In a week marked by historic firsts and flubs, an editorial appearing in the Jan. 20 edition of the Los Angeles Times stopped me in my tracks. For a minute I thought I had inadvertently stumbled across the pages of The Onion.
Writing on the occasion of Barack Obama's inauguration, the editorial staff of the LA Times celebrated the first African American elected to the presidency but cautioned, without a hint of irony, that this is "a moment in which we must pledge vigilance, not unqualified encouragement."
Perhaps the editorial staff was feeling guilty. After all, like the rest of the corporate media, the LA Times has been anything but vigilant these past eight years. Instead of serving as watchdogs, the U.S. press corps behaved like lapdogs for one of the most secretive and deceptive administrations in American history.
"Lofty tones and high-minded rhetoric does nothing to diminish the corporate media's complicity in the Bush administration's wrongdoing."
Sensing that change, at long last, is in the air, or simply in a fit of remorse, the editors continued: "Recent history supplies a sobering lesson in what happens when support for a president dulls the skepticism needed to ensure public accountability."
Sobering indeed. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see the editorial staff of one of the nation's leading newspapers come clean and acknowledge the corporate media's subservience to the Bush agenda: an unprecedented record of rampant corruption and criminality.
Then came the punch line. The editors proclaim: "Journalism was not to blame for those travesties, any more than it was for the administration's callous disregard for hurricane-swept New Orleans."
The LA Times editorial was no mea culpa at all. It was, to borrow independent journalist Amy Goodman's pithy description of the New York Times admission that the paper of record dropped the ball on the Bush administration's claims of Iraqi WMDs, a "kinda culpa."
Still, it's curious that the LA Times makes reference to Hurricane Katrina in this context. In many respects, Katrina was the high-water mark for U.S. journalism these past eight years. As residents of the Gulf Coast struggled to survive in the wake of an inept and inadequate federal response to the catastrophe, news workers demonstrated how an aggressive, robust and vigilant press might work to serve the public interest.
But apart from that brief interlude of journalistic integrity, the press failures of the past eight years enabled the Bush administration to get away with mass murder -- and a whole lot more.
"ike the rest of the corporate media, the LA Times has been anything but vigilant these past eight years."
Take your pick of the corporate media's gullibility -- culpability to be more precise -- to the Bush administration's corruption and deceit. From the drumbeat for war in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to the specious rationale for the invasion of Iraq, from illegal domestic surveillance programs to cynical and manipulative public relations offensives for No Child Left Behind and Medicare "reform," the corporate press failed to hold the Bush administration accountable for its high crimes and misdemeanors.
Now, with Bush and Cheney safely out of office and Obama left to clean up their messes at home and abroad, the LA Times editorial staff wants to assure its readers that journalism must serve the American people. The editors declare: "We must search out what government would prefer to keep from the public; we must remind those in power of the pledges that brought them to office; we must encourage debate, not out of cynicism but in the conviction that openness and public discussion produce the most satisfying results in a democratic society."
I certainly applaud such goals and ambitions -- they are, after all, the stuff of journalism and vital to "the work of remaking America" Obama articulated in his inaugural address. But such lofty tones and high-minded rhetoric does nothing to diminish the corporate media's complicity in the Bush administration's wrongdoing.
In light of the chronic press failures of the past eight years, the LA Times editorial is not merely disingenuous, it is the journalistic equivalent of locking the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.