A Plea For Unfettered Power

Well, I just finished Mary Mapes’ book on the whole Rathergate mess and whatnot, and it was quite a read (with a nice little “Easter Egg” at the end — I might write more about that later). And I found it quite fascinating, in many ways. One of them is how I take Ms. Mapes’ opinion on the role of the press in our society.

Ms. Mapes, it must be remembered, was a highly successful television news reporter, rising through the ranks through hard work and the respect of her peers and superiors. Before she so spectacularly went down in flames over the fake Texas Air National Guard memos, she was near the pinnacle of her profession — working for 60 Minutes II/ 60 Minutes Wednesday and the favorite producer of Dan Rather. She had collected numerous awards and laudations along the way.

Of course, it was her height of success that made her fall that much more spectacular. Nobody writes about the guy who jumped out of a first-floor window.

So as I’m reading her book, I start looking at how she implies the proper role of the press in America. And it’s not a pretty picture.

The press, as I interpret her book, plays an absolutely critical role in our government. It is the watchdog, the ever-vigilant sentinel against government malfeasance, and is essential in keeping our government in check.

But apparently she is not familiar with the works of Juvenal, who famously wrote “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — “who watches the watchers?” (I must confess I, too, was ignorant of this until Alan Moore built an entire now-legendary comic book limited series out of that quote.)

Were she familiar with that concept, she would not have written her book the same way. It is rife with examples where the idea that journalists are somehow above laws, above supervision, above reproof, and above the rest of us is something she just takes for granted.

Early in her book, she recounts the time she went to jail to protect her notes and her sources from the prosecutor who is investigating the brutal murder of James Byrd. Mapes scored an interview with one of the accused killers (the one who cooperated with prosecution in exchange for a life sentence — the other two are on death row). Mapes considered her notes, outtakes, and other information utterly sacrosanct. (Page 77)

Later, when she’s in the middle of her investigation into Bush’s service with the Air National Guard, one of her sources — retired General Bobby Hodges — tells her that doing a story on the memos “would be wrong.” “Using someone’s personal notes, that’s going overboard,” she quotes him, referring to the memos allegedly authored by the late Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian. (page 173)

So, a dead man’s alleged notes over Bush’s National Guard service over 25 years ago are critical, but her notes about a confessed murderer can not be seen by the prosecutors before the trial. Nope, no contradiction there.

Another point: Mapes has nothing but contempt and scorn for other members of the media who don’t share her dedication and ideals and ideology. A few examples: a man in rural Texas sneers at CBS. “To them, there was FOX News commentary and everything else — and everything else was liberal and unfair.” (Page 9) “I didn’t know back then that a political flotilla would join the fight against CBS: from right-wing radio ranters to the far-out far right anonymous Internet name callers, from teh constantly conservative FOX “news” network to the Republican-friendly Talon News operation, which, of course, used a fake reporter to deliver skewed views. Who can ever forget the nakedly ambitious Jeff Gannon?” (Pages 18-19)

On the “right-wing machine:” “The onset of Internet blogging and wildly political Web sites have done nothing but strengthen this machine, which includes everything from media outlets as FOX News and all of its programs with hosts like Sean Hannity and John Gibson, radio broadcasts like those of Rush Limbaugh and all of his local imitators, columnists like William Safire and Peggy Noonan, and magazines like The Weekly Standard.” (Page 28)

So, conservatives are not worthy of the title of “journalist.” Duly noted.

Now, if Mapes believes that the role of the press is pretty much a co-equal to the branches of the government, with a sacred, Constitutional duty, I wonder what sorts of checks on the press abusing its authority she recognizes.

And I wonder that after finishing her book, because I certainly didn’t find anything in there.

Is there a journalistic code of ethics, set out by some sort of governing board where people can take their grievances? Nope, and she finds that idea utterly laughable. (Page 32)

Do media owners have a right and obligation to provide oversight on the works of their underlings, whose paychecks they sign? Nope. She is still outraged and looking for excuses as to why CBS’ owner, Viacom, decided they could dispense with her services.

Should money enter into the equation at all? Absolutely not. She decries how many stories could not be covered because of budgetary constraints, never wondering where the magic green paper that pays (rather, paid) for her salary, her travel tickets, her hotel rooms, her equipment, her office, her staff, her phone bill, her everything might come from — and whether or not the issuer of the magic green paper (or, more likely, the little plastic cards) might ever care to reconsider how their money is being spent. Their obligation is to shut up and pay the bills.

How about the marketplace? Does that have anything to do with it? Apparently not. As noted above, she has nothing but contempt for Fox News, and it is the most successful cable news channel by far. That means that people are voting for Fox with their eyes, and that appalls her.

How about the government? Can it check media abuses? Absolutely NOT. Witness her outrage over a prosecutor wanting all available information about a brutal racial murder. The role of the government, to her, is “target.” Targets should not shoot back.

Basically, as soon as someone declares themselves a journalist, puts some efforts into actually doing some journalism, and meets her ideological criteria, they are “super-citizens” and exempt from all sorts of restraints and obligations and duties, and can freely flout laws and rules that apply to the riff-raff like us.

As I said in my first critique of Mapes’ book, this is a bad situation.

While I have no problems with Wizbang being called a “conservative” web site and freely admit that a good chunk of my ideology falls on the “conservative” side of things, I still see myself, at my core, as a “militant moderate.” I am deeply suspicious of the extremes on both sides, and actually prefer to hang out in the middle of the road. (Yes, alongside the yellow lines and the road kill.) I believe in a balance of things, in not putting too much faith in any side or element. It’s the part of me I call “contrarian.”

And that part of me sees the mainstream media (as exemplified by Mary Mapes) seeking unchecked power to carry out its self-styled mandate, and I worry.

I don’t think I’m alone, because as I noted before, when enough Americans see a need for something, we tend to invent it. And that is the blogosphere.

We see ourselves as the natural balance to the mainstream media. We are parasites, in a way, as we get most of our source material from them, and we revel in “biting the hand that feeds us.” But by exercising the same Constitutional rights the media has, we put the lie to their conceit that they have a monopoly on such things and do what they have never had to face before — an audience that not only has access to far more sources of information than they wish to offer us, but access to a medium of our own where we can shout back.

And most importantly, the sheer gumption to do just that. Cheerfully, with as much style and verve and dedication and resolve as the media itself uses — if not more.

And that pisses off people like Mary Mapes and her ilk no end. They’ve grown so accustomed to not being challenged that they don’t know how to deal with us. We are a threat to the status quo, and they don’t like that one damned bit.

In brief, they have grown comfortable in afflicting their biases and agendas on the nation. Now, we are stealing their mission statement — we are now comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

And having the time of our lives doing it.

That, I think, is what scares them the most. They do it for a living. Most of us do it for free, just for the sheer fun of the experience.

Of course, when it comes down to a head-to-head fight, the smart money should be on the side fighting for survival, and not on the dilettantes who are in it for the thrills. But maybe we can give them a “scared straight” experience, a bit of a reminder that there are, indeed, many watchers of they the watchdogs.

Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. And I’m delighted and proud as hell to be a little beam of sunshine in their lives.

Even those vampires like Mary Mapes, who burst into flames when they are exposed.

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