Cyberspace is increasingly our culture's primary hotbed for interesting, provocative theories -- many of them as paranoid as they are provocative. One of the most interesting and provocative (and paranoid) of those espoused in recent weeks argues that the Bush administration has embarked upon a determined, systematic campaign to "decertify" the professional media corps, "to strip them of their traditional influence in national affairs," to eradicate the very idea that they have a "legitimate role to play in our politics," according to Jay Rosen, a media critic, professor of journalism at New York University and creator-author of the Pressthink.com Web site (www.journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink).
Although Rosen first began writing about this theory in September, it didn't begin to gain critical mass in cyberspace until March 2, when Eric Boehlert vigorously advanced the debate on Salon.com.
Like Rosen, Boehlert made clear that he was talking about far more than White House attempts to manage the news or to go over the heads of the press corps, directly to the people -- something every administration tries to do. No, Boehlert said, "Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing pseudo-journalist working under a phony name have led some to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news but is out to sabotage the press corps from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself."
The Bush administration, Boehlert contends, "is actually trying to permanently weaken the press. ... Weakening the press weakens an institution that's structurally an adversary of the White House. And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts -- the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate."
Every occupant of the White House has done battle with the media, but Bush is more media-averse than any president in history, perhaps even including Richard Nixon. Bush had fewer solo news conferences in his first term than any president since William Howard Taft, and certainly the examples Boehlert cites amount to a propagandistic subversion of the free press. In a time of increased security concerns, I'm still not sure what to make of the easy White House access granted to James Guckert (a.k.a. Jeff Gannon), a conservative "pseudo-journalist" (to use Rosen's term) who asked Bush biased, softball questions at news conferences and who doubled as a male escort whose nude photos were posted on the Web. But I'm reasonably certain that any explanation of his easy access will not involve a persuasive argument that the Bush administration is committed to the societal benefits of a free and unfettered media.
Early in Bush's first term, Andrew Card, his chief of staff, said that journalists "don't represent the public any more than other people do."
To the Bush administration, journalists are not surrogates for the American people; they're just another annoying group of lobbyists, special-interest pleaders seeking not the information necessary for citizens to make intelligent decisions but only the journalists' own ego-gratification, career advancement and ideological advantage.
Some of this thinking is manifested clearly in the new book "Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House" by Ari Fleischer, who served 2 1/2 years as Bush's White House press secretary.
Fleischer hammers at what he sees as the media's liberal bias and, even worse, at its bias in favor of the kinds of negative stories and nasty conflicts that will get their stories on the front page or at the top of the evening news broadcasts.
"Many Republicans, especially conservatives, believe the press are liberals who oppose Republicans and Republican ideas," Fleischer writes. "I think there's an element of truth to that, but it is complicated, secondary, and often nuanced. More important, the press' first and most pressing bias is in favor of conflict and fighting. That's especially the case for the White House press corps."
Fleischer goes on to detail several instances of the media creating and/or overplaying conflicts in the administration, and I found many of his examples quite persuasive. But I didn't need to be persuaded. I've long known that the media sometimes create conflict where none exists or sensationally overstate conflict for the sake of a good story. It's a tactic that an early city editor of mine disparaged as the "'Let's you and him fight' school of journalism," and I'm as dismayed by it as Fleischer is.
But I don't think Fleischer's criticisms and the Bush administration's actions and attitude toward the media add up to campaign to "decertify" the press or to "undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself."
I'm always wary of allegations about widespread, deep-seated conspiracies. Some of that wariness comes from 30 years of writing about the media and listening to colleagues, competitors, readers and ideologues propound one conspiracy theory after another. When I chased down those theories, I almost invariably found that what appeared to be conspiracy or collusion was, in actuality, the byproduct of stupidity, inefficiency, miscommunication and even, yes, coincidence.
I don't reject the decertification argument because I think the Bush administration wouldn't like to get rid of a free press. I don't think the president welcomes an inquiring media any more than he would welcome a congressional version of the Question Time to which the British Parliament regularly subjects the prime minister.
Nor do I resist the decertification theory because I don't think Bush is smart enough to pull off such an elaborate, sensitive campaign. The byways of American politics are littered with the bodies of those who have underestimated Bush's intelligence. He and those he has been smart enough to hire to serve him have achieved their three major objectives -- his election to the presidency, his re-election and the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
But Iraq remains unfinished business, and given the president's determination to Americanize Iraq (and Iran?) and to privatize Social Security -- as part of what I do see as a determined campaign to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society -- I think he has too much on his plate to spend the time and energy necessary to decertify the press. I'm just not willing to believe the administration intends to destroy the Fourth Estate, just because they don't believe in it either.
Besides, Bush might not have to wage decertification warfare against the media. The way things have been going lately, the media might decertify itself. Just look at any of the recent public opinion surveys showing a steady decline in public confidence in the media. The media have done far more to damage their own credibility than anything the White House has done or could do.
The cast of recent journalistic felons is by now too familiar to require yet another roll call, but their serial fabrications and plagiarism clearly betrayed their colleagues, their profession and our society. Moreover, newspaper and magazine editors and television news executives -- especially in the days before 9/11 -- consistently have sacrificed substance and foreign news coverage to devote time and space to scandal, sensationalism and Hollywood celebrities.
The last time I checked, President Bush didn't dictate wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson and Chandra Levy.