The second half of today's "Meet the Press" featured a typically inane pundit "roundtable." The lowlight came when Tim Russert asked John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal and David Broder of the Washington Post about Hillary Clinton's criticism of press coverage of the Bush administration. Let's start with Russert's first question and Harwood's response:
RUSSERT: Here's one thing she did say about the press corps, John Harwood: "Abetting the Republicans, [Senator Clinton] said in some of her sharpest language, is a Washington press corps that has become a pale imitation of the Watergate-era reporters who are being celebrated this month" among "the identification of the anonymous Washington Post source, Deep Throat. `The press is missing in action, with all due respect. Where are the investigative reporters today? Why aren't they asking the hard questions? It's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today. They don't stand their ground. If they're criticized by the White House, they just fall apart. I mean, come on, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake. Let's get some spine.'"
HARWOOD: I'm sure glad she added "with all due respect" to that statement. Look, people in politics, when their point of view is not prevailing, tend to get frustrated with the messenger. I don't think anybody can say that throughout the 2004 campaign that the faults of the Bush administration were not front and center in that campaign, even the issue that we've been talking about recently, the Downing Street memo, the whole issue about whether intelligence was fixed to support the Iraq War. That was substantially what the 2004 campaign was about: Did we rush to war? That was part of John Kerry's argument. So the flaws of the administration, its penchant for trying to consolidate power, its penchant for secrecy in some ways is something that's been out in front of the American people, but Democrats have been on the short side.
They lost the 2004 election because of the national security issue. But here's the promise in what we've seen in David Broder's Washington Post-ABC poll, some other developments lately: Some of the air is coming out of the tire on this administration on Iraq. People are getting anxious. They don't know what the future is going to hold. They don't know how positive events really are. Dick Cheney says the insurgency is in its last throes. The American people are coming to question that right now.
Notice what's missing from Harwood's response. There are no specifics responding to Clinton's complaint about coverage of the Bush White House. He simply notes that John Kerry criticized the President and lost, as if Kerry's defeat proves Clinton wrong. In fact, Harwood goes so far as to suggest that press coverage is the "messenger" of the fact that Democrats are losing elections -- as pure a distillation of the media's deference to those in power as I've ever seen.
In a followup, Broder -- unlike Harwood -- actually addressed Clinton's critique, but his response is a joke:
RUSSERT: David Broder, the press corps--was it more tenacious during Watergate, more tenacious against Bill Clinton, or is it people seeing things through their ideological prism--that when you're going after Clinton it's good, going against Bush bad, and vice versa?
BRODER: The shortsightedness of Mrs. Clinton's complaint is illustrated by this morning's Washington Post. The front-page story on another memo, this one to Tony Blair's government, about the lack of planning in our government for the postwar period in Iraq. Who does she think is doing this work if not investigative reporters? Give us a break.
A single counter-example is not exactly a convincing argument. And it's ironic that Broder is touting the Post's coverage of the second memo given that the Post's ombudsman wrote that he was "amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up on the [London Sunday] Times report" about the Downing Street memo.
More generally, this little exchange is a classic example of how a profession closes ranks to defend itself. The reality is that the press corps was missing in action from Sept. 11, 2001 until late 2003, and only took a hard look at the White House when criticism from Democratic presidential candidates gave them cover. And it's indisputable that this administration continues to receive far better treatment than its predecessor despite pathological levels of policy dishonesty and secrecy. But to acknowledge that Clinton is right would make them and their profession look bad (and give false credence to claims of liberal bias), so instead Harwood and Broder just bluster away. What an embarrassment.