Mark Crispin Miller Takes Aim at Newspapers

By: Ari Berman

Opinion

Updated at 3:50 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon and Boxed In: The Culture of TV, wishes he could still talk only of television, unleashing barbs like “Big Brother Is You Watching.”

Now he can’t. In Miller’s view, America’s great independent newspaper tradition is in peril. Scandals fly under the radar, politicians get off easy, and President Bush garners comparisons to Winston Churchill while Miller himself gets panned in The Washington Post and snubbed by The New York Times.

That’s why Miller, who also teaches media studies at New York University, has returned with a vengeance, unveiling a provocative, funny, and deeply disturbing one-man show, “Bush Are Us,” at a small New York theater. While the mainstream press still wants nothing to do with it, the first three shows have sold out, with at least one more planned for early March. Can Miller do for political standup what Michael Moore did for Flint, Mich.?

As he describes it in the show, one of Miller’s formative moments came in 1984, after watching the second Walter Mondale/Ronald Reagan presidential debate, in which, he recalls, Reagan rambled incoherently but later won the election decisively. Now he finds the same linguistic butchery/widespread acclaim evident in the presidency of George W. Bush, whose personal failings, he charges, the press rarely attempts to expose in a post 9-11, pre-Iraq war atmosphere.

“The Founding Fathers gave the press constitutional protection … because democracy requires an independent press to keep citizens aware of their government,” Miller says. Newspaper reporting of the war on terrorism, however, has left many important questions unanswered and stories untold, Miller believes. He says exhaustive coverage is needed of recently passed anti-terrorism legislation to inform the public how their civil liberties are imperiled.

Instead of focusing on substantive issues, newspapers mimic TV in emphasizing aesthetics and atmosphere in their coverage of politics. In the 2000 election, Al Gore’s “wooden” behavior got as much play as his policy positions. Already newspaper coverage of the 2004 Democratic presidential field relies on familiar characterizations: “John Kerry’s hair seems to be getting more coverage than his political beliefs,” Miller says. His maxim is simple, if ironic: political coverage should focus on politics.

Miller believes assaults on the “liberal media” by Ann Coulter, Bernard Goldberg, and others have chilled investigative reporters. Now, even centrist journalists must attempt to avoid “biased” accusations. Thus, while the press bombarded President Clinton on Whitewater and a host of other scandals, the Bush White House has successfully swept a number of controversies under the table, Miller says.

To be fair, Miller acknowledges that hard-hitting reporting takes its toll on a journalist, requiring tremendous stamina. Early last year, when Dana Milbank of The Washington Post began mentioning supposed untruths supplied by the Bush Administration in his articles, the White House stopped returning his calls. “There’s a reluctance by many journalists to open an enormous can of worms by challenging the President,” Miller says.

For the sake of brevity, newspapers often turn Bush’s mangled sentences into perfect prose. “If Bush screws up, they’re just going to fix it,” Miller says. The public rarely sees the true man, Miller argues. Bushisms like, “The goals for this country are … a compassionate American for every citizen,” remain submerged beneath fawning news stories that make the President look stoic and resolute, Miller says.

Even the oft-labeled “liberal” newspapers can fall victim to touch-up jobs, Miller maintains. He refers to a recent Washington Post profile of News York Times columnist Paul Krugman, which described how Times Executive Editor Howell Raines barred Krugman from accusing Bush of “lying” during his presidential campaign. Yet on the same op-ed page, conservative columnist William Safire called Senator Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar.”

“What if Bush is really lying?” Miller proposes. “You can’t say it.”

Miller fumes that such realities show how right-wing influence on the media has been growing since the late 1960s. Since then, conservative think tanks and massive influxes of money have turned the journalistic tide ? droite, he says.

“The theory of bias against the right-wing is a cult-like myth that honest conservatives like William Kristol will admit doesn’t exist,” Miller says. “I bet Karl Rove would too — he’s got the press wrapped around his little finger.”

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