"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Once upon a time, America had a rogue and lawless president who was willing to break the law to destroy his political opponents, use the full force of the federal government to carry out his personal and political whims, and generally act like he was a king, free of either "checks" or "balances." The Washington Post played an historic role in exposing his corruption, his law-breaking, his lack of regard for the Constitution. There is a reason the Post's work inspired a generation of reporters -- and it wasn't just the hopes of being portrayed by Robert Redford on the silver screen. The Post's coverage of Watergate was a heroic effort that stands among the most important work any Americans have ever done in service to their nation.

They just stand back and let it all be

Once upon a time, America had a rogue and lawless president who was willing to break the law to destroy his political opponents, use the full force of the federal government to carry out his personal and political whims, and generally act like he was a king, free of either "checks" or "balances." The Washington Post played an historic role in exposing his corruption, his law-breaking, his lack of regard for the Constitution. There is a reason the Post's work inspired a generation of reporters -- and it wasn't just the hopes of being portrayed by Robert Redford on the silver screen. The Post's coverage of Watergate was a heroic effort that stands among the most important work any Americans have ever done in service to their nation.

But that was more than 30 years ago. Today, the Post counts haircuts and estimates cleavage.

That's not completely fair. The Post, like other major news outlets, continues to produce excellent journalism and to cover important stories. The front page of today's Post, for example, includes an article that begins:

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday contradicted the sworn testimony of his boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, by telling Congress that a prominent warrantless surveillance program was the subject of a dramatic legal debate within the Bush administration.

That's an important story, clearly reported, placed prominently on page A1.

So we don't mean to suggest that the nation's news media are completely ignoring important news. They aren't. But we have long noted that leading news outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times have, by all available evidence, devoted significantly fewer resources to covering scandalous Bush administration actions than they devoted to covering President Clinton's relationship with a staffer.

When the Monica Lewinsky story broke, the Times and the Post -- like nearly every other news outlet in the country -- dedicated extraordinary resources to covering it. The day after the story broke, the Times and the Post ran a combined total of 19 articles about it, five of them on the front page. Twenty-eight reporters combined to write more than 20,000 words about a "scandal" that boiled down to whether the president told the truth about a consensual relationship that was ruled immaterial to a civil lawsuit that was thrown out of court for being entirely without merit. That's 28 reporters and 20,000 words -- at just two newspapers in just one day.

That relentless wall-to-wall coverage continued unabated for more than a year.

Fast-forward a few years. We have a president who has lied to the country in order to take it to war against a nation that didn't attack us, created a network of secret prisons, embraced torture, held people without trial or access to lawyers or even being charged with anything, used the government to spy on its own citizens, used "signing statements" to declare that he will not follow the very laws he is signing, and presided over an administration that is routinely described as "lawless" and that generally behaves as though the United States Congress has no more authority than the Ridgemont High School student council. Among other transgressions against the truth, the law, the Constitution, and human dignity.

And, it is important to note, those are not my conclusions. Those are conclusions that have each been reached by countless legal experts, scholars, and editorial boards, based on facts reported by countless journalists and placed in countless news reports by countless editors.

So, given what the occupants of the nation's most influential newsrooms clearly know -- what they have said and written before -- shouldn't the media be devoting greater coverage to the basic matter of whether or not we still live in a nation of laws?

Last night, for example, CBS News devoted 109 words to Mueller's contradiction of Gonzales' sworn testimony -- and that was the most meaningful coverage the network's evening news broadcast has ever devoted to Gonzales' attempt to strong-arm the hospitalized Ashcroft into overruling the acting attorney general's refusal to certify the administration's warantless domestic spying operation.

A mere 109 words for dramatic evidence that the attorney general of the United States may have lied to Congress.

You can hardly blame CBS for rushing through the story, though. They had other news to get to, and precious little time. Anchor Katie Couric explained: "Finally tonight, if you're a cat lover, or even if you're not, there's a cat in Rhode Island we felt we just had to tell you about. He has a very special ability to predict the future."

You see, Oscar the cat knows when people are going to die, and he curls up next to them.

CBS "just had to tell you about" Oscar the cat. Just had to spend 490 words on Oscar the cat.

Yesterday, the director of the FBI gave testimony that suggested that the attorney general may have lied in his own sworn testimony, but last night, CBS News had more important news to report. News about Oscar the cat.

There are very real and very serious questions about whether the United States is currently a fully functional republic. About whether our president feels compelled to obey the law and to respect Congress as an equal branch of government and to follow the Constitution. About whether we still have a system of checks and balances rather than a monarchy -- or whether that is but a quaint notion that will live on only in schoolchildren's history books, if at all.

Isn't it time news organizations devote more resources to exploring these issues -- even if it means fewer stories about cats and cleavage?

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