Though Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine, Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping, and others have all taken turns exposing the artificiality of the "Bush doesn't go to soldiers' funerals" story, no one has been on it like our favorite ranting professor, even while she's been focusing even greater energy on media reaction to Bush's Thanksgiving surprise. Now, as her most recent "News Cycle Roundup" makes plain, the two themes have been joined together, with a big help from former Clinton spokesperson Joe Lockhart.
The soldiers' funerals story, which provides an easy way to "balance" the positive PR from the Baghdad trip, has been generated in somewhat the same way that the equally inflated uranium-Niger story was created over the Summer. First, an op-ed appears that makes the initial charge. Then, a series of follow-ups in the news pages, often in the form of oblique references rather than direct reporting or analysis, build a background buzz. By the time the narrow item has been broadened into some generalized assault - "Bush lied about Saddam's nuclear program" or "Bush avoids grieving families" - it can also be treated as common knowledge, especially by Bush's political enemies. It then falls to people like Professor Dauber to sort fact from fiction, and to try to force the mainstream media to do their jobs.
I think that in the past, before the existence of the blogosphere, the media must have gotten away with this stuff regularly, but were also much more concerned about being responsible: There were fewer outlets and fewer sources, and being exposed as biased and incompetent might have carried a heavier price. It is also generally believed that the press and public during the period between World War II and Vietnam were loathe to think the worst about our political leaders, and were at the same time more unabashedly patriotic.
This story has been told many times before, and, perhaps because it's usually told by the press itself, the moral is usually that we have all become more cynical, and wiser, but that journalists learned to revere the truth, however unpleasant. Yet in our own time, an alternative narrative is developing, one of media bias and politicization sometimes attributed to fragmentation and at other times, paradoxically, to overconcentration of ownership. Whether seen as corporate flunkies or the pampered products of liberal elite indoctrination, journalists are no longer trusted to tell the truth. As though to pre-empt the criticism, and simultaneously to lend their reporting an element of lively narrative tension, they constantly strive to give an impression that they are seeking to tell the "fair and balanced" truth - equally an impression that they would tell the truth even if it happened to be very unpleasant.
As we've seen over and over again in recent years, the result is that every hint of scandal is treated as a potential Watergate and every hint of a military setback recalls Vietnam. It also seems to mean that journalists are willing to spread ugly falsehoods when there's no other way to prove their willingness to tell ugly truths.