How many are there?

Posted: Jan 12, 2005 12:00 AM

When it comes to journalistic ethics, I have never been a goody-goody, eat-your-spinach type. I don't get weepy when journalists are forced to testify about crimes they have witnessed, and I don't look to the Columbia Journalism School as some sort of secular Vatican. Journalism is a job, occasionally a calling, but never a priesthood.

So don't mistake anything I'm about to say as the sort of snooty righteousness we've come to expect from the Brahmins of the fourth estate. I'm disgusted with the whole scene. In one corner we have a print and TV commentator more or less secretly taking taxpayer money from the White House to shill for a piece of legislation during an election year. In his defense, he claims that he's not the only one to download lucre from the administration in exchange for advocacy. "This happens all the time," he said. But when David Corn of the Nation asked him who else does this sort of thing, Williams replied "I'm not going to defend myself that way."

Uh, Armstrong, you're not defending yourself. The "everybody does it" defense is no defense at all - a point someone who talks about character a lot should realize. But it is an offense - an offense to everybody he impugns with a vague accusation of corruption. I resent the insinuation, no matter how indirectly it's aimed at me. The White House - which at a minimum should be mortified - says this is an isolated event, and it probably is. Williams is, after all, a K-Street entrepreneur as much as he is - or was - a commentator. There just aren't that many Williams clones on the right. But, alas, the White House's word isn't good enough. Congress should investigate, and the media should rain FOIA requests on the White House to make sure nothing else like this is happening.

But while Williams' transgression is outrageous, I could do without all of the liberals doing their Captain Renault impersonations, proclaiming to be "shocked" that journalistic ethics are lapsing among conservatives. How much money did Paul Krugman take from Enron?

Yes, let's see how many more Armstrongs there are, but let's not ignore, say, Jesse Jackson, a syndicated columnist who had a TV show on CNN and now has one on cable. Jackson and his organizations have taken millions from Democratic administrations over the years, eliciting little more than yawns from the press. Of course, if Williams had disclosed fully his relationship with the White House, there'd be no scandal. Which does partially illuminate the irony of Paul Begala righteously grilling Williams on "Crossfire," even though Begala had remained on air as a TV host while he served as a Kerry campaign advisor.

Democrats in the House have been trying to leverage the Williams affair into a broadside against the "propaganda" machine of the White House. They cite these tacky "video news releases" pumped out by the Drug Czar's office and the Department of Health and Human Services as further proof of the Goebbelsization of the White House. (The "VNRs" look like real news broadcasts.) I think these things are awful, but, again, spare me the shock. Not only did the Clinton administration produce some 26 VNRs, it took propaganda to an unprecedented level when they offered incentives (aka bribes) to the entertainment arms of the television networks so that they would deliberately change the storylines of TV dramas to reflect messages consistent with administration drug policies. You didn't know it, but "ER," "Touched by An Angel" and others adulterated their scripts to please what amounted to nanny-state censors.

Then, of course, there's Dan Rather. Nowhere does the priesthood mentality reign so absolutely as at CBS News. This week it issued a whitewash of a report that blamed the Memogate fiasco not on bad motives or partisanship, but on the all-purpose blame-cleanser, "haste." Former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, leader of the independent panel investigating the affair, said: "If you're looking for a villain in this story, we have one. It's haste; the haste with which this program was put together."

Note: Mary Mapes, the producer most responsible, had been working on this story for five years. To pin this all on "haste" is like saying a man who suffered a five-year bout of consumption died "suddenly" when his heart stopped.

The CBS report insists that partisan bias was simply an appearance problem, not a reality problem. And it refuses to settle the central issue of the scandal: the patent inauthenticity of the forged guard memos. Meanwhile, the report says Rather's "blogger" critics were driven by a "conservative agenda," even though the vast bulk of their commentary centered on such technical details of vintage typewriters. Translation: Elite liberal journalists never have agendas, even when they're peddling and defending lies. Conservatives always have an agenda, even when they're trading in facts.

Now, the Williams fiasco may be more outrageous, but it's also more discrete and therefore fixable. The payola problem is solved by enforcing the existing laws and standards of full-disclosure for journalists and government alike. As for the systemic failures of the media and the arrogance which perpetuates it, that's a tougher nut to crack.