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Seema Sirohi: 'Grade-B liar: If only Bush was in Blair's shoes'
Tuesday, May 03
By Seema Sirohi, Outlook India
Living in the land of mushy news conferences, staged town hall meetings and opinion-less editorials, it is hair-raising to read accounts of Tony Blair's election campaign. The British people and the press have grilled "B Liar" on every issue, domestic and international, showing what real watchdogs can do. He has been raked over the coals for lying about the Iraq war, asked to check out life on minimum wage and shown toothless gums by a patient unable to find a dentist in Blair's Britain.. It is a daily mauling by tough audiences of real people and real reporters.
Britons have openly asked Blair to resign because he misled them about Iraq and deliberately acted against his attorney general Lord Goldsmith's advice. "If your weren't fraudulent, you were grossly negligent and for that you should be resigning anyway," a woman in a BBC studio audience told him last week. On another bruising television showdown, a nurse asked the prime minister if he would like to clean patients' bottoms for minimum wage. A Sky News reporter asked Blair bluntly: "Are you a liability?"
From here, Britain certainly looks like a country where real people and real journalists reside. Where hard-nosed questioning is still fashionable and where prime ministers must account for their actions, at least at election time. Blair takes more grilling in a day than American politicians do in a year.
If you detect a mournful longing for a good give-and-take between the rulers and the ruled in America, you are right. It is unimaginable that an ordinary citizen can tell George Bush that he lied about WMD in Iraq. That brave citizen will have been weeded out in the screening process. Americans with "No Blood for Oil" bumper stickers have been "removed" by the army of handlers that sniffs and sanitizes venues for all public appearances by the president. The town hall meetings are filled with a pre-selected, friendly, already converted chorus of compliment givers, not questioners, who fall over each other to tell Bush they support his policies
If Bush were subjected to even one-tenth the Blair treatment by his people and the press, it might change the course of events. Take last week's press conference where the president answered easy questions about fixing social security, runaway gas prices, the falling dollar and Iraq, declaring that "really good progress" was being made there. By the time his musings appeared in print, car bombings and attacks on the Iraqi police had delivered a death toll of more than 50. None of the subjects was easy but at Bush's designer news conferences the questions always are. The clubby White House correspondents know they must throw soft balls if they want to survive. In a world with countless crises, the White House correspondent of the esteemed New York Times finds time to explore such weighty topics as the state of horticulture at the White House.
The soft focus is alarming. Yet there is a sense among the White House press corps that they are somehow "players" in an important game by virtue of reporting on national politics. But turn on C-Span and watch them being "played with" instead by deadpan spokesmen who construct virtual reality around them. Those who dare break the decorum by protesting the increasingly frequent anonymous briefings by "senior administration officials" -- essentially easy escapes for policy makers -- or try to organise a collective response are shunned. A Knight-Ridder correspondent took the unusual step of walking out last year only to realise no one followed him. Len Downie, the editor of The Washington Post, declared "we just don't believe in unified action" when the paper's ombudsman asked about his policy on walk-outs.
Why the mainstream press in America feels compelled to protect those who repeatedly diminish them will remain a mystery. The Bush Administration has broken all previous records in controlling the message by simply excluding journalists who don't play ball. Dick Cheney is known to have thrown off the New York Times correspondent off his plane. But then Cheney can say on TV that Mohammad Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague -- one of the many spurious claims for justifying the war -- and then simply deny it, and go about his business. Bush by his own admission doesn't read newspapers, only the digest prepared for him by his staff.
Journalists who carp too much about "control" are told to simply stuff it. As a Bush official told eminent journalist Ron Suskind: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Another official rather effortlessly added: "Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read the New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times."
They watch White House blessed video "news releases" which are fed to willing or unsuspecting small town television stations as real news reports done by real journalists. The blatant attempt has been labelled "propaganda" by the government's own watchdog agency but the Bush team simply ignores the rulings and goes on manufacturing its own version of reality. Then there are moles who help out at times. Few can forget James Guckert, a Bush plant posing as a journalist at White House briefings, who provided relief to the spokesman whenever the going got tough, deftly asking a comfortable question. He was caught only when he went overboard during a Bush press conference and began openly criticizing Democrats.
Blair has no such comfort. He must surely be wishing for some American treatment.
Reprinted from Outlook India:
"Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
Honore de Balzac
"Democrats work to help people who need help.
That other party, they work for people who don't need help.
That's all there is to it."
~Harry S. Truman