Cokie Roberts and Her Slide Right
eRobin at Fact-esque caught NPR’s Cokie Roberts pushing right- wing TP’s today as shamelessly as she probably ever has. She seems to have abandoned her usual sugar-coating of faux-objectivity altogether.
I just heard Cokie Roberts, serious journamalist [sic], tell me that the Dems have to be careful:
The Democrats could do something things that could blow it. The Congress could seem to be ineffectual or they could seem to be overreaching. … (mentions Feingold’s censure resolution and Reid’s backing off of it) … Things like that, um, if the Democrats seem to be just piling on a pres who’s already at remarkably low approval ratings on a war that that public has turned their back on, if the Democrats pile on on that, that could be a problem.
Clever girl, our Cokie. She hit the GOP trifecta: She helpfully raised the Republican talking point of the “ineffectual Democratic Congress,” she tied the efficacy of Congress to ending BushCo’s Quagmire in Iraq without mentioning the Republican Quagmire in the Senate and then helpfully set up an impossible frame for the Democrats: They have to fix everything that BushCo has destroyed in the last six years except that they can’t do it on their own or appear rude while doing so. They have to get legislation passed by working politely with an obstructionist opposition party that was perfectly happy being a universal rubber stamp for Dear Leader and NOT PASSING A BUDGET THE LAST YEAR THEY WERE IN POWER. They have to end a war of aggression without hurting the feelings of the maniac who started it. They have to balance, weave, dodge and frolic and when they do, it still won’t be enough to win accurate coverage in the corporate media.
You almost have to be my age to remember when Roberts was a reasonably legitimate reporter and a fair if not exactly perceptive political analyst. Back in the day, Roberts was a young (30-ish) correspondent for a public broadcasting service that found its legs during Watergate and was building – or attempting to build – a reputation for journalistic excellence. She fit right in. She had unparalleled political connections, being long-time Louisiana Rep Hale Boggs’ daughter, and she used them with intelligence and wit.
But those days are long gone, and it might be instructive to examine how the slow, inexorable decay from a bright reporter to a conservative corporate mouthpiece came about.
Roberts no doubt inherited her interest in politics from her father, but it must have been a confusing and contradictory legacy. Hale Boggs, though essentially a conservative Blue Dog Democrat representing what was at the time a segregated Deep South state, Boggs risked his career a couple of times for the sake of principle.
The first was during the brutal fight over civil rights in the Johnson Administration. Though he made impassioned speeches against desegregation in the 50’s and refused to vote for LBJ’s Civil Rights Bill in ’64, by ’65 he was shepherding the Voting Rights Act through a tough battle in the House. In ’68, he won a close re-election campaign by aligning himself with George Wallace, and after his victory promptly dove into the battle over the Fair Housing Act and became instrumental in its passage.
Personally, I never knew what to make of Boggs. Sometimes he baffled you. Just when you thought he was nothing more than another racist Southern cracker a la Jamie Eastland, there he’d be on the floor of the House fighting members of his own party to get the Voting Rights Bill passed for his black constituents.
Some argued at the time that he was, like LBJ, a political animal and that all his decisions sprang from there. Maybe. He represented some serious Southern backwater counties, that’s true, but his district also included the city of New Orleans, which was decidedly NOT Blue Dog country. One could explain his votes simply as a tightrope-walk between two diametrically opposed constituencies and nothing more.
But I always thought there was more. Like Johnson himself – a complicated and conflicted man if ever there was one – Boggs seemed to have a strong streak of conscience in his make-up. I don’t think his sometimes mutually-exclusive positions on racial issues were merely political. There was an undertone in Boggs’ statements and speeches of genuine belief, of a man struggling to reconcile political necessity with his private conscience, his sense of right and wrong.
That’s borne out by the second instance of great political risk-taking: Boggs’ vocal discomfort with the way the Warren Commission was fed information and evidence by the FBI through Allen Dulles. Boggs was a member of the Commission and emerged from it furious with Hoover. He once exploded to an aide, “Hoover lied his eyes out to the Commission – on Oswald, on Ruby, on their friends, the bullets, the gun, you name it.”
In the late 60’s, that was not a popular position to take, and by the early 70’s, it was threatening his tenure as the House Majority Leader. There are some who say that if he hadn’t died in that plane crash in ’72, he would have been ousted, yet he persisted in questioning the value and legitimacy of Hoover’s “evidence”. It was a gutsy stand, no two ways about it.
What Roberts seems to have taken away from her father’s example is that the dichotomy between professional necessity and personal conviction is a line that should be crossed carefully if at all, and only when it’s reasonably certain there won’t be any blowback. You could chart her career as a dotted line jumping from side-to-side, playing both ends against the middle and taking great care not to overly offend either camp.
As the 90’s made the shift of power to the conservatives unmistakable, Roberts made the same shift and at the same speed. Her reporting became more right-wing-friendly as the conservatives flexed their muscles and NPR came under attack from the right for being too liberal. Clinton responded to the vehement criticism by appointing conservative Democrats to the CPB Board, and as the Board began to push a more conservative slant to NPR programming, especially in the news department, Roberts responded by carefully and selectively side-swiping Democrats.
By the time the extremist GOP captured a Congressional majority in ’94 – mostly through lies, dirty tricks, and stealth candidates who pretended to be centrists until they were elected, none of which tactics Roberts ever reported on or seemed to be aware of – Cokie had successfully crossed the line into punditry. If she had ever had any genuine convictions, in politics or anywhere else, she had jettisoned them in favor of a rising career. In ’96, she was picked by conservative Disney’s ABC News to team with another convictionless careerist, Sam Donaldson, as the co-host of This Week.
Since then, she has followed the predictable path of a Beltway Pundit: she trashed Clinton during the Lewinsky mess, supported Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and has consistently targeted far more Democrats than Republicans for criticism. She rarely if ever breaks out of the confines of Beltway Pundit narratives (the standard anti-Dem storyline Rob skewers is pretty typical of her now), and guards the CW as jealously as George Will or Bill Kristol ever did.
As a result, she takes hits from the Left for her unsavory reliance on right-wing TP’s and from the Right, for whom her criticisms of Democrats are too timid, proving that she’s just another Liberal Media Liar. Her response is just as predictable and just as cliched, the response of most of the MSM whenever it’s challenged: If she’s making both sides mad, that proves she’s objective.
What Roberts embodies is the modern journalistic choice of career trumping old-style journalistic integrity, fact, and private beliefs. Anything and everything that might interfere with building a lucrative career is dumped over the side, including conscience and honesty. What replaces them is a mechanical dependence on “he said/she said” reporting in which repeating competing spin-cycles masquerades as “balanced” news commentary, and a campaign of sucking-up to power whether political or professional by saying at every opportunity what power wants to hear, regardless of the deleterious effect of corporate and governmental propaganda on the country, replaces any latent concern for the public good that might raise its ugly head and endanger one’s well-fed paycheck.
Where old-style, Murrow-esque journalists defined their profession as “speaking truth to power” and representing the needs of the powerless, modern Cokie-esque journalists – even in so-called “public” broadcasting which was intended to be immune to such pandering – pay attention principally to being good little corporate cogs in their own selfish interests. Their credo might be stated as:
“Damn the country, and full speed ahead to the safe, protective, wealthy confines of wingnut welfare and potential personal riches.”
Given the heavy conservative slant on the CPB Board, expect to see Roberts leading the slide into conservative propaganda followed by the rest of NPR’s programming. Moyers is probably safe but everything else that’s even vaguely “liberal” is in overt danger, and Cokie will be right there justifying its expulsion, explaining why it’s a Good Thing, and cheering it on.
So will everybody else at NPR who wants to keep working there.