Hannah Arendt once said that a modern liar doesn’t expect to get his story believed, but only to have it accepted as a legitimate opinion in competition with other opinions rather than as a falsehood in conflict with the truth. The news media version of “objectivity,” which treats statements and counter-statements as neutral facts but forbids the reporter to “editorialize” by comparing either with objective reality, clearly helps that strategy along.
But it turns out that there are limits.
With Bush Administration officials making claims that are contradicted by live reporting, the press is, at least for the moment, refusing to play the “he said — she said” game with respect to what’s happening, and not happening, in New Orleans. The press is covering the discrepancies not as “controversy” but as a case of officials either spinning or simply not knowing what they’re talking about.
Ron Fornier of the AP is even willing to generalize:
The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent’s identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn’t match the public’s view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.
As New Orleans descended into anarchy, top Bush administration officials congratulated each other for jobs well done and spoke of water, food and troops pouring into the ravaged city. Television pictures told a different story.
“What it reminded me of the other day is ‘Baghdad Bob’ saying there are no Americans at the airport,” said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant in Washington. He was referring to Saddam Hussein’s reality-challenged minister of information who denied the existence of U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital.
Even the New York Daily News is getting into the act:
President Bush barnstormed areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina yesterday in a gesture meant to curb growing criticism that the feds were missing in action this week when help was most needed.
“I’m satisfied with the response, I’m not satisfied with all of the results,” Bush said after he toured storm-ravaged Biloxi, Miss., and posed for pictures with teary-eyed victims.
Ignore for a moment the quote in the second graf — a quote which will, I hope, be indelibly associated with Mr. Bush’s name — and savor the rest of the text. The phrase …posed for pictures with teary-eyed victims is completely accurate and objective, of course: the President was, precisely, posing for pictures with teary-eyed victims. But reporting his posing as posing, rather than the standard practice of reporting that the President “comforted victims of the disaster,” deftly deconstructs the spin. The lead does the same thing: it reports a bit of political showmanship as political showmanship, rather than reporting its pretense as fact.
If this attitude lasts, and carries over into other areas, the results could be profound. So much of this administration’s political strategy has depended on being able to get away with saying things that were grossly at odds with reality that depriving Bush, Rove & Co. of that option would be a crippling blow.