Where are Woodward and Bernstein when we need them?

originally published Dec. 2, 2010 on Open Salon

The following began as a comment on Scanner's latest post:http://open.salon.com/blog/scanner/2010/11/26/fat_catslivin_large_a... 

The question was posed today about how the American economy's money is being sucked up by the very rich: Where are Woodward and Bernstein now that we need them? The fact that they don't have a current equivalent is actually why a lot of what we're seeing is happening. Why don't they have a current equivalent?

There used to be an extent to which the Fourth Estate refereed politics. That changed. For one thing, media companies, particularly as they became media conglomerates (a process supported heavily by the GOP), started acting more like businesses and less like responsible citizens. That meant they were worried about sponsors to an even larger extent, not to mention their own regulatory and tax status. But it actually goes a lot further than that:

Somewhere along the way, the Republicans figured out something very important about the media:

It is far more important for them to Look impartial than to Be impartial, because it is appearance that determines their credibility.

Once they figured this out, their strategy became to refer to the media as the Liberal Media, over and over, to keep them off balance and bending over backward for the conservatives. Here's the next thing they figured out:

If the media is harder on one party than on the other, EVEN IF THIS HAS MERIT, this can credibly be portrayed as partisanship. The result is that whichever party behaves less ethically gets a free pass for the extent to which they are less ethical in the name of "impartiality." That gave the GOP one hell of a free hand. What have they done with it? To begin with, everything Scanner listed on his post plus a bunch of things I and others have blogged about, but one other thing:

The owner of the biggest conservative TV network, Fox, donated a million dollars to the Republican Party during the last election and basically got away with it.

Think about that one for a minute. We haven't seen this significant a violation of commonly accepted ethics since the Bush administration outed a CIA agent with an existing active network to get back at her husband for criticizing them. (If Valerie Plame had been outed by the Clinton administration instead of the Bush administration, the only time Hilary would ever see Bill would be on conjugal visits to whatever federal prison he was housed in. The GOP would have seen to it that he was convicted for treason.)

Why is this happening? Because the Fourth Estate has shifted roles. When it comes to elections, they've turned into bad sportscasters. They report scores. What they don't do is hold players accountable.

Why do I say bad sportscasters rather than just sportscasters? The answer has to do with why I liked Bryant Gumbel on the Today Show: He believed in accountability, which figures - he's a sportscaster. One thing that's really true about sportscasters is that they love the game, they hold the game sacred, and they'll tell you if they think the ref blew a call. Political broadcasters, on the other hand, almost universally protect their own veneer of impartiality far more vigilantly than they protect the Game. The Game, however, isn't just a game in this case. The Game is our country.

There are no referees left. The Supreme Court started to abandon their role as referees during their 5/4 decision on the 2000 Presidential election and buried in completely with their recent decision about corporate contributions to elections. You can tell the political decisions from the judicial decisions: The political decisions are usually 5/4 votes.

How bad is it? One of the "referees", who owns the aforementioned network, sprinted off the sideline during the last election and joined one of the teams on the field! There's no one left in our country wearing a Striped Shirt.

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