Thursday, January 13, 2005

Frank Rich on Armstrong Williams, propagandist

Frank Rich's new column is a customarily excellent commentary on media shenanigans, specifically the Armstrong Williams scandal. A high point:

Perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."

This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.

No, the Soviets couldn't have. Yet more proof of the Triumph of the Free Market.

This is good stuff, but I'm bothered, in the discourse over the Armstrong scandal, by the implicit assumption or the explicit statement that the White House - Rove, Cheney, even Bush II - was responsible for hiring Armstrong. I know there's some evidence that this might be true (Rove's penchant for micromanagement and for "staying on message"), but I think that it's too simple, too conspiratorial, and, honestly, too naive. Neither the White House nor even a high-but-not-top level appointee like Rod Paige necessarily needed to be involved in getting Williams to shill for No Child Left Behind (or in similar scandals, like those Rich discusses.) Four years into Bush's presidency, his ethos of playing to win, ignoring evidence, and asserting rather than persuading has utterly permeated the government. The lieutenants on the front lines - say, in the Deparment of Ed's PR office - don't need to get instructions from the White House because they know what those instructions would be, and they understand that they are empowered to adjust means to ends. Judging by other examples, we can assume the same is true at Department of State and the Pentagon - where the sums are far larger than Armstrong's puny stipend and where, ultimately, the means create corpses.