Journalists as Ring Wraiths

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Today’s Washington journalists are like J. R. R. Tolkien’s ring wraiths, petty lords who wanted a few shiny golden Obama rings — only to end up as shrunken slaves to the One.

The Bob Woodward/Ron Fournier/Lanny Davis psychodrama is another small reminder that the Obama administration continues to assume that the press should be little more than a veritable Ministry of Truth. Its proper duty is to serve the White House and promote the progressive agenda of Barack Obama. Any were considered suspect who questioned whether those exalted ends should really be achieved by any means necessary — but they were so few and far between that it mattered little.

Woodward, Fournier, and Davis, in their surprise at the general paranoia of the Obama administration, must think that freelancing White House zealots are tarnishing the reputation of their president, who, given his own predilections, would otherwise not countenance such clumsy intimidation of journalists.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to assume that Barack Obama has established the tenor and methodology of press relations from the very outset of his administration, characterized by expectations of unfailing support, coupled with a general vindictiveness toward his few critics among the press corps. In the past, Obama’s habit of leaking the divorce records of opponents, his calls for supporters to confront opponents and “get in their face,” petty threats in St. Louis by prosecutors against any who might say untrue things about Obama, and successful pressure to keep unpublished the Obama speech praising the radical Palestinian-American Rashid Khalidi were not even news, but usually written off as the normal pro-Obama zeal. Obama alone could not have elevated The View to a supposedly serious 60 Minutes-type news show — and reduced 60 Minutes to the inanity of The View.

The former White House communications director, Anita Dunn, once (among other astounding declarations) denounced Fox News as essentially an illegitimate news network, “Obviously [the president] will go on Fox because he engages with ideological opponents. He has done that before and he will do it again. . . . When he goes on Fox he understands he is not going on it as a news network at this point. He is going on it to debate the opposition.”

But that was not freelancing on Dunn’s part. Obama himself later went after Fox directly, in a manner that might be characterized as preemptive bullying: “I think what we really have to do is change some of the incentive structures so that people feel liberated to pursue some common ground. One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it.”

Note the key phrase “is not punished.” “Punish” is a favorite word of Barack Obama’s (as in “punish our enemies”), and he assumes both that his opponents have the same mindset that he does, and that there is a way to stop a news organization from doing something he does not like. You see, in the Chicago organizing mind of Barack Obama, elected officials never act on principle, but only adopt positions in relationship to the likelihood of being punished or not punished. And note too that “common ground” is always defined by Obama as his own ideological turf.

Presidential example filters down the chain of command. Have we forgotten that, in the first year of the Obama administration, Yosi Sergant, then “communications director” of the National Endowment for the Arts, in a conference call to artists who were to participate in government-subsidized programs, urged them to use their influence to further the Obama agenda? If the NEA was to be politicized, what federal agency would not be?

Do we remember “,” whose website offered “files” on potential Obama critics? Its spooky, pseudo-intelligence red-and-black format offered names and pictures, and asked readers to report critics with the invitation, “Have you seen or heard this attack?” “Yes/No.”

Long before Rahm Emanuel went after Chick-fil-A (“Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values”), he had, as White House chief of staff, warned states and their congressional representatives that they would be punished should they criticize the president’s stimulus.

At various times Barack Obama has derided the Chamber of Commerce, and, on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, he tried to suggest that it was corrupt. In 2008, candidate Obama told us that doctors, in an endless search for profits, needlessly cut off limbs and yanked out tonsils.

The president of the United States has often demonized his opponents as those who need to be punished, or who seek to arrest children on their way to ice-cream parlors, or who are content with dirtying the air and water and shorting autistic children. For four years, those who have argued that more taxation is not the cure for serial trillion-dollar annual deficits have been reduced to fat-cat bankers, corporate-jet owners, and millionaires and billionaires, and have been lectured on when they have made enough money.

I do not recall any member of the White House press corps reminding the president that to lump millionaires and billionaires together is to suggest that being worth a million dollars is as culpable as being worth 1,000 times that sum. More commonly, the press corps asks the president why he can’t just force his opponents to come over to his side. This plea from his media ministers usually elicits from a wistful Obama something like, “I’m not a dictator,” or emperor, or king — or fill in the blank. When Press Secretary Robert Gibbs simply pulled the 2,500 targeted assassinations by Predator drones off the table, DC journalists nodded, and they stayed off the table. When a US ambassador is murdered, it used to be news; now the news is the scoundrel who dares to think it is news.

That presidential model explains why the attorney general adopts the bipolarity between “cowards” and “my people,” or why the vice president warns blacks that Republicans wish to put them “back in chains.” Joe Biden’s faux black accent was no better and no worse than Barack Obama’s own manufactured cadences when the occasion demands. Following the Obama example explains why the EPA chief adopted phony email personas to distort discussion of issues. Or why Department of Justice communication flacks coordinated with Media Matters to attack critics of Eric Holder’s policies.

What was the purpose of the 2008 faux-Greek columns, the Latin motto, the promises to cool the earth and calm the rising seas, if not to create a divine persona, soon be reflected on cue in everything from JournoList to Chris Matthews’s tingling leg to Evan Thomas’s “I mean in a way Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.” How many times can a Washington toady invoke the Gettysburg Address to supersize another mediocre Obama speech?

In the same way that the operatives of the Nixon White House once channeled the character of Richard Nixon, so too the Obama administration reflects the manner in which Barack Obama has always campaigned and viewed politics. His 2004 Senate run and two presidential campaigns all shared the same modus operandi of unleashing surrogates to tar opponents, bully critics, romance the mainstream media, and caricature the shrinking number of journalistic kulaks — all while deploring the politics of personal destruction.

The Woodward fiasco is different only in that a few liberals now feel that, given that Obama need not face election again, they should be allowed to salvage some journalistic integrity by mild cross-examination and pathetic eleventh-hour confessions of past White House pressure. Or, in the words of journalist Mark Halperin, writing of the Woodward affair, “It’s a little embarrassing none of the rest of us was as aggressive as he was.” Four years ago it was a little embarrassing; now it is only predictable.

Cannot Obama be somewhat magnanimous and give our modern-day Nazgûl a few face-saving measures after they have sold their souls on so many occasions when it counted? Of course not; emaciated wraiths remain wraiths. Dissent is equated with a sort of disloyalty among the supposedly kindred minds of fellow culture warriors. By questioning motives, they have earned justifiable rebuke — or worse.

You see, in the worldview of Barack Obama, he has only so much time to protect the helpless and, for the first time in our history, transform us into a fair and just America — a monumental task that can brook no reactionary dissent, especially among those who certainly should know better and had so long ago pledged their fealty.

©2013 Victor Davis Hanson

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