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Festival of Reading

Flanking maneuvers

As politicians attempt to catapult journalistic inquiry back on the questioners, the dubious battle's biggest casualty may be democracy itself.

Published October 27, 2005


No matter how many times he swats at political hypocrisy in his work, columnist/pundit Craig Crawford always holds a bit of sympathy for his subject.

The source? His own failed run for political office in 1982, when, just out of Stetson University law school, he faced off against incumbent Dan Webster for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

"When I cover politicians, Democrat or Republican, I always have a certain empathy for them, having the slight taste of what it's like to put yourself forward," said Crawford, who crossed over to journalism with stints at the Orlando Sentinel and the Hotline online political journal before developing an array of columns and commentary jobs. "To me, it was not a pleasant experience."

Now it's Crawford's job to make the politicians squirm. His latest target: public officials who try to avoid embarrassing or damaging news by maligning those who deliver it.

In his new book, Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media, Crawford argues that public officials have damaged democracy with their efforts to discredit journalists - mostly because the public believes them.

"I don't quarrel with the fact that politicians have been running against the media since the beginnings of both the media and politicians," said Crawford, who contributes to NBC News, CBS's The Early Show and St. Petersburg Times affiliate Congressional Quarterly magazine.

"I think the difference (years ago) was that the public was not as receptive to those arguments," he said. "Now, the public, almost as a default position, is receptive to blaming the media for a politician's troubles."

Crawford starts his analysis with the infamous 1988 face-off between then-vice president George H. W. Bush and CBS anchor Dan Rather. During a live TV interview, Bush wanted to put the Iran-Contra scandal behind him for his presidential campaign; Rather wanted to put pointed questions about Bush's involvement before a national audience.

The resulting confrontation - in which Bush made Rather's questions the issue, using lines from cue cards displayed by campaign manager Roger Ailes - pioneered a form of political jujitsu that Ailes would refine as founder of the right-leaning Fox News Channel. In this world, journalistic bias becomes the issue which overrides all.

"(Media bias accusations) escalated from conventional warfare to nuclear warfare in 1988," said Crawford, who was covering his first presidential campaign that year for the Sentinel. "(Journalists) are not as transparent as we should be about how tough our job is. l don't think people understand how hard it is to get answers and hold people accountable . . . or how important it is."

The formula for media manipulation is complete when you consider that some politicians feel they cannot be honest with their constituents: Crawford cites the backlash Jimmy Carter experienced when he spoke frankly about the energy crisis facing America during his infamous "malaise" speech.

"We have institutionalized spin as an acceptable thing . . . given it this fun-sounding name, even though it hurts the public," said Crawford. "When you see these White House briefings where the reporters are being obnoxious . . . celebrate that. That's when you see how irritating it is to get answers out of these (politicians)."

Crawford makes his argument by comparing two legendary CBS anchors: Rather and Walter Cronkite. Cronkite helped end the Vietnam War by pronouncing it a quagmire; Rather saw his 24-year tenure as the network's top anchor cut short by bias allegations after a flawed report on President George W. Bush's National Guard service.

"Rather, to me, almost became the embodiment of the media its ownself . . . its failings and good intentions," said Crawford. "Whatever you say about Dan Rather . . . he was always standing up to power and the powerful shot back at him."

Crawford's prescriptions for the problem are controversial. Though he hasn't voted since he began covering politics, he recommends journalists declare their own biases more often and not fear drawing conclusions based on careful reporting.

"We're more vulnerable pretending we don't have opinions, because we're in an environment where no one believes that," he said. "You look at the principle of (journalistic) objectivity . . . it's roughly an American-only experiment. It's something we came to value. (But) maybe it doesn't work."

One reviewer noted the dissonance between Crawford's contention that journalists should declare bias and draw conclusions on one hand, but shun "advocacy journalism" on another. Another has criticized the book's slim, 160-page length (Crawford says the publisher asked for a short book, to fit in with a series of works on American political challenges).

But his central thesis remains: that the news media's own weaknesses have been exploited by politicians to unfairly discredit incisive journalism.

"I think . . . news stories are held more accountable than ever before," Crawford said. "But it makes us a great whipping post, too. I'm sure at some point, we'll even get blamed for the hurricanes, if we're not careful."


Craig Crawford, author of Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media, appears at 4:15 p.m. in the Poynter Institute North Pavilion. He will sign books after the appearance.

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 11:03:04]

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