I've always heard that the media is the "permanent government" in Washington. Politicians come and go, but the bigwigs are here forever. For example, in 1989 Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post, dismissed John Sununu, the first President Bush's chief of staff, as "a jack-leg governor from a horse's ass state; how could he play with us in the big leagues?"
This combination of power, permanence and arrogance -not liberal bias - is often the real secret behind many of the elite media's problems. Because conventional wisdom flows from the top down, many rank-and-file journalists are afraid to question it.
But I never appreciated this dynamic sufficiently until the recent kerfuffle over Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" interview with Colin Powell.
You may have heard that Powell made the rounds - by satellite from Jordan - on the Sunday shows on May 16. He made some real news: He admitted that much of the information in his famous U.N. presentation was flawed or wrong. But that news was either lost or dampened by the excitement of a camera showing a palm tree.
Here's what happened. Powell was taping an interview with Russert - one of five that morning. The interview was scheduled to last 10 minutes. At 13-plus minutes, Powell's press secretary Emily Miller (stupidly) tried to end the interview by having the camera move off of Powell. It panned over to a palm tree.
There was some momentary confusion. Powell said the interview was still going. His aides demurred for an instant. Russert sounded offended: "I would hope they would put you back on camera. . I think that was one of your staff." His indignation rising, Russert declared: "Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate."
Powell ordered the camera back on him and invited Russert to re-ask his last question. And the "drama" was over.
Now, for reasons I find unfathomable, Russert seems to believe that in those 30 or so seconds, the fate of the free press hung in the balance. On CNN he declared, "I've been in countries where staffers pull the plug on people. This is the United States of America. It really is unacceptable."
A "taxpayer-paid employee interrupted an interview," he exclaimed to The Washington Post. "Not in the United States of America, that's not supposed to go on. This is attempted news management gone berserk."
Get thee to thy fainting couch, Tim! A government employee attempted to cut off an interview! In America!
Uh, folks, this happens every day.