this big an element of a war. So, Bush’s own service in the Guard is highly relevant. Yes, people certainly thought this was old news, but of course, it had not been properly dealt with in 2000 when it first broke. In 2000, Walter Robinson had numerous on the record conversations about Bush’s service record and details, and the story ran in May 2000 in the Boston Globe; the New York Times didn’t acknowledge the story for five weeks… and this despite clear evidence that Bush didn’t show up to his Guard service for a full year. Rather, in the NY Times, Nicholas Kristof did a dozen lengthy profiles of Bush, never addressing how or why Bush walked out on his Guard duty… the matter was just dropped! The press seemed to miss the point on the CBS story… the Memos became the story, blowing up in CBS’s face… and the rest of the press ran from the story after that, as people saw their careers flash before their eyes.
The Talking Dog: Are there any other questions on these themes that I should have asked you, or anything else my readers, your readers and the public need to know on these subjects?
Eric Boehlert: The only other point I’d make would be to note the mainstream media’s utterly predictable reaction to the book which has been to either (a) ignore it. (The Washington Post was very quick to tell my publisher it had not plans on reviewing the book.) Or (b) announce there’s nothing new here; to keep on moving folks, the press is doing a great job. There’s absolutely no desire, or even willingness, to look back on the last five years and face the extraordinarly journalistic lapses that I catalog in the book.
The Talking Dog: Thank you for that most enlightening interview, and I commend all interested readers to take a look at “Lapdogs” by Eric Boehlert.