In order to make sense of their world, understand what ails us, and fix what needs fixing, Americans have to have reliable sources of information. These have been declining, it seems to me, for at least thirty years, and the situation has hardly ever been as bad as it is today. The political process is largely to blame, but not, it seems to me, in exactly the way that most people think—that is, because of excessive partisanship. Two trends are converging—one, the right’s belief, both inside and outside the Administration, that information must be controlled, and the other, a bizarre self-denial on the part of the press, that has been persuaded that its opinions do not matter.
In one of the few genuinely revealing moments in the documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara stated his rule for dealing with interviews: don’t answer the question you are asked, answer the question that you wanted to be asked. (The film-maker Errol Morris either had failed to do his homework or had decided not to be controversial, and therefore allowed McNamara to get away with a number of whoppers, such as the statement that he had never contemplated or imagined the assassination of Fidel Castro.) The Bush Administration has begun by turning McNamara’s rule into an art form. The responses of Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan to any question from the White House press corps can be absolutely predicted based upon the subject matter of the question. Any query about Iraq elicits a paragraph on the establishment of democracy and our plans to withdraw when the Iraqis take over their own security; any question about the economy provokes a disquisition on the pro-growth effects of “tax relief;” anything about Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita produces a speech on how the Administration is coordinating every level of government to meet the needs of those affected. McClellan had a bad week when Matthew Cooper revealed his conversations with Karl Rove, but endless repetitions of the need to wait for the outcome of the investigation wore the press down. This, however, is only one aspect of the Administration’s technique, and not the most important one, since hardly anyone reads press briefings anyway.
More important is the refusal of the Administration to give reporters anything to write about by refusing to answer questions. The President has set the tone by holding virtually no press conferences, and by confining reporters to two questions when he appears with foreign leaders. But others have followed. Two weeks ago, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, I saw Michael Chertoff, whose Agency was failing to deal with the situation, haughtily tell reporters after making a statement that he would take just three questions, and that they had better craft their questions carefully, since that was all he would take. At about the same time, President Bush met reporters briefly but denied any knowledge when asked about Mike Brown’s resignation. He thereby avoided having to explain why he had told “Brownie” he was “doing a heckuva job” a few days before, but meanwhile, no reporter even dared ask him about the revelations that Brown had faked his resume—a story that died with Brown’s resignation. Two days ago the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration resigned after just a few months in office, without giving any real explanation.
The Administration’s reflexes work most reliably about anything having to do with terrorism. Another amazing story passed almost unnoticed two weeks ago, when the members of the 9/11 commission, after more than a year of effort, secured the partial release of a portion of their report the Administration had insisted on classifying. It explained that in 1998, the FAA had issued a warning that terrorists might try to hijack airliners and fly them into prominent American landmarks, and added warnings about lax security at various airports, including at least one of those from which the 9/11 hijackers took off. Knowledge of this warning could not possibly have hurt the security of the United States at this point, and it reflected at least as harshly upon the Clinton Administration as the Bush one, but it would have decisively undermined Condolezza Rice’s statements that no one had imagined this scenario, and therefore, it had to be withheld at least until after the election of November 2004. So it was. The 9/11 Commission, one of its authors recently explained in The New Republic, was determined to issue a nonpartisan report. Did that mean that the commissioners were not willing to defy the Administration or threaten to resign on issues like the FAA report that might be seen to reflect too unfavorably on an incumbent President running for re-election?
Such self-denial, rather than bias, is, I think, the heart of the conservative ascendancy in the current information wars—and I don’t think it is very well understood.
As I have noted many times, the current Administration and its allies have mounted an attack not only on the domestic and foreign policies of the last seventy years, but upon the foundations of the last 250 years of western civilization. Economically they are committed to the unbridled exercise of market power. In foreign policy they believe in unilateral American action, not common observance to impartial principles. And intellectually they are exalting faith over reason, refusing to accept the lessons of science on medical and environmental issues, and attempting to make faith, rather than reason, the source of truth. In none of these areas, I suspect, do their views represent a majority of Americans, but they do not care. What remains to be explained, however, is how such ideas, which 45 years ago would have struck the American public as ludicrous, can have gone so far in the twenty-first century.
The older vision, emphasizing rationalism over faith, took over the American higher educational system, especially at the highest levels, beginning in the late nineteenth century and extending through most of the twentieth. Beginning in the 1980s a new generation of academics began attacking the rationalist paradigm within universities, but although that attack has had a terrible impact upon university life, it has only marginally affected American politics. The young men and women who emerged from our elite universities and went into the media were products of three centuries of western civilization—nominally religious at most, trusting in science, and committed to some measure of real equality among citizens. By the 1980s, however, it was increasingly unlikely that any of them would have learned anything about the limitations of the free market in economics courses, since the New Deal/Great Society generation of economists was suffering an almost total professional eclipse.
What has happened, it seems to me, is that the editors and publishers who control our media have decided that their own beliefs are not worthy of any particular respect merely by virtue of their pedigree. Since Ronald Reagan they have actually been inhibited about expressing their own views—because they are their own views. Since Reagan, and now George W. Bush, have been elected twice apiece, their views deserve as much respect as anyone’s. And of course, as outsiders for so long, the right wing have been much less inhibited about expressing their views than the center. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of religion. It is probably still true that most Americans with advanced degrees are atheists or agnostics, but can anyone name one major public figure or commentator who is proud of his atheism or agnosticism, or who is willing to argue, as many courageous folk did a century ago, that religion is essentially superstition unworthy of intelligent human beings? I would not go quite that far myself and I have no wish to impede anyone’s exercise of their own religion, but I do think that the unilateral disarmament of the rationalists among us is giving religion far more influence in our public life than it deserves.
Oddly, too, the Right has stolen a march on the rest of us by projecting its own emotionalism. As neoconservative David Brooks made clear in a recent column, to “hate” the Administration, in the eyes of the right, disqualifies one as a serious observer. A serious person, apparently, would accept the Administration as well within the new mainstream. (It would be interesting to see if Bush in 1998 were similarly criticizing the unreasoning hatred of Bill Clinton. Somehow, I doubt it.) But difficult times do, and should, arouse strong emotions. The unilateral disarmament of the center has gone far enough, and it is becoming necessary to take sides if we want to avoid recreating the early Victorian era in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not clear, however, that the heirs of the Enlightenment will be able to do this.