Rick Wagner Column December 18, 2008

There’s no danger for journalists attacking conservative leaders

There’s a lot of disappointment in big media offices this week — not just because of the massive layoffs, although the Obama team could certainly use all those volunteer flacks to stay on Newsweek’s payroll. 

No, the real upset is that a reporter got to throw his shoes at George Bush and it wasn’t one of ours. And, while I’m sure U.S. journalists appreciate the emotion, there appears to be a palpable concern that someone who had a longer track record of undermining Bush foreign policy didn’t get the first toss.

This is not to say that any of the velvet-slipper crowd at the big media outlets would have actually thrown their own Manolos at anybody, but they certainly would have ordered their cameramen or interns to have hurled their Payless footwear at the president had they been aware that you could get away with it.

I’m just wondering if this is some evolutionary manifestation of the new journalism adage of “speaking truth to power,” where they now throw footwear at power, perhaps leading inevitably to “indecently exposing yourself to power.”

Let’s be serious about this challenging-power scenario the old bicoastal media groups seem so fond of championing: Most of them aren’t challenging anything that might have a chance of hurting them. Getting tipsy on Cosmos at a cocktail party on Massachusetts Avenue and telling a bunch of other writers from The Nation and Time magazines that you think Bush should be prosecuted for trampling all over terrorists rights isn’t going to put you in much danger. In fact, it will probably land you a show on MSNBC.

Dashing off a letter to the editor of the Daily Storm Trooper in 1939 Berlin, pointing out how you think the country is headed in the “wrong direction,” probably took substantially more journalistic courage.

In America, no journalist is getting dragged into black sedans in the dead of night for criticizing the government. The only one who might be is Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger, owner of The New York Times, who could be yanked into a limo for a quick knuckle sandwich from a few of his investors.

The real danger in the modern media is not in attacking conservative presidents but in not attacking them. This notion manifests itself in many ways and is related to something that I refer to as my great magazine experiment.

This completely unscientific and anecdotal project is one where, over the last couple of years, I have placed my used copies of various conservative magazines in public places such as health clubs, where donated reading material is encouraged. I have then loosely monitored the shelf life of these publications versus their liberal counterparts.

What I can say is they don’t last long and the ones that remain any length of time at all are usually quickly disfigured — particularly those that have a picture or drawing of President Bush, Vice President Cheney or Secretary of State Rice depicted in a positive manner on their covers.

On the other hand, old issues of The New Republic, for example, with goofy cartoons lampooning the president, seemed to never go away.

Just prior to the election, I found a Rolling Stone magazine at one of these locations. It contained an endless screed on the deficiencies of the Bush administration and the psychological imbalances of Sen. John McCain.

The magazine had even been thoughtfully indexed with purple sticky notes attached to pages in the publication containing particularly unattractive things to say about these men.

I had grown accustomed to the thoughtful bits of quasi-profanity scrawled across the president’s face on numerous occasions and even the careful underlining of scolding statements concerning conservative values. 

But this helpful tabulation of one-sided claptrap did help me to understand one thing. 

It’s easy to speak to power, as long as the power can’t speak back.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong, which can be reached through the blogs entry at GJSentinel.com.


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