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Throw this small fry back

JONATHAN CHAIT

February 19, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

YOU KNOW, some of us liberals have been waiting a long time for a juicy Bush administration scandal, and we're rewarded with ... this? A hunting accident? I feel like I sat in a fishing boat all day long and then reeled in a 4-inch-long sunfish. Throw it back, I say.

It's nothing short of bizarre that the Washington press corps has been seized with something Vice President Dick Cheney did on a hunting trip. Yes, it's funny. Elmer Fudd cartoons have taught us that gunshot wounds that don't end in death or dismemberment -- perhaps with the victim's head covered in black soot -- are funny. But it's not serious (except, of course, to Harry Whittington). The victim is basically fine. And it was an accident, for crying out loud. It has almost nothing to do with Cheney's role as a public official.

All of this is what makes it perfect fodder for a Washington scandal. The rules of political journalism hold that reporters aren't supposed to take sides in debates over public policy. If you're in government, you can lie to your heart's content so long as the lie is intended to advance your agenda.

For instance, President Bush's 2000 campaign was an enormous tissue of lies. The big meta-lie was that he represented a different kind of Republican, a moderate sort who intended to bring the parties together and who was different from Bill Clinton, mainly insofar as he could "get it done."

Supporting this big lie was a series of component lies: Bush supported a tax cut that would comprise just a small portion of the surplus and would give the greatest benefits to the working poor. Bush really wanted to bring the parties together to pass a patients' bill of rights. (In fact, once in office he tore apart a bipartisan bill and killed the issue.) One of Bush's biggest priorities was allowing a charitable tax credit for those of modest means. (He chucked that one overboard to squeeze in more upper-income tax cuts and never revisited it.) And so on.

The media either failed to challenge, or actively abetted, every one of these lies. Because that's how journalists cover public policy. You quote one side's claims, you counter with the other side's claims, and you make no attempt to establish which side is right. After all, there's nothing at stake in these debates but trillions of dollars and the odd war. Bor-ing.

When the issue is unrelated to public policy, that's when the media lap dogs turn into pit bulls. The contretemps over who in the administration exposed Valerie Plame's identity is a perfect example. Yes, it's a crime, and whoever committed it deserves punishment. But -- despite the claims of some of my fellow liberals -- it's not "about the war." Bush could have gone to war without outing Plame. It would not have gone any better if she had remained anonymous.

This is the very reason journalists covered the Plame scandal so intensely. The fact that it's divorced from substantive outcomes allows them to chase it down without appearing to take sides on the main issue.

The Cheney shooting is even more frivolous. And what makes it especially appealing to the Washington press corps is that it's about \o7them\f7. Cheney kept the story hidden for a full day! And then it was fed to a small local newspaper, not the national press corps!

Of course, they have tried to cast it in grander terms. Basically, their complaint boils down to this: The administration is stepping on the \o7public's right to know\f7. We may not have a right to know the truth about the administration's foreign and domestic agenda, but, by god, the media will go to the mat to protect our right to have the essential facts about Dick Cheney's marksmanship.

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