Friday, February 17, 2006

Illegible

Jay Rosen elaborates on the meaning of Quailgate, noting that the White House, partly at Dick Cheney’s instigation, has systematically marginalized the national media and particularly the White House press corps. Given that the WHPC does have more than its share of prima donnas, who appear obnoxious even when they are actually acting in the nation’s best interest, there is no political downside to dissing them, as there once was. Quite the opposite:

The public visibility of the presidency itself is under revision … More of it lies in shadow all the time. Non-communication has become the standard procedure, not a breakdown in practice but the essence of it. What Dan Froomkin calls the Bush Bubble is designed to keep more of the world out. Cheney himself is almost a shadow figure in the executive branch. His whereabouts are often not known. With these changes, executive power has grown more illegible under Bush the Younger— a sign of the times in Washington.

Cheney has long held the view that the powers of the presidency were dangerously eroded in the 1970s and 80s. The executive “lost” perogatives it needed to gain back for the global struggle with Islamic terror. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70’s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area,” he
said in December.

Some of that space was lost to the news media, and its demand to be informed about all aspects of the presidency, plus its sense of entitlement to the star interlocutor’s role. Cheney opposes all that, whereas Fitzwater accepted most of it. That’s why Fitz is appalled and Cheney is rather pleased with himself.The people yelling questions at Scott McClellan in the briefing room, like the reporters in the Washington bureaus who cover the president, are in Cheney’s calculations neither a necessary evil, nor a public good. They are an unnecessary evil and a public bad— ex-influentials who can be disrespected without penalty.

Where is all of this going? Is the MSM on a trajectory toward complete irrelevance, to replaced by Fox News and right-wing bloggers as the conduit for political news? To the extent the media’s current problems are the result of multiplying competition and declining audiences, perhaps. But the Bush/Cheney pushback may end up being short-lived, as the White House’s treatment of the media depends entirely on the occupant of the White House. If John McCain is elected, for instance, things will change – at least until the media inevitably turns on him. If a Democrat is elected (s)he will not be able to turn to the phalanx of puffed-up talk-show hosts and other right-wing news outlets Bush/Cheney use to get their story out.

But having been shut down so effectively during the Bush years, the White House press corps will probably never regain the privileges or respect it once got from the institution it covers.