Wednesday, May 19, 2004

I’ve always heard that the media is the “permanent government” in Washington. Politicians come and go, but the bigwigs are here forever. For example, in 1989 Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post, dismissed John Sununu, the first President Bush’s chief of staff, as “a jack-leg governor from a horse’s ass state; how could he play with us in the big leagues?”

This combination of power, permanence and arrogance —not liberal bias — is often the real secret behind many of the elite media’s problems. Because conventional wisdom flows from the top down, many rank-and-file journalists are afraid to question it.

But I never appreciated this dynamic sufficiently until the recent kerfuffle over Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press” interview with Colin Powell.

You may have heard that Powell made the rounds — by satellite from Jordan — on the Sunday shows on May 16. He made some real news: He admitted that much of the information in his famous U.N. presentation was flawed or wrong. But that news was either lost or dampened by the excitement of a camera showing a palm tree.

Here’s what happened. Powell was taping an interview with Russert — one of five that morning. The interview was scheduled to last 10 minutes. At 13-plus minutes, Powell’s press secretary Emily Miller (stupidly) tried to end the interview by having the camera move off of Powell. It panned over to a palm tree.

There was some momentary confusion. Powell said the interview was still going. His aides demurred for an instant. Russert sounded offended: “I would hope they would put you back on camera. … I think that was one of your staff.” His indignation rising, Russert declared: “Mr. Secretary. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Powell ordered the camera back on him and invited Russert to re-ask his last question. And the “drama” was over.

Now, for reasons I find unfathomable, Russert seems to believe that in those 30 or so seconds, the fate of the free press hung in the balance. On CNN he declared, “I’ve been in countries where staffers pull the plug on people. This is the United States of America. It really is unacceptable.”

A “taxpayer-paid employee interrupted an interview,” he exclaimed to The Washington Post. “Not in the United States of America, that’s not supposed to go on. This is attempted news management gone berserk.”

Get thee to thy fainting couch, Tim! A government employee attempted to cut off an interview! In America!

Uh, folks, this happens every day.

I used to be a television producer. I know lots of television producers. And I can tell you flat-out: The suggestion that there’s something unusual, never mind ominously un-American, about cutting off a taped, satellite interview when it’s run too long is such nonsense it doesn’t pass the giggle test.

All that’s unusual here is that it happened to Russert. Indeed, he says, “It was my first time in 13 years of doing ‘Meet the Press’ that a press aide has actually tried to pull the plug on an interview.”

I’m sure that’s true.

I could forgive Russert for not knowing how unremarkable all this is, since he basically started at the top at NBC. A former aide to former Governor Mario Cuomo and the late, great, Pat Moynihan, he didn’t learn the TV ropes from the bottom up. Still, I find it hard to believe that in his time with Cuomo or Moynihan he never saw an interview cut short by a “taxpayer-paid employee,” including, perhaps, himself.

I mean: How many times have we seen press aides say, “No more questions”?

Russert’s gratuitous praise of Powell is even odder. “We appreciate Secretary Powell’s willingness to overrule his press aide’s attempt to abruptly cut off our discussion as I began to ask my final question,” Russert officiously intoned to the camera. “Secretary Powell was really stand-up. He was a general and took charge,” he told the Post and others.

Yes, hooray for the most popular political figure in America having the warrior’s courage to overrule a flunky in favor of America’s arguably most powerful pundit.

Now, I should say that I think Russert’s a decent guy and, more important, is good at his job. Also, his high ratings are attributable in no small part to the fact that conservatives and liberals alike consider him an honest and straightforward journalist.

Nevertheless, political bias is different than ego bias. And the only “news management gone berserk” here is the preposterous notion that upsetting Tim Russert is the same thing as trampling free speech.

Only Russert and one or two other 800-pound media gorillas could make such a claim without being laughed at. But because Russert & Co. constitute the “permanent government,” no one’s willing to say the emperor has no clothes.

Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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