The decline and fall of the bemoaning empire

Posted: Jul 06, 2006 12:00 AM

Are New Yorkers embarrassed by their media titans?

Bill Keller goes on Face the Nation and pleads for Americans to understand that the press "is not neutral" in the war.

Ace reporter Eric Lichtblau is reduced to a bad Jon Lovitz routine: "The story couldn't have helped the terrorists! They already knew everything! Yeah, that's the ticket! Everything! Yeah, Dick Clarke told me that. Everybody knows that."

Then New Yorker editor David Remnick runs a Talk of the Town that summons up Nixon to haunt all of our dreams, "Nattering Nabobs." Nixon's campaign against the good guys in the press had taken "fearsome legal shape" in the summer of 1971 when the government actually sought a prior restraint.

Fearsome, that. A lawsuit.

But the press had prevailed, then, though narrowly. And it had not seen "Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others in the Nixon-Agnew-Ford orbit [leave] Washington believing that the imperial Presidency had been disastrously hobbled by a now imperial press."

But Dick Cheney snuck back in --first as a Congressman, then as a Secretary of Defense, and then twice elected as Veep, and he had sinister plans, and "an ideological noise machine," backed up by a "coordinated offensive" from Bush and Cheney, who "described the Times report as a disgrace and, outrageously, as a boon to further terror attacks."

As though Bush and Cheney don't know that the terrorists knew everything already, except for that amateur Hambali, who you have to admit, got nabbed by the Swift program all the terrorists knew about. Oh, and that other guy, and the others. Well, every other terrorist except those mentioned in the June 23 story knew about it. Outrageous! Yeah, that's the ticket. Outrageous. And Nixon. And the Pentagon papers.

Now Remnick sighs, the "press --particularly the mainstream outlets the White House find most irritating-- is in a collective state of anxious transition, hurt by scandals (Congressman King was quick to mention Jayson Blair, the Times serial fabulist), by the appearance of a blizzard of new technologies and alternatives like Fox News, and by a general sense of economic, even existential, worry."

And Remnick explains it all for his fellow Manhattan readers: "In the wake of of the Administration's record of dishonesty and incompetence in Iraq and the consequent decline in the President's domestic polling numbers, it is not hard to discern why the White House might find a convenient enemy in the editors of the Times: this is an election year."

The editor of the New Yorker closes with a warning to all MSMers assembled to gird up their loins. "You have to wonder," he broods, whether he Bush White House, "in its urgent need to find scapegoats for the myriad disasters it has inflicted, is preparing to repeat a dismal and dismaying episode of the Nixon years."

We should not be surprised by the quiver in the column, as Remnick tells us that the days of the "supremely confident Bradlees and Rosenthals" are gone. And perhaps he's just rushed to get out an assist to his beleaguered pals whose subscription bleeding is said to be as intesne as the lopsided verdict against the papers for their recklessness. Short deadlines don't allow for careful prose and lousy historical comparisons are one product. (Didn't anyone at the magazine point out that no prior restraint had been sought in this instance? Which renders the comparison with the Pentagon papers less than compelling.)

Most telling though is the comparison between Keller/Remnick and the character of Runway editor Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Now there's a New Yorker who might rally some to her flag. Priestly's supreme confidence in her judgment was expressed in hauteur, nit paranoia. The former could intimidate, but the latter only amuses.

But please, invoking Nixon dead these dozen years, or Vietnam era court actions? Retreating from the significance of the story or its consequence? Ignoring the claims made by the story itself and instead pretending as though the Administration was not sincere in its anger while ignoring the overwhelming rejection by the public of the arguments advanced by the Times men?

A confident press deals forthrightly with its critics, defends its decisions in open forums, debates and does not denigrate its opponents.

But as Mr. Remnick admits -- and not just expressly-- the era of that press is long gone. At least among the formerly great press institutions of Manhattan.