Well, I’ve made it through Chapter 8 of Mary Mapes’ book, “Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power,” and it’s the worse for wear. I have tossed it across the room in disgust an average of three times per chapter.
It’s a fascinating read, though. I was a bystander during the whole Rathergate mess (while Kevin and Paul did some yeoman’s work on the story), but I was cheerfully following Mapes’ detractors as they tore that shoddy hit piece to shreds. Mapes’ book gives me a glimpse into the other side, and it’s just as pathetic, as self-aggrandizing, as full of BS as I could have imagined.
First up, it’s amazing how much she hides behind her son. He’s at the forefront most of the time. She talks about how cheered she is from his unconditional love, how she worries how she’ll miss him if she’s locked up for not revealing her sources, how she lied about her departure from CBS, how he found out from a schoolmate that she had been fired, how he brings her her “special” cup on special occasions that features her mug shot, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Second, her adoration for her son is closely matched by her worship of Dan Rather. He is the grizzled but noble warrior, the fearless seeker of Truth, the staunch champion, the stalwart defender of all that is right and just in the world.
Third, she draws very sharp distinctions between herself and her allies, and her detractors. They are the seekers of Truth, the sole possessors of a Constitutional right — nay, sacred duty — to report the Truth.
Those who oppose her (or question her — it’s much the same) are evil, they are malicious, they are conspirators, they are hateful, they are devious, they are sneaky, they are dangerous, they are vicious, and all sorts of other things.
Oh, and they’re usually Republican. That manages to work its way in there. A lot.
The thought that Mapes’ detractors are, in many ways, much like how she sees herself utterly escapes her. Many of them are seekers of the truth, dedicated to that goal and seeing themselves as an ant facing a colossus. Compare, say, Charles Johnson’s media empire against the power of CBS — especially at the time that the Rathergate story broke. Charles is, indeed, still tiny compared to CBS-Viacom, yet he — among so many others — did what Mapes sought to do: they took on a huge juggernaut and brought down its most visible face.
Fourth, money is the root of all things nasty in Mapes’ world. It was big money concerns, not truth, that led CBS to kick her ass to the curb; CBS-Viacom had too much money at stake to risk backing her, so she was sent packing.
The funny part is, Mapes blithely dismisses the constant affluence that surrounded her world at CBS. She praises a New York hotel she frequently stays at, noting that if it wasn’t for the CBS discount she couldn’t afford it. She talks about hopping around the world with Dan Rather, trying to get into Afghanistan, and never once mentions the costs of those plane tickets and other travel expenses. She apparently sees Viacom’s obligation to the CBS News division as an unlimited piggy bank, to pour more and more and more money as needed — but never to even ask if the money is being spent wisely. They should fork over for all these travel expenses, legal fees, production costs, and everything else, and never once question whether it is worth it.
I find myself wondering just what salary Mapes was paid by CBS, and if she ever offered to take less money so as not to detract from the resources for finding and reporting The Truth.
But these are all nit-picking little matters, pointing out what a vacuous, partisan, paranoid, vicious little hack she is. There is something just below the surface of virtually every single sentence (that I’ve read so far) that is incredibly revealing about her view of the role of the press in our society — and explains so much about how the whole Rathergate mess came to be.
(I’m cruising close to 700 words here, and I’m just getting warmed up. I’m gonna stick the rest in the extended section.)
Let me set the stage here, with some of Mary Mapes’ stories from just these first eight chapters.
She goes into great lengths into the James Byrd case. Byrd, you might recall, was the black Texan who was dragged to his death behind some racist assholes’ truck. Two of the men were sentenced to death and the third — who was repentant and testified against the other two — was sentenced to life.
Mapes interviewed the third accused killer extensively. Prosecutors later sought her notes and other material from the interviews, and she refused — to the point of briefly going to jail.
This is because Mapes is a champion of “shield laws.” These laws grant journalists the right to refuse to cooperate with authorities by keeping their notes, their contacts, their sources, and other tools of their trade private and confidential, even from law enforcement officers. They want the same level of legally-guaranteed confidentiality as lawyers, doctors, and clergy.
When Mapes starts talking with her attorney about her conduct during the whole Rathergate mess, she assures him that she had at all times acted in complete accordance with the journalistic code of ethics. She says he then asks some very naive questions — which body crafted this code, who is in charge of revising it, and what measures there are to enforce it. Of course, none exist, and he was rather silly in even asking it.
She is an absolute militant on the First Amendment, as far as the freedom of the press is concerned.
Here are two paragraphs from page 32:
It’s terribly old-fashioned to say this, but while reporters get paychecks from various companies, all of us are always supposed to be working for the same group of clients: the American people — black and white, rich and poor, red state and blue state. A reporter’s obligation is to represent those people and the public interest as well as he or she can. that is a standard that I have strived to live to.
Critics, far right bloggers in particular, like to make fun of reporters’ highfalutin’ ideas about the supposedly sacred nature of thier work. These critics are just plain wrong. Journalism has a rich and proud history in this country. People who just appear on television to regurgitate their own political opinion, the spin doctors, the hangers-on, the bloggers who don’t bother with the facts, the people who sing to th hallelujah choras in hate-talk radio, haven’t done one damned thing to keep America strong. Good reporting has.
When she files a Freedom of Information Act request for some of Bush’s National Guard records, she finds out that another officer’s name in the report is blacked out. She needs this name so she can contact the guy for her story, so she keeps filing more and more requests for the same document, hoping that at some point someone will forget to black out the guy’s name — and it does happen, and she has the name she needs.
She takes great pride in detailing the tremendous efforts she put forth to land an interview with Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the woman Senator Strom Thurmond fathered on a black servant back in the 1920’s. After numerous phone calls, the woman tells her to leave her alone. So Mapes and a buddy start showing up at the woman’s home (she’s in her 70’s at this point) and keep hounding her and showering her with gifts to get her to go on the record.
There are numerous other examples in the portion of Mapes’ book I’ve read so far, and I’m sure there are plenty more in the part I haven’t touched, that point indisputably to one of Mapes’ core beliefs: that the press is an indispensable part of our government, that it stands nearly co-equal with the Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary branches and has a Constitutional duty and mandate to keep those bodies in check.
That’s not how it works.
Under our government, each body has tremendous power — but can also be checked by the other two. It’s the principle of balance of powers. The Supreme Court can overturn declare laws unconstitutional, striking them down, and can issue rulings that curtail actions of the president. The President appoints the Court (with Congressional approval) and can veto laws. The Congress can impeach and remove from office members of the other two branches, and passes the budgets for both. The Vice-President presides over the Senate. Most of the president’s appointments have to meet with Congressional approval. And so on.
The notion is simple: one branch can stop another, should they prove abusive. No one branch can assume absolute power.
Mapes’ idea of the press as a fourth branch fails on a fundamental level, because she does not recognize any limitations on the press’ power — apart from its own idealism.
As she herself pointed out, journalists have their own code of ethics by which they are supposed to abide. But it’s not written down anywhere. There’s no single version of it that all swear to. There’s no body charged with amending and enforcing it. In short, there is not only nothing that can be done should a journalist simply ignore it, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent a journalist from simply saying that they are acting in accordance with their own code, and define it however they like.
That’s what things like talk radio and the blogosphere are evolving into, and Mapes doesn’t like it one bit. They represent something that truly terrifies modern journalists — the “Army of Davids” concept that suddenly, thanks largely to the internet and the information technology explosion, literally anyone can be a commentator, a pundit, a fact-checker, a witness, a reporter, a documentarian. And in some cases, we can do it better than the professionals.
I’ll use myself as a counterpoint to Mary Mapes’ vision of herself. She boasts of journalism’s hordes of editors and fact-checkers and researchers who stand behind every story, so we know we can trust them. But they still get caught — all too frequently — getting things wrong or spinning their stories to reflect their biases or shading facts or just plain making shit up. And every time, there is the same mocking question: “where were your legions of editors and fact-checkers and researchers?”
Me? I’m no journalist. I’ve done that, but I’m not one now. I’m just one guy in the middle of nowhere (look up Lebanon, New Hampshire on a map — it’s not really “nowhere,’ but it’s less than a tank of gas from there.) with little more than an internet connection, a radio, and a TV. (Well, a couple of those last ones, but you get the point.) I watch, I listen, I read, and I think. Then I sit down at the keyboard and put those words out for all to see. I make no pretenses of being a great researcher or investigator or reporter. (But I think I’m a pretty damned good writer, apart from too-frequent abuses of hyphens and parenthetical remarks.) (Like these.)
Um, where was I?
Oh, yeah. I’m a guy with eyes and ears to take in information, a brain to process it, hands to type out the results, and an internet connection to put those thoughts out for all to see. I make no grandiose, self-aggrandizing claim to be a Guardian Of The Constitution or Seeker Of The Truth or demand any special legal treatment or status for what I do, I just know my First Amendment and enjoy exercising my rights therein.
And sometimes those rights involve my choice to look at what those who do make such claims do, and point out what I see as their mistakes, their abuses, their misconduct, their malpractices, their flagrant biases, their “crimes against journalism,” their misuse of their Constitutional rights, and yes, their lies.
Ms. Mapes is quite right when she says there is no “Better Business Bureau” for journalists. (Page 32: “There is no unbiased hiring and firing body that disciplines all of journalism. There is no Better Business Bureau or Plumbers Board to complain to.”)
But this is America. When we Americans see a need for something, we tend to invent it. And that, I think, is what brought about things like Talk Radio and the blogosphere — the need among the “little people” (and, speaking in every sense but the literally physical, I’m definitely one of the little people) to provide some sort of balance, some kind of checking mechanism, some sort of way to exert some restraint on the press, the same way the three branches of our federal government balance each other.
Ms. Mapes doesn’t like that. Partly because it flatly contradicts her world view of journalists as the unvarnished (and unquestioned) champions of truth and freedom and justice. Partly because it exposes the shadier side of her profession, the side that was kept safely from the public for decades upon decades.
And mostly because it caught her (and her hero, her idol, her object of worship, Dan Rather) trying to fraudulently sway a presidential election in a particularly inept way, and cost the two of them their careers.
Maybe, some day, there will arise a third force to check both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, and the parallel will be complete. But until that day arrives, Ms. Mapes, we bloggers will continue to eye you with the same critical, cynical eye that you gaze upon your subjects with. We see you as the comfortable, and we see our job as afflicting you. You speak of your obligation to “the American people,” and sound suspiciously like those who speak of “the masses” — and end up as the worst form of tyrants. We see our obligation to our readers, and we interact with them on a daily basis — we never get to think of them as some vague, amorphous group. We know them by name (given or chosen), their style of writing, their beliefs, their stories.
You claim to serve the people, Ms. Mapes. Well, we are a lot closer to the people. We live with them, work with them, eat among them, sleep with them. We are them.
And we don’t always care for the services you provide. Now we have a way of expressing that dissatisfaction, and you don’t like it one damned bit, do you?
Take heart from these words from Thomas Jefferson, and feel free to adapt the sentiment for your particular circumstance: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
All I can add is this:
Sucks to be you.
But man, did you and your whole profession ask for it.