Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Lese Majeste and More

Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons has written a provocative column in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Celebrity pundits are on their way out, discussing the rise of "politically oriented bloggers," noting the "fierce independence and an intellectual honesty among the best online commentators." As he says:

In my experience, there's no bigger bunch of crybabies in American public life than the fops and courtiers of our Washington press corps. If Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner did nothing else, it surely proved that. Two years ago, the same crowd guffawed at a White House video depicting that playful scamp, George W. Bush, searching the Oval Office for Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction. Yet they were offended to hear Colbert, doing his dead-on impersonation of an adoring FOX News pundit, telling Bush, "I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq." Faking phony sincerity is hard. Yet Colbert remained in character throughout. "I stand for this man," he declared, "because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things, things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photoops in the world."

By and large, the Beltway celebrities were not amused. The classical term, pardon my French, is lese majeste: the crime of insulting the king. Most empathized with the president, poor baby, sitting with a forced grin while being lampooned to his face.

* * * *

Satire comes in many forms. I doubt that Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" evoked belly laughs among Ireland's 18 th century English occupiers when it recommended remedying poverty by roasting peasants' infants like suckling pigs.

George Orwell's "Animal Farm" had few fans in the Politburo when it mocked communism's pretense of universal brotherhood: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Written in 1943, Orwell's fable wasn't published until August 1945, when World War II ended, making Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill no longer allies.

This president loves dishing it out. The Associated Press reporter who introduced Colbert told an anecdote about Bush teasing him at a press conference for having "a face for radio." Ha, ha, ha. Good one, Mr. President. He is awfully homely. Colbert's performance, however, made it clear that Bush doesn't enjoy taking it.

Well, tough. Millions of Americans haven't enjoyed being subjected to Bush's swaggeringly contemptuous disregard for the truth.

I agree with Lyons' view. I have been an inveterate reader of newspapers from way back. As far back as the time I planned to become a journalist. It wouldn't be unusual for me to read 5 different papers a day.

However, sometime after Bush descended on Washington, the press veered off course. Whether because of concerns about "patriotism" after 9/11, pressure because of increased corporate media ownership, a rise in the number of conservative journalists, or some combination of some or all of those issues, the press has not provided the same level of probing reportage in recent years.

As the availability of access to news on the internet has grown, I began to seek out international news, then alternative media and blogs, as a source of information. So much that was news was not reported by what has come to be called "mainstream media." And as has come to pass, the others were right and the mainstream media was wrong.

I can't bring myself to give up on traditional newspapers, but they are no longer my main source of information. I know that things tend to swing back over time and I hope that will be true with the press. The news media is in a fight for its life and I want them to win.

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