President vs. Press: The Media's Attempt to Take Down Another Republican President

In The Making of the President 1972, Theodore White saw the Nixon-McGovern election as other than a partisan battle for the White House between Republicans and Democrats. 

The title of chapter 10 is “Power Struggle: President Versus Press.”  Wrote White:

“What lay at issue in 1972 between Richard Nixon on the one hand and the adversary press and media of America, on the other, was simple: It was power.”

In White’s judgment, Sen. McGovern was probably not in the top ten on the real Nixon enemies list, which was headed by the Washington Post, CBS, the New York Times — with Hanoi fourth.  And in that struggle for control of the national agenda, Nixon scored a smashing victory. 

But the Post, the Times and CBS were down not out.  Nixon had blundered in handling the “third-rate burglary” of Watergate, and as the cover-up unraveled, the media exposed and attacked day in and out, as Congressional investigators and the special prosecutor’s office leaked and leaked, until Nixon’s White House came down.

The press had won the second battle, but would lose the war.  For the remorselessness and savagery of the attacks and the jubilation of the press in the fall of Nixon stripped the media of its most priceless asset: credibility.  Media claims to have been neutral, honest, objective, and fair were seen by tens of millions as a joke by 1974.  By celebrating its role in bringing Nixon down, the press could no longer sustain the claim it was not a savage partisan of the Left and a co-belligerent and auxiliary of the Democratic Party.  Trust in the media has been sinking ever since.

As important, the Right had seen where real power lay in America — with a media that could bring down presidents.  They gravitated to it. 

In the 1970s, conservatives crossed over into the press and came to dominate op-ed pages as columnists.  In the 1980s national TV talk shows like “The McLaughlin Group,” where conservatives were evenly matched with liberals, appeared. 

In the same decade, talk radio went national and was taken over by voices of the Right.  In the 1990s, CNN was followed by Fox News and MSNBC.  Conservatives became part of the national TV dialogue and debate.  In the 1990s, too, came the Internet, where, again, conservative, populist and libertarian websites proliferated.

In the Nixon era, Pat Moynihan observed that what was lacking on the Right were “second and third echelons of advocacy.”  Well, the Right has them now, in depth.  And sensing correctly where the real CentCom of liberalism is located, the conservative media spend as much time attacking “Mainstream Media” as they do Hillary Clinton.

When CBS’ Dan Rather went down, after having been duped into broadcasting some bogus anti-Bush memos in Campaign 2000, Republicans reacted as Ben Bradlee had when Nixon fell. 

Which brings us to the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame affair.

Clearly, there is blood in the water.  To listen to, to look in the gleaming eyes of the liberal media, you can see that they smell it. 

When Scott McClellan said no one in the White House had any connection with the outing of Joe Wilson’s wife as a CIA operative, he was clearly misled by White House colleagues.  For we now know, from Matt Cooper’s notes, that Rove cited Plame, if not by name, as promoting Wilson for the CIA-sponsored visit to Niger to check out the yellowcake story. 

But the White House press corps has begun treating McClellan like some particularly nasty and defiant prisoner at Guantanamo.

What is causing the early signs of a press feeding frenzy is a sense –probably correct –something big is coming down.  After all, Patrick J. Fitzgerald has probably not spent two years turning over rocks without finding a lizard.  And he and Judge Tom Hogan would probably not be sending journalists to jail unless they were onto something serious. 

And if Judy Miller went to jail rather than reveal a source, why did the source not release her?  Is she covering for a high White House aide with a serious criminal liability?

But with the baiting and hectoring of McClellan and the “death watch” of TV cameras outside Rove’s home every morning, the press should know it is not perceived here as advancing “the people’s right to know.”  Everybody knows this is about what Watergate was about and Iran-Contra was about: ruining a Republican President the Left could not defeat at the ballot box.

New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin calls the mainstream media “basically liberals with press passes” who have become the opposition party to President Bush.

Thus, if the White House wins this fight, the media will be the losers.  And if the White House loses this fight, Middle America will say the press crippled another President.

Lose-lose, as they say.