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You Know You're a Wussy Press Corps When…

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…the former White House Press Secretary says you were too easy on him.

The upcoming memoir from Scott McClellan is already getting heavy attention for its scathing criticism of a Bush administration that he says was deliberately deceptive and self-deceiving in—among other things—launching the war in Iraq and in mishandling Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. But McClellan also has unkind words for the White House press corps that he was handling at the time; namely, that they were too easily handled:

McClellan repeatedly embraces the rhetoric of Bush’s liberal critics and even charges: “If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq.

“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. … In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

McClellan, ironically, had been criticized at the time by the press for being the frontman for a stonewalling, stingy-with-the-facts White House. And let’s face it, it may be self-serving for McClellan to be forthcoming now, in a memoir, after having enabled the very practices he aattacks now. But it is truly a sad—or, less charitably put, pathetic—situation to imagine that all the while he was standing at that podium, he was wondering why in the world the supposed jackals of the press weren’t being more aggresive with him and the White House.

Why weren’t they? I’m a broken record about this, but when it comes to press acquiesence, it’s not about ideology or corporate political dictates; it’s about following the money. Put mathematically: Financial Terror + Sense of the Public Mood = Wimpy Press Coverage. After September 11, you had a media business that was dealing with a recession and steep cutbacks and journalists who were convinced that their audience would punish them for delivering discouraging words about the President and the war. Not all journalism between September 11 and the start of the Iraq War was driven by the fear that journalists would be seen as unpatriotic—and thus revenues would suffer—but a shameful amount was. (See, for instance, the directives at CNN and MSNBC about not seeming anti-American before the war.)

If the press is more adversarial now, it’s because, after Hurricane Katrina, they believed that they had the public’s permission—and therefore a business incentive—to be.

It would be nice to believe that the shame of being called too wimpy by the guy whose job it was to keep the media in line would give the press more backbone during the next war or after the next terrorist attack. I’m not betting on it, though. It’s easier for the press to get courage, and for press secretaries to get scruples, after the fact.