February 6, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

This week at the White House there was a quick shift to Plan B. President Obama was all set to cheerlead his economic stimulus plan with a lightning round of network interviews when the news hit. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, laden with tax problems and charges of influence peddling, took himself out of the running for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Quick as a flash, the president had lost control of his message. So, he changed his tune to a medley of mea culpas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know ultimately, I take responsibility for the situation that we're in. I'm here on television saying I screwed up. I don't want my administration to be sending a message that there are two sets of rules.

BILL MOYERS: Message: I care and I'm really sorry, too. Contrition, of course, is rare in Washington; presidents almost never say, "I blew it." So here's how it was interpreted by cable and network news.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Daschle ditches and the president takes the blame.

DAVID GREGORY: At a time when the administration and the president himself is going after Wall Street executives for their conduct, for their executive pay, are all of his people playing by the rules?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The good news is, even though the president was forced to apologize so many times yesterday, is that these nominees now are gone. They have chosen to withdraw. So the president can move on.

BILL MOYERS: The new president and the Washington establishment - including the press corps - are still trying to figure each other out. The narrative of change that carried Barack Obama through the campaign isn't working - so far. His attempts at bipartisanship rejected, he now has dropped his conciliatory tone and gone on the attack. These rapid gear shifts in Potomac spin cry out for some analysis, and here with me now are two keen students of politics and the media to share with us their thoughts.

Glenn Greenwald is a constitutional lawyer turned journalist. His blog on Salon.com is one of the most influential on the internet. He's written two best sellers: "How Would a Patriot Act?" about President Bush and executive power, and "A Tragic Legacy." His most recent book is "Great American Hypocrites."

Jay Rosen is a founder of the citizen journalism movement and is a professor of journalism at New York University, as well as a widely published writer and media critic. He created the popular blog called PressThink, subtitled "Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine."

Two and a half years ago he began a research project called NewAssignment.net, bringing together professional journalists and amateur contributors to cover the news.

Welcome to both of you.

GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Let's spend a moment on the Daschle affair before it becomes a footnote to history. The press zeroed in on the unpaid taxes. But was that really the heart of the story?

GLENN GREENWALD: I don't think it was the heart of the story at all. I think there was a much more significant aspect to Tom Daschle's nomination, which is that he spent 30 years in Congress, all of his adult life, in essence, doing nothing but being a member of Congress.

And the minute he left, he traded in on his influence and his contacts to make enormous sums of money by telling large corporations and wealthy individuals how they can get the legislation that they want from the Congress, including giving advice to the very companies and giving speeches to the very companies that he would have ended up regulating as part of his duties as Health and Human Services secretary.

And I think the press overlooked that, and didn't think that was much of a story was because it's so customary in Washington for members of both political parties. That's how the system works. And the members of the media, being integral parts of that system, want to do everything other than offer critiques of it.

BILL MOYERS: There was a headline that grabbed my attention during the week. It said, "Senators stunned by Daschle's Withdrawal." What does that say to you, that the senators were stunned?

JAY ROSEN: Well, I think the culture of Washington is one of probability. The probabilities seemed to be that Daschle would get nominated. And the press looks at everything in terms of what's likely to happen. So at the time, it was likely that Daschle was going to be approved. And so, looking carefully at the case, asking what might intervene, and even asking should he be approved, kind of takes a back seat once reporters get a beat on what's likely to happen.

BILL MOYERS: I think you wrote that "The media stars in Washington almost never understand that there's anything wrong with the establishment of which they're a part."

GLENN GREENWALD: That's right. I mean, if you were to say to normal Americans, and it's the reason why these issues resonated, and why Barack Obama made them a centerpiece of his campaign, that members of Congress leave office and make millions of dollars doing nothing other than essentially peddling influence to wealthy individuals who can have their way with Congress.

Most people consider that to be corruption. That's what Barack Obama called it when he ran. Yet, to members of the media, who have spent their lives in Washington, who are friends and colleagues of the people who are engorging themselves on this corrupt system that is just the way of life. It's like breathing air or drinking water. It's not anything that's noteworthy, let alone controversial.

JAY ROSEN: Well, what doesn't get considered, Bill, is that there could be anything radically wrong with Washington. That the entire institution could be broken. That there are new rules necessary. That idea, that the institutions of Washington have failed and need to be changed, doesn't really occur to the press, because as Glenn said, they're one of those institutions. And they're one of the ones that failed.

BILL MOYERS: Your colleague at Salon.com, Joan Walsh, wrote this week, that Obama, "the great communicator," she called him, "seems to be losing control of the rhetoric of the spin." What do you think about that?

JAY ROSEN: I think his words have a power that perhaps he didn't understand. And one of the reasons why Daschle concluded that he had to go was that his own actions kind of undermine the spirit of Obama's own message. And that was certainly something he didn't expect. But in a way, it's good that we're holding him to his own words. That itself would be a radical change.

Because what the establishment expects is that people kind of say what they need to say to get elected. And then, once they're in power, kind of the old rules of Washington reassert themselves.

BILL MOYERS: The Rasmussen Poll this week shows an eight point drop in support for the stimulus plan, what do you make of that?

GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I think if you go back to the 1990s, what you saw is essentially a partnership between the Republican Party, the right wing, and establishment media venues. And this partnership was formed when they were essentially engaged in their lynch mob over the Lewinsky affair.

And that partnership, those methods that were so successful then, translated into the media being blindly supportive and reverent of the Bush administration. And that partnership hasn't really gone anywhere. And so, I think that Obama, being somewhat new to Washington, and looking at Washington as this culture ready to be changed, and leave behind its old ways - that's what he really believes he can accomplish - may have been somewhat surprised by how potent that process is, when it works together.

And it suffocated his message. It attached the most dreaded label in Washington to what he was trying to do, which is conventional liberalism, that this is just a standard package of liberal economic policies: taxing and spending, and imposing burdens on the American taxpayer. And that message resonated with the media, and therefore, with the American public, and steamrolled the White House in a way that I think demonstrated they weren't really prepared for how vibrant that partnership remains.

JAY ROSEN: My sense, Bill, is that insofar as politics looks like it always has, Obama's ratings will go down. So if Washington is able to kind of ensnare him in its usual game, if the kind of partisan bickering or argument resumes, if Washington seems to be behaving the way it always has, Obama will lose. And it's easy for that to happen. It's the most likely thing. And that might be what happened this week.

GLENN GREENWALD: Let me just add to that, because I think it raises an interesting dilemma. Which is, if you look at what the media were saying about Obama favorably, both around the time of his election and subsequent as well, they kept insisting that he could continue Bush's counterterrorism policies that were so controversial.

They were praising him for leaving in place all sorts of Bush officials that the media wants to see is continuity, that he's not threatening to their way of life and to their establishment, for the reason that we talked about before. That's how he wins praise from them, is by showing that he isn't going to change things fundamentally, and therefore, isn't a threat to their system.

At the same time, as Jay said, what he needs to do more than anything to fulfill the commitments that he made, is demonstrate that he's a true change agent. And I think these objectives are very much in conflict, because the more he threatens the Washington system, I think the more hostility the press will feel towards him, and therefore, project to the public about him. And that, too, can undermine his political popularity.

JAY ROSEN: If you're a career Washington reporter, how do you know that your knowledge is always going to be relevant throughout your career? Well, if politics is just an inside game, then you're always on top of it. If all of a sudden, a new dynamic enters it, you may not have the knowledge you need to be the expert, to be the authority. And I think there's a tendency for Washington journalists to see everything converging towards the political game that they are themselves masters of.

BILL MOYERS: We use these term, media and press, pretty generally. I mean, "The Washington Post" is in the media and of the press. You all are in the media and of the press. But so is Rush Limbaugh.

I think you wrote on your blog that Dave Brody from the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson's outfit, will one Sunday show up on "Meet the Press." But an Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now" will never show up on "Meet the Press." What's behind that phenomenon?

JAY ROSEN: I think part of the reason is that if Amy Goodman came on "Meet the Press," she would say all sorts of things that not only challenge the people on the program, but challenge what they have been saying over the years. Would go back, in a sense, discredit the narrative that's been building up for a long time. And even though it's maybe not wholly conscious, the idea that there's a kind of building narrative that is more or less accurate, that we kind of tell you what's going on in Washington, is a common assumption in the press. And people who would completely shatter that, don't.

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that's exactly right. It's all about the content of views. Rush Limbaugh can depict himself as being this insurgent outsider. But he supported the wars of the last eight years. He supported the tax policies that Ronald Reagan essentially instituted as conventional wisdom, that we need to lower taxes, reduce government spending. All of the conventional clichés that the media airs frequently, and doesn't need much time in order to explain, are ones that Rush Limbaugh and the furthest fringes of the right essentially embrace.

And so, to include them into our discussion is not very disruptive at all, whereas if you had people on from the left who were advocating things like the United States' responsibility for its unpopularity in the world, the fact that we wage wars and bomb other countries and invade and occupy other countries far more than any nation on the planet.

To include somebody like that would not only threaten the vested interests of everybody who's participating in these conversations, it would disrupt the entire narrative, as Jay said it would. Almost sound foreign, as though these views are un-serious views, don't belong in mainstream, serious shows. Because these views are never heard. They're stigmatized, they're demonized as being things that don't really deserve a platform. And so, you can't include advocates of these views in these shows.

JAY ROSEN: You know what's really striking to me about this, is Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked for Colin Powell, when he retired from the government, he said that the people in power: Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld especially, were, in his view, radicals. That the radicals were the people actually running the government.

And this idea that the people in power were kind of outside the sphere of normal government, never made its way into the establishment press at all. The idea that Wilkerson could have been right, that the real radicals were running the federal government, never really penetrated their narrative at all.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that so many in the press, pundits and others as well, were saying Obama has to be bipartisan?

JAY ROSEN: I think that the ideology of the press is not so much liberal or conservative. They think themselves the keepers of realism, of savviness. I think the real religion of the American press is savviness. And in their view, it isn't savvy to say you're going to mobilize the anger and frustration of the American people and bring that power to Washington to change it.

That's not how politics works. The way politics works is you say things like that to get elected, and then, once you're in, you make your accommodations, you show that you want to hew to the center. You demonstrate that you're bipartisan. You pick people who are familiar.

And it's those eternal laws of politics that journalists feel they know better than us. And they expect politics to kind of run down these rails that they've laid down, because then we have to turn to them for the inside story. And this is what they want to continue.

GLENN GREENWALD: I agree with Jay, that it isn't so much that the media is liberal or conservative in terms of how those terms are defined conventionally in our political spectrum. What ends up happening is that ideas that are threatening to the media and to the political elite end up being attached to the label of liberalism or leftist ideology.

With the corresponding orthodoxy that the one thing Obama, for instance, needs to show, is that he's not beholden to the far left of his party, or that he's willing to scorn the leftists and the liberals in his party. That's when he generates the most praise. And the-

BILL MOYERS: From the Washington press corps.

GLENN GREENWALD: From the Washington press corps.


GLENN GREENWALD: If you go back and look at the way in which Obama was praised for the last two months, almost entirely by the media, will almost always be based on this idea that he's not an ideologue that he's not in concert with the liberals and the leftists in his party. That's the great accomplishment in the eyes of the media; a president could possibly aspire to.

And the reason for that is because in their eyes, what liberalism or the leftist ideology that they're scorning, are not things about policy making per se, or even approaches to foreign policy. It's the idea that the prevailing consensus among our political elite is corrupted and needs to be radically changed. And so, what I think they are most afraid of is having the anger of the American people start to affect what happens within their system. What they want more than anything else, is to exclude those external influences.

JAY ROSEN: Here's another way to look at it. The press is full of behaviorists. They don't know they're behaviorists, but they are.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

JAY ROSEN: A behaviorist is somebody who thinks that we can figure out what's going on by looking at probabilities and large numbers of people, and what tends to happen with those people. And politics runs on laws like that to a large extent. However, there's another aspect of politics, which is leadership, action, bringing something new into the world, starting something that didn't exist before. Having an idea nobody had before. Pushing it through.

Journalists, deep down, don't believe that action really works. But the real excitement of democratic politics is that something new can come into the world, because we decided it. Because there was an election. Because there's a new crowd in town.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that's happening?

JAY ROSEN: I think it very much could happen.

BILL MOYERS: Even yet?

JAY ROSEN: It could, yes. Because not only are there new people in the government, but there are new realities, especially in technology. The whole transparency revolution of let's make the business of government radically open to inspection, not just in the establishment, to everyone in the country, to everyone in the world. I think that can have very powerful effects on politics. But journalists don't see it. Because they've always had that information.

BILL MOYERS: But if Obama stayed true to what people perceived he was saying and being during the campaign, would the press begin to write about that? Wouldn't they then get it?

JAY ROSEN: They might, if Obama were able to succeed and to show that the rules have changed, and to keep people mobilized, that after a while - this is the good thing about journalists. After a while, they have to report a different reality. But at first, their assumption is going to be same old game, same old people, and same old laws of behavior.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a narrative that you think could be written now that's not being written?

JAY ROSEN: The narrative that we aren't getting is that the political class cannot solve the problems it created. And that some outside force is needed. People from outside, ideas from outside, as well as the anger and sort of mobilized - feeling of Americans themselves.

BILL MOYERS: By your own paradigm, these ideas, as you said earlier in the broadcast, don't get into the Washington mix, because then they're seen as heretical by the establishment.

JAY ROSEN: They have to be forced in.

BILL MOYERS: It is not enough just to elect a president?

JAY ROSEN: It's not enough to elect the right people. They have to be forced in from the outside. And we have more means of doing that. So it's going to be a little bit more uncertain.

BILL MOYERS: Where is the evidence of a movement like that?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think, you know, even if you talk to journalists, they will tell you that they have in some sense, lost the monopoly that they previously exerted on our political discourse. There are alternative voices now. The internet enables people to construct their own platforms and to attract like-minded people.

So that now there are gathering places of hundreds of thousands, if not more citizens, who are just as angry, just as dissatisfied and just as intent on circumventing these institutions, shaming them into changing as well, in order to force the change that they themselves so vigorously resist. And I think there's a cause for optimism in that regard.

JAY ROSEN: And when the story coming out of Washington, when the story on the talk shows isn't actually true, or isn't accurate to what we know, many more people are aware of that now. Many more facts can be added to the story. What we haven't seen yet is national politics adjusting to bring these mobilized outsiders in more.

BILL MOYERS: On my computer upstairs, I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they're taking to the streets. We don't see that in this country. Will Washington ever get the message unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think the idea of street demonstrations is probably the most stigmatized idea in our political process. There were huge marches, for instance, prior to the Iraq war, against the war. There were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people throughout Europe marching in the streets against the war.

And yet, the media virtually excluded those demonstrations from the narrative, because they're threatening, and because they're considered to be the act of unserious radicals and people who are on the fringe, and I think that in some sense, that's reflective of the fact that that level of agitation is probably the most threatening to the people who have a vested in having the system continue unchanged.

BILL MOYERS: So here, at the end of the week, what's the message you are getting from Obama? And how's the press reacting to it?

JAY ROSEN: I actually think Obama is a disruptive force, potentially disruptive force.


JAY ROSEN: To Washington. Because he did speak to people's disgust with our political system. And he still has the power to mobilize that. And his words, expressing that feeling have more potency than, I think, maybe even he realized. But as Glenn said, he is naturally, a compromiser. And I think he's going to be pulled between playing a savvy inside game and trying to mobilize anger from outside of Washington. He's going to seesaw between these two things.

BILL MOYERS: Is it your sense that the situation in the country, with half a million people losing their jobs in a month, is it your sense that the reality in the country is far more calamitous than Washington seems to be perceiving it?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think yes and no. I think that clearly, the opinion-making elites and the political elites are generally insulated from the level of anxiety and economic threat that millions and millions of Americans are facing in the most extreme fashion since the Great Depression, as the cliché goes.

At the same time, I think the problem is, is that the citizenry has really been trained to believe that they're impotent when it comes to demanding action from the political class.

It's already extraordinary that nine out of ten Americans, prior to the election - nine out of ten - believe that the country was radically off course. They lost complete faith in our political institutions, our media institutions. Virtually everything is held in such low esteem, and that's the reason why there was such hope vested in Barack Obama, that he would be something different and new that the country is hungering for.

But I think what needs to happen is there needs to be a sense, as you said, whether it's street demonstrations or other forms of true social disruption that can threaten the people who have an interest in preserving how things are, that until that happens, and whatever form that takes. It's hard to predict. It can be spontaneous. It can grow out of real dissatisfaction and anger. That more or less, lip service will be paid to the idea that these are significant problems that our political leaders care about, that change is coming.

But no real change will occur. Their interests will continue to be to ignore all of that, to treat it as condescendingly as possible and just to placate it when they can.

BILL MOYERS: Both of you have a keen sense of the power of the internet. You've used it for your own work. What if all those people out there who supported Obama through the internet, actually used that technology to send him a message? You know, wait a minute. This is going the wrong way. We expect more of you than this. What would happen?

GLENN GREENWALD: I think that's one of the things that's going to have to happen if Obama's going to do anything other than essentially blend into the permanent political class in Washington. You actually saw a little bit of that when he first secured the nomination, and then suddenly violated, betrayed his commitment to filibuster any bill that contained Telecom immunity. It created a real backlash among his supporters.

There was a website that was the sort of center of his campaign. And it was a conduit of lots of anger. And the campaign heard that. I think that's what's going to have to happen, is his supporters on whom he relies for his political power, are going to have to be the ones holding him accountable, by being angry and dissatisfied when he seems to be off the course that he promised he would stay on.

JAY ROSEN: During the age of mass media, the idea of one way, one to many communication, sunk very deeply into the political elites' sense of self. Broadcast the message. Send the message. What's the message? The great thing about the internet it that it runs two ways. It's just as good at enabling us to send messages to them as it is for them to tell us. And I think what people have to do is remember the internet runs two ways, and to use it to tell Washington what to do.

BILL MOYERS: Jay Rosen, Glenn Greenwald, thanks for being with me on the JOURNAL.