What Our Media Taught Me

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

I’ve been over here in Europe for about ten days, getting a different perspective on our illustrious media and how it is handling the various Obama “troubles.”

Perspective and distance are sometime valuable. I used to think, given the enormous size of the bureaucracy and the tragic nature of the human condition, that from time to time disasters would overwhelm us — and there would be not much the president of the United States could do about them. But after Katrina, the media taught me that neither the mayor nor the governor nor the Army Corps of Engineers nor the people of New Orleans were at fault for either the vulnerability to the chance of a catastrophic Katrina or the response after its arrival. No, you see, the commander in chief is the ultimate arbiter of successful or unsuccessful reactions to all such disasters. OK, so be it.

So while I am not inclined to blame Barack Obama for the scandalous federal laxity in the now polluted Gulf, the media long ago taught me that I most certainly should.

I don’t play golf. Never have swung a club. But in the spirit of live and let live, I also never cared much for deconstructing the game in terms of culture and sociology. The media, however, in 2002, taught me that I should in the case of George Bush — that his swing and even his use of a golf cart reflected a certain class disdain for us, or at least a frat-boy frivolity at a time of two ongoing wars. So while I would like to give our present president a pass on his obsession with playing golf at a frequency far in excess to poor George Bush’s, I cannot. I am conditioned now to grasp that Obama’s golf craze is a sort of self-indulgence reflective of a disturbing narcissist who entertains a shocking indifference toward the rest of us.

Press conferences were always painful to watch. Finger-in-the-wind pundits try to one up their commander-in-chief, who, in turn, is always one slip of the tongue away from global scandal. But the press during the Bush administration also taught me that we need these feeding frenzies frequently, and must demand that our executives prove to be both eloquent and veracious. So while I don’t much care whether Obama stutters off the teleprompter, or idiotically says things like “corpse-man,” or misleads us on matters of fact, or even grossly says things such as the beheading of Daniel Pearl “captured the world’s imagination [1],” the media lectured me that I very much should care — namely, that President Obama almost never gives a press conference, and on the rare occasions when he does, we know why he was wise not to have done so in the past.

I used to think leadership meant from time to time taking on public opinion, advocating an unpopular position in a genuine belief it was for the long-term good of the country. However, here too the enlightened media taught me once that it is not so. When George Bush wanted to reform Social Security, Barack Obama was widely quoted by the press as a voice of wisdom in warning Bush not to beat a dead horse — given that the public polled overwhelmingly against any changes in Social Security (apparently fiscal insolvency will alone be the remedy for long-needed changes). In other words, we live in a democracy, and even a popularly elected president should not ram down something the people don’t want. Note that argument was advanced again with the Bush insistence on the unpopular (but ultimately successful) surge in Iraq.

Therefore, while I want to say that it was the president’s prerogative to push through an unpopular healthcare takeover, and to oppose a very popular Arizona law, I have learned that it was almost undemocratic that he has done so. The press instructed me on that again. Why tear apart the country, virtually create a tea-party movement, or pit Arizona against California by stoking the fires of resentment by so diametrically opposing what 60 percent and more of the people want?

Once upon a time, I also thought we were in an existential war with radical Islam. For thirty years and more, terrorists have evoked their religion as they tried to blow up, shoot, or behead Westerners. After the mass murders of 9/11, I thought George Bush was wise to adopt things like intercepts, wiretaps, Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predator attacks, and taking the fight to both the Taliban and oil-fed murderous Middle East dictators like Saddam Hussein. But then the media established that these were all not only anti-constitutional measures, but quite unnecessary acts as well. Instead, the anti-terrorism protocols and wars abroad were a reflection of an executive branch out of control, one that could only be stopped by popular agitation, the enlightened criticism of Hollywood artisans, law suits, filibusters, and constant press opposition. So while I am inclined to applaud that Barack Obama has trebled the number of Predator missions, kept Guantanamo open, adopted the Bush-Petraeus plan in Iraq, escalated in Afghanistan, kept renditions and all elements of the Patriotic Act, I confess now that all this is very wrong, without utility and a veritable coup on the part of the executive branch to overturn the separation of powers as established in the Constitution. The media, alas, taught me that too.

Nothing is worse than public servants taking money by abusing the public trust or horse-trading in matters of the public interest. Even the incessant narcissism of putting their names on every bridge or building they authorize with public money nauseates me. So I was glad to see all those right-wing crooks and hypocrites from Duke Cunningham to Larry Craig leave in disgrace. Shame on them! The watchdog media reinforced my inclination to give them no quarter.

So while I would like to cut some slack for the memory of the late John Murtha, or a poor harried Chris Dodd, or an elderly Charles Rangel, I simply cannot. All the good that they did surely cannot balance out their serial ethical lapses. If a Timothy Geithner skipped a few taxes, or a Chris Dodd got a break on a loan here and there, then they rightly must descend into the Abramoff inferno with Cunningham and Foley and Craig. I admire an old admiral like Joe Sestak and understand quid pro quo is the mother’s milk of politics, but thanks to the watchdog media during various ethical problematics in the Bush administration — from the federal attorney firings to Halliburton — I now realize that there can be no tolerance for even the appearance of moral ambiguity. So let the tough media inquiries continue.

Somewhere around the millennium, a new style of aggressive, public-interested, and astute reporter began sermonizing in print, advising on the Internet, and lecturing us on television. At the time I mistakenly assumed that reporters were too often partisans who were creating new, almost impossible standards of probity in order to embarrass conservative opponents: they wanted Republican scandal first, news second. But now, I see that they were simply laying nonpartisan new ground rules for the Bush administration so that they could later prove their integrity and professionalism when a member of their own faith would come into the new crucible of public examination. There was never, you see, a hate-Bush media. So we will shortly see that now as they unrelentingly turn their scrutiny on Barack Obama and his legion of ethical and competency lapses.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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