Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
Washington DC, November 11, 2008 --
Mindless devotion to America's new president is bad for America, and could lead to his downfall.
With a flowing cape and a muscular build, the heroic face of president-elect Barak Obama -- drawn as Superman -- stared into the distance from a half-page picture in Sunday's Washington Post. Followed by three glowing articles on the front of the opinion section, the paper's insipid coverage of the politician was more fitting of a teen idol magazine than a great American newspaper.
The Washington press corps is head over heals in love.
On election night at the National Press Club, journalists from varying news organizations cheered loudly as news reports announced that state after state had cast their electors for Obama. To be fair, Washington journalists are only as excited about Obama than their fellow Washingtonians. Election night cheers for Obama were even louder in the amazingly jam-packed public bars frequented by the city's young professionals. The city's 92 precent1 vote for Obama was more typical of a third-world dictatorship than a world-class city. And while other large American cities also voted heavily for Obama (74 percent of Detroit's Wayne County, for example2), Washington was the only one to do so by a factor of more than ten to one.
Since the election, the Obama hype has taken on messianic proportions. The election day edition of the New York Times, originally offered for $1, was sold on eBay on Wednesday for prices up to $120.3 Apartments and houses in Washington are being listed over inauguration week for tens of thousands of dollars. Amazingly, people are actually renting them.
This limitless devotion is mindless and insane. Obama is no savior. He is merely a politician. While all politicians have a die-hard cadre of zealous supporters, the breadth of Obama's unquestioning followers, and especially its significant spillover into Washington's press corps, is unhealthy for America's democracy.
A similar, though less pronounced, hype followed the election of President Clinton to the White House in 1992. Hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered before the Lincoln Memorial before a star-studded celebration featuring Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, and of course Oprah Winfrey.4
After a short honeymoon, the press quickly resumed its watchdog role. Less than three months after Clinton's inauguration, the Washington Post reported the first article about what would become known as the Whitewater scandal.5 Critical reporting of the excesses of Hillary Clinton's national health care plans would soon follow. The Washington press ultimately pursued President Clinton with healthy rigor throughout his presidency.
The question is, how long will it take for this to happen again? Back in 1992, the right-wing media was limited to Rush Limbaugh's radio syndicate. Today, the press is much more equally divided between the traditional center-left establishment and the right-leaning cable and internet outlets led by Fox News. As the right-leaning outlets pound Obama out of disdain for his politics, the risk is that sympathetic reporters from the old-line press organizations will feel the need to defend him, extending the period of the press honeymoon.
This is precisely how things worked a century ago, when it was common for America's newspapers to overtly support one political party or the other. Today's Springfield Republican and the Tallahassee Democrat retain their names from the first era of the partisan press. But today there is huge gulf between the quality of the left-leaning news organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and the more opinion and sound bite-oriented right-leaning outlets. If the more established high-quality left-leaning press abandons its watchdog role with respect to America's new administration -- even for limited time -- where will civic-minded Americans go for quality reporting?
Obama has ample charisma and many preferable policy positions compared to his predecessor and campaign opponent. Yet he is just a man. All men are fallible, and they are especially prone to failure when surrounded by a cabinet of yes men and an unquestioning press corps.
Obama is no Superman. But like the man of steel, he does have a critical weakness. Without the illuminating service of a critical press, the Obama administration may drift into corruption and excess that will inevitably lead to its failure.
1. DC Board of Elections and Ethics, Election Night Unofficial Results, November 5, 2008
2. Wayne County Clerk, Summary Report / Unofficial Results, November 5, 2008
3. Miami Herald, Historic Front Pages are Hot on eBay, November 7, 2008
4. New York Times, The Inauguration: A Grand Beginning: Inaugural Week Begins With Pomp and Populism, January 18, 1993
5. Washington Post, Clintons Pay $70,228 in Tax on Income of $290,697 Last Year, April 16, 1993