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From Liberty Street: Tectonic Shift?

John Turner

We may be on the verge of a major change in political attitude. If we are, it's long overdue.

Washington has been for decades now a town that admires success more than virtue and the prevailing attitude got so extreme that both politicians and major reporters would swallow anything, no matter how vile, as long as it seemed to work. This is, for example, the explanation for Karl Rove and the way he has been presented to the public until recently.

Gradually, though, a new tone is creeping into the public discussion, sparked primarily by a number of web sites that begin to approach in influence some of the major newspapers. In them, falsehood, dirty-dealing, unconstitutional grabs for power, and selfishness so complete it seems incredible are discussed openly, without the mealy-mouthed language that characterizes the TV networks and the prestigious newspapers.

There are also many political sites on the web which are thoroughly irresponsible and they too are having an influence. But most of them reveal themselves readily for what they are and though readers may enjoy them as entertainment I don't think many take them seriously.

The major media -- as they are called -- have generally tried to dump all web sites in the same pile and paint candid news analyses as being the sort of rabid opinion no sane person should accept. But the mandarins' attempt to protect their own privilege by painting thoughtful people as crazy is beginning to flag. And the prestige that formerly went with appearing in the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or on NBC News is itself a less shining thing than it once was. The widespread designation of David Broder as the "Dean of Cluck-Cluck" shows where we are headed.

The New York Times gave a boost to the shift by the inauguration of  "Times Select," a money-making scheme that required readers to pay in order to get access to its columnists. I don't know how well it has worked financially, but with respect to journalistic influence, it has been a disaster. Millions have discovered they don't need Paul Krugman, or Maureen Dowd, or Nicholas Kristoff to tell them what's going on, or what it means. Commentators like Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly or Larry Johnson of TMP Cafe  are just as well-informed as the Times commentators. And in addition, they're more incisive.

You're unlikely to read in any of the major newspapers that Mr. Bush's difference from all other presidents is the result of his complete lack of interest in policy analysis. Yet that's what Kevin Drum told us last week, and in a manner that was strongly persuasive. Nor will the mainstream speak frankly about the intellectual competence of its own members as Drum does on a regular basis. He recently characterized Charles Krauthammer as a loon, a point that has needed to be made for years. There's a difference between name-calling and assessment of intellectual quality, and it's one that Drum makes regularly.

John Whitesides of Capitol Hill Blue offered last week a more subtle examination of Mr. Bush's turn towards humility than you will ever hear on the news networks. It signaled, Mr. Whiteside said, not a change in attitude but simply the most recent public relations effort to sell Mr. Bush to the public as a thoughtful and competent leader.  A feature of the better web commentary is that it always probes more deeply into genuine motivation than the main stream media do.

I had a minor encounter with the mainstream's surface approach to news last week when I sent David Ignatius of the Washington Post a comment about his column lauding John Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence, for organizational shifts within the agencies under his command. The changes make it more likely, says Ignatius,  that we will get accurate intelligence in the future. I pointed out that the problem in the past was not the accuracy of the intelligence but rather the ideological stance of both the people gathering it and the people on the receiving end. And Mr. Ignatius wrote back courteously to say this:  "The Intelligence Community, in theory, is supposed to be independent judgment. That went way off track in Iraq. I find it interesting (more than interesting, a positive good thing) that a leading skeptic of the Iraq WMD claims, Tom Fingar, is now trying to reorganize the analysts to do better work."

Mr. Ignatius is right to say that it's an improvement to have Tom Fingar in charge of analysis. And he's certainly right to say that intelligence -- as touted to us -- was off track with respect to Iraq. But I haven't seem him explain, frankly and openly, why it went off track. That's the kind of digging the old dispensation doesn't feel free to engage in, but which new attitudes may well come to insist upon. At least that's what I hope. I don't think we will continue to have a democratic republic unless our major journalists address the motives of government officials more candidly than they have been in the habit of doing.



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