Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Wake up call, David E. Sanger

Today's Times news analysis, When Goals Meet Reality: Bush's Reversal on 9/11 Testimony, contains a perfect example of what's wrong with our White House press corps, and more generally with our entire political media. The article opens with the claim:

When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took office three years ago, they made no secret of their intention to restore presidential powers and prerogatives that they believed had withered under the onslaught of Washington's cycle of televised, all-consuming investigations.

According to Sanger, Bush and Cheney are making a clear claim about Presidential history: that "Presidential powers and prerogatives" have "withered" under pressure from the media and Congressional investigations. The logical followup would be to ask at least one or two historians whether Presidential powers have really withered; and if so, why?* This would not take many words, but it would give readers the crucial historical context needed to understand the White House's behavior.

Instead, Sanger elects to write mostly about the political spin that's being put on Bush and Cheney's reluctance to be forthcoming. There's some good stuff in there, recounting evidence of that reluctance; but all we get about this historical claim is the White House spin, plus one unnamed diplomat confirming that this is indeed the White House's attitude.

By now, it's a cliché that the press covers politics like a horse race, obsessing over tactics and spin instead of substance. This is just one small example.

*Incidentally, I suspect that we'd learn the following from these hypothetical interviews with historians:

  • No, the Presidential powers have not withered.
  • But, they have been subject to greater public scrutiny, especially since Watergate.
  • Most historians and political scientists believe this is a good thing.
  • The Bush/Cheney administration is almost unprecedented in its extreme unwillingness to be the object of public scrutiny or Congressional oversight.

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