True Story, False Report

Have you ever wondered what it is that liberal journalists fantasize about when they get together to chew the non-fat?  Then you have come to the right place, because you can always count on me to tell it to you straight.

They turn to each other with eyes brimful of longing and pine: what if the President called a press conference and nobody came?  That would be the ultimate snub, an act of disdain through dismissal, loudly declaring to the Prez that he is irrelevant, he is an empty suit, a paperweight on the desk of the Oval Office holding some documents down until Hillary can get around to them.  How sweet that would be!  “Mr. President, you are no longer newsworthy.”

Unfortunately, their thought continues, they could not get away with it.  The President would come out, see only the Human Events gal and the National Review guy, and he would spontaneously load them up with enough scoops to make a banana split.  The libs’ readers would howl, their bosses would growl, their editors would scowl, and a bad time would be had by all.  So, bitterly, reluctantly, resignedly but resentfully, they still show up at White House press conferences.

Last week reporters got a chance to have some of that satisfaction, the merest flavor of it but still tasty.  Fires were lashing Southern California, riding the winds to burn holes in the map from Los Angeles to San Diego.  FEMA announced a press conference to speak about their role in disaster relief in the area.  Lo and behold, nobody showed.  The bureaucrats stood by, eager to trumpet their achievements, but nary an ink-stained thumb or dog-eared notebook awaited on the other side of the mikes.  What if they burned a tree in a forest and nobody saw the flames?   

So one Washington policy wonk looked at another and an idea was formed.  They split up the bureaucratic team into two halves.  Half stood geekily but proudly at their usual spot on the podium, delivering the latest updates from their brave effort to fight fire with cash.  The other half pretended to be newsies and fired softball questions to their colluding colleagues.  When word of this deception leaked, there was hell to pay.  Networks and news organizations threw a hissy fit and shortly thereafter so did Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary and the ultimate boss of FEMA.

He fired a guy, blocked someone’s promotion and in general lambasted his subordinates in public.  He added that he had used “Anglo-Saxon words” when berating them behind closed doors.  (Don’t you hate a guy who tries to demonstrate his manliness by telling you how much vulgarity, profanity and obscenity he uses when addressing his employees?)

Well, color me unimpressed.  It is one thing if they did not notify the press and put on a staged conference to avoid real confrontation.  Here they made the calls but the scribblers chose not to show, whether because they wanted to embarrass the Bush administration or because there were bigger stories to cover.  If you ask me, that was a clever improvisation on the part of the FEMA guys.  If you invite your neighbors to a party and they rudely don’t show, then you know what, the heck with them, the show must go on.  

Chertoff says it is the stupidest thing he has seen in his years in government, but perhaps Michael needs to grow a sense of humor.  No crime was committed.  No one was victimized.  Maybe those guys were not being paid by actual publications, but they can ask the basic queries as well as anyone.  As for the tough questions, it was the real press that decided not to ask them, not the government proxies.  By staying away, reporters forfeited their chance to pop the questions.

Journalism is more or less of an honorable profession, which is how I fell into it.  Still, there is a self-mythologizing culture among the ranks, with an overblown image of an anointed Fourth Estate that provides the final check and most refined balance on the “other” three branches.  They act as if impersonating a reporter is the equivalent of pulling over cars in a police uniform or pulling teeth in a dentist’s smock.  Chertoff may have his own issues with guys pulling fast ones without approval, but he did not need to buy into the press’ magnified portrayal of what was actually a cute prank.  If the media want to show up the Bush administration, the least they could do is show up.