The MSM and the Cheney Syndrome

Commentary is one of the few magazines I subscribe to in dead-tree form, and look forward to arriving in the mail (the original, analog, Ben Franklin-era snail-mail). And Andrew Ferguson’s “Press Man” backpage column is almost always where I start. The October edition of Ferguson’s column, which focuses on Dick Cheney’s relationship with the press (or the lack thereof), is now online. Prior to 9/11, particularly during Papa Bush’s administration, Cheney — I know some younger readers will find this rather difficult to believe — was one of “the Good Republicans” in the MSM’s eyes. “You could invite him to a dinner party and know he wouldn’t start spouting Bible verses and frighten the caterers,” Ferguson quips, perfectly summing up the mindset of the Beltway elite.


Then 9/11 happened. “I didn’t change, the world changed,” Cheney would later say. The result was an America at war with Al Qeada, and a media at war with the Bush Administration. For the MSM, all Republicans are dumb (Reagan, Ike, Bush, Palin) or Evil (Hoover, Nixon, Gingrich). Guess which role Cheney would be assigned. Cheney gave the legacy media the ultimate retort though, by demonstrating how little he cared:

Is there any surer way to irritate the New York Times than making clear that you don’t care if you irritate the New York Times? But by 2007 the mutual irritation had been festering for years. Cheney’s contempt for journalists as a class, and theirs for him, took a long time to develop. As chief of staff to President Ford in 1975, “I got to know and like a lot of the reporters,” he writes, “and to this day I count some of them as friends.”

He learned how to “work the press,” as he puts it, from the masters of the art. He watched with amusement the duel that played out between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger in James Reston’s New York Times column. (The weapon of choice was blind quotes at twenty paces.) He noticed the haplessness of much of the national press—the short attention span imposed by the news cycle, the susceptibility to manipulation, the craving for superficiality, the professional solipsism—but accepted it as an occupational hazard, to be endured or, if possible, deployed to his own advantage.

In campaigns, he discovered, if your side is being hit by a damaging story, “the press will get off one negative story for another one,” so you provide reporters with a new, less damaging, though still negative, diversion. In domestic politics the journalistic appetite, as Cheney describes it, isn’t necessarily ideological: he gives examples of Republican manipulation of the campaign press, too. It’s simply a taste for troublemaking.

But as secretary of defense under the first President Bush, Cheney began to see that the press’s heedlessness was no longer a minor irritant when national security was involved. At several pivotal moments it became actively harmful to American military interests and imperiled the lives of American soldiers. During the 1989 invasion of Panama, to cite one often overlooked event, a group of American journalists who had entered the country on their own were trapped by Panamanian troops in the basement of a hotel. Journalists traveling with the U.S. military turned the plight of their fellow hacks into the invasion’s top story. “There were thirty-five thousand American civilians in Panama,” Cheney writes, “but the journalists at the Marriott became the center of attention.” The reporting made “it seem as if the military operation, which was generally going well, was somehow not succeeding.” Military units were diverted to rescue the trapped journalists—not because the reporters’ lives were in danger but to remove the distraction and put the press’s attention back on the invasion. Three soldiers were wounded in the rescue.

The experience in Panama and later during the Gulf War, Cheney writes, “deepened my conviction that the press ought not to be the final arbiter of whether we have won or lost a war”—or of how to fight it. Yet the final arbiter is precisely what today’s press yearns to be. It is a larger role than the press has traditionally filled, but the conceit is in keeping with a general process of self-aggrandizement. And it explains why Cheney, upon becoming vice president, resolved to speak with reporters as seldom as possible.


Apparently the media in late 1989 seemed determined to live out in real life the disgusting moment portrayed by Mike Wallace and the late Peter Jennings only a few months prior during a PBS roundtable discussion on journalistic “ethics:”

Read the whole thing, if only for Ferguson’s take on Maureen Dowd’s take on Cheney’s memoirs, “Her column might have been written by an upset high schooler, so vast was her rage, so limited was her ability to express it.”


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