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The 'Media Party' is over

A political party is dying before our eyes — and I don't mean the Democrats. I'm talking about the "mainstream media," Howard Fineman writes.
Dan Rather's nearly 24-year tenure as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" was clouded by his involvement with the network's story on the president's National Guard service.
Dan Rather's nearly 24-year tenure as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" was clouded by his involvement with the network's story on the president's National Guard service.Lonnie Juli / CBS via AP file

A political party is dying before our eyes — and I don't mean the Democrats. I'm talking about the "mainstream media," which is being destroyed by the opposition (or worse, the casual disdain) of George Bush's Republican Party; by competition from other news outlets (led by the internet and Fox's canny Roger Ailes); and by its own fraying  journalistic standards. At the height of its power, the AMMP (the American Mainstream Media Party) helped validate the civil rights movement, end a war and oust a power-mad president. But all that is ancient history.

Now the AMMP is reeling, and not just from the humiliation of CBS News. We have a president who feels it's almost a point of honor not to hold more press conferences — he's held far fewer than any modern predecessor — and doesn't seem to agree that the media has any "right" to know what's really going in inside his administration. The AMMP, meanwhile, is regarded with ever growing suspicion by American voters, viewers and readers, who increasingly turn for information and analysis only to non-AMMP outlets that tend to reinforce the sectarian views of discrete slices of the electorate.

Yes, I know: A purely objective viewpoint does not exist in the cosmos or in politics. Yes, I know: Today's  media foodfights are mild compared with the viciousness of pamphleteers and partisan newspapers of old, from colonial times forward. Yes, I know: The notion of a neutral "mainstream" national media gained dominance only in World War II and in its aftermath, when what turned out to be a temporary moderate consensus came to govern the country.

Still, the notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto. Now it's pretty much dead, at least as the public sees things. The seeds of its demise were sown with the best of intentions in the late 1960s, when the AMMP was founded in good measure (and ironically enough) by CBS. Old folks may remember the moment: Walter Cronkite stepped from behind the podium of presumed objectivity to become an outright foe of the war in Vietnam. Later, he and CBS's star White House reporter, Dan Rather, went to painstaking lengths to make Watergate understandable to viewers, which helped seal Richard Nixon's fate as the first president to resign.

Good crusades at the time
The crusades of Vietnam and Watergate seemed like a good idea at the time, even a noble one, not only to the press but perhaps to a majority of Americans. The problem was that, once the AMMP declared its existence by taking sides, there was no going back. A party was born.

It was not accident that the birth coincided with an identity crisis in the Democratic Party. The ideological energy of the New Deal had faded; Vietnam and various social revolutions of the ’60s were tearing it apart. Into the vacuum came the AMMP, which became the new forum for choosing Democratic candidates. A "reform" movement opened up the nominating process, taking it out of the smoke-filled backrooms and onto television and into the newsrooms. The key to winning the nomination and, occasionally, the presidency, became expertise at riding the media wave. McGovern did it, Gary Hart almost did (until he fell off his surfboard); Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton rode it all the way.

Republicans always have been less dependent on, or concerned about, the AMMP's role in their internal politics. Richard Nixon hated the AMMP, with good reason, and learned just enough to keep it at bay — until, as president, he put its leaders on various enemies lists. Ronald Reagan, using his own actor's craft and the stage management of Mike Deaver, realized that he could co-opt the AMMP with the irresistible power of pretty, inspirational pictures. Conservative activists, tapping their own pocketbooks or those of sympathetic corporate tycoons, learned to work around the AMMP with mailing lists, grassroots politics and direct-mail, first through the Postal Service, then the Internet.

Some Republicans learned how to manipulate the AMMP, especially its  growing obsession with personalities — and its desire to be regarded as even-handed. The objective wasn't to win the AMMP's approval, but to isolate it by uncoupling its longterm relationship with the Democrats. At least that's what happened in the Monica Lewinsky Years: The party that had nominated Clinton in 1992 eventually impeached him, thanks in good part to information supplied by GOP investigators.

Bush turns a blind eye
Texas Gov. George W. Bush arrived on the national scene in the 1990s intent on dictating the terms of dealing with the AMMP — or simply ignoring it altogether. Already well-known as the son of a president, he focused on raising money and holding private chit-chats with donors and political supporters who would journey to Austin for off-the-record talks. His guru was not an image-making man (as Ailes had been for Nixon, and Deaver with Reagan) but a direct-mail expert, Karl Rove. Rove and Bush decided that most forms of "exposure" offered by the AMMP would be likely to do more harm than good. So why bother unless they could completely dictate the terms of engagement?

Bush doesn't hate the AMMP (indeed, he likes his share of reporters on a personal basis). He just refuses to care about what it's up to. The terrorist attack of 9/11, and the added security concerns it fueled, have given the White House a new reason to keep the AMMP at bay. Pools are "tighter," more and more events are "closed press," and those that are open are to be viewed at a distance, if at all.

In this situation, the last thing the AMMP needed was to aim wildly at the president — and not only miss, but be seen as having a political motivation in attacking in the first place. Were Dan Rather and Mary Mapes after the truth or victory when they broadcast their egregiously sloppy story about Bush's National Guard Service? The moment it made air it began to fall apart, and eventually was shredded by factions within the AMMP itself, conservative national outlets and by the new opposition party that is emerging: The Blogger Nation. It's hard to know now who, if anyone, in the "media" has any credibility.

And, as Walter Cronkite would say, that's the way it is.