One of the Bush administration’s overriding goals has been to discredit every institution that threatens the imperial presidency: Congress, the courts, the military, the electoral process, federal agencies and, last but hardly least, the press. Through its precision coordination of PR, spin, message saturation, fake news and demonization of any journalist who dared to ask questions as a terrorist-loving traitor, Team Bush enjoyed awe-inspiring success on this front for nearly two years, from 9/11 until the summer of 2003. Even though things started to fall apart then – no WMDs, no “Mission Accomplished,” increasingly grisly news from Iraq – the administration persisted in its take-no-prisoners stance toward the press.
Television news in particular has struggled to find its way, wounded by the “60 Minutes” debacle and forced resignation of Dan Rather on CBS, the retirement of NBC’s Tom Brokaw and the loss of ABC’s Peter Jennings. To add to the TV news woes, Fox has shown that partisan, preaching-to-the-choir news is both cheap to produce and popular. Meanwhile “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have demonstrated that so-called “fake news” is often more revealing about the day’s events, and more emotionally satisfying.
Into this gap between the lassitude of the nightly news and the edginess of Jon Stewart has stepped an unlikely figure: Lou Dobbs. I used to watch Dobbs for what are called surveillance purposes; how do right-leaning, pro-business types report and spin the news? Now, I try not to miss Dobbs, in part because he seems to be deliberately crafting a new kind of anchor persona – that of the outraged everyday American, the one who is indeed “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.” He expresses his incredulity over Bush pronouncements and policies in his give-and-take with CNN reporters, addresses the audience directly with sarcastic rhetorical questions and has abandoned the more neutral, objectivity-adhering stylings of news anchors. He has also been walking an interesting political line, conservative about some issues, especially American immigration policy, populist about others, including corporate giveaways and the privileging of business interests over national security. And you won’t find soft news stories about puppies or diets here. In the process, Dobbs is showing how you might do a version of “The Daily Show” straight.
Dobbs was merciless about the Dubai deal, and he used it as a frame through which to blast Bush about the current trajectory of his administration. How’s this for a lead-in, which Dobbs read on March 3: “New evidence tonight that the Bush White House appears to believe that commerce is more important than national security. It turns out the Committee on Foreign Investments, which is supposed to safeguard our national security interests, failed to consult anyone outside the Bush administration about this deal.” The deal provided a peg for a related story about K Street lobbyists, with which Dobbs concluded, “Business lobbyists and groups say commerce is more important often than national security interests.”
Covering Bush’s trip to India, Dobbs’ lead-in included, “The president also made outrageous remarks about the export of American jobs to cheap overseas labor markets,” and later added, “Outsourcing is just ducky, says the president.” Ridiculing Bush for saying that the solution to outsourcing is to educate Americans for 21st century jobs, Dobbs cited Labor Department projections that the fastest growing job is that of nursing assistant. Bedpans, anyone?
Dobbs also uses e‑mails from viewers to provide a Greek Chorus to back up his own ire. A typical offering: “I have never in my 74 years seen such a lack of concern for the citizens of America by the elected officials in Washington D.C.” You just don’t see this kind of controlled fury on the networks.
On March 10, Dobbs opened his show with “The Dubai ports deal is dead, but the distortions and disinformation go on.” Beginning with Bush’s comments about the demise of the deal, Dobbs added, “The president refuses to acknowledge he made any mistakes in the way he handled the controversy. The president’s remarks are a clear sign the Bush White House is still confused about the difference between commerce and the national interest.” Ouch. Dobbs then chided that Bush was getting his comeuppance because something he has been so avidly pushing in the Middle East – democracy– “actually works here at home.”
Whatever one thinks of Dobbs’ different political stances, he is clearly seeking to keep the post-Katrina journalistic indignation alive through an anchoring style that draws more from Network than from Walter Cronkite. Given how the Bush administration has sought to muzzle, undermine or simply circumvent the press, Dobbs’ version of in-your-face defiance is a welcome antidote, and may be the wave of the future.