Thursday, April 20, 2006

Beam me up Scotty

OK, we've had our fun with Press Secretary Scott McClellan's comings and goings, with the emphasis on goings, since he's now gone. See, e.g., Hello and Good bye (and don't miss the Updates) for some of the fun stuff.

Long ago and far away, in what seems like another life, I started my working career as a press aide for then PA Governor Milton Shapp. At that point, I expected that I would be a journalist; lawyer was nowhere in thought.

It is in part because of that experience that my interest in politics and journalism arose. Since then, I have followed issues related to the freedom and power of the press, as well as the political scene, both on the national and local level.

It is somewhat ironic that I now fear for the future of the press, because for many years I actually had concerns that the press had almost become too powerful. That is, the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches all had controls (laws) in place to curb their reach. My view was that the press, as the 4th Estate, was the only "body" without any controls to prevent abuse of its power. Jay Rosen, who blogs about journalism at PressThink, in Rollback, explains it as "The old notion . . . had the press permanently incorporated into the republic as one part of the system of checks and balances - not a branch of government, but a necessary, vital and legitimate part of open government and a free society. The First Amendment was interpreted as protection for that part of the system . . . ."

Others, such as CJR Daily, Rosen, and Will Bunch, cover the issue better and with more depth than I. However, as I now survey the environment, I have grave concerns that the press has abdicated its role and has thus forfeited it power. I also fear that the loss may be irretrievable, which has the potential to permanently alter the fabric of the country in a negative way.

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the fact that the Bush Administration has been trying to alter the power of the Executive in government. With a controlled and cowed legislative branch, and a battered Judicial branch, there has not been an effective rejection of that power grab.

Dick Polman, in his American Debate blog, touches on this issue as it relates to the press in Beam up the next Scotty. In his post about the departure of McClellan, which is his usual excellant analysis of the role of the Press Secretary, he observes:

But McClellan's mission was not to merely evade or spin information in the traditional sense. His core purpose was to be the point man for an assertive, even revolutionary, White House effort to delegitimize the mainstream conveyers of the news. And whoever replaces McClellan will play the same role.

As indicated in numerous reports . . . the Bush administration has sought to treat the mainstream press as just another troublesome special interest group, to reduce its role as a semi-official participant in the nation's governance.

Jay Rosen, a press watchdog and journalism professor at New York University, wrote last summer: "I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president's freedom of maneuver - not only in policy-making and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself." And writer Ron Suskind, after interviewing top Bush officials, said in an interview that they clearly want to create "a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact."
One of the lessons I learned during my stint in the Governor's office is that you can never underestimate the lack of knowledge (naivetee?) of the electorate and public (I don't mean that in an elitist or condescending way - it was intended to mean that there was a duty to inform). With that in mind, if the press is not there to advance that knowledge, who will? And if no one is there who will, what hope do we have?

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