Tuesday, 14 January 2003

Bushwhacked

It is more than 30 years ago now, though it seems like yesterday. A Republican president, much derided by liberals, was in the White House and his opponents were being lashed by the rightwing attack dogs, led then by the vice-president, Spiro Agnew.

The elite East Coast press, exemplified by the New York Times and the Washington Post, were the special targets of his scorn: "pointy-headed liberals," he called them, and "the nattering nabobs of negativism".

But the press laughed last and longest. Agnew resigned in disgrace, to be followed by his president, Richard Nixon - forced out by the investigations of two Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose doggedness revealed Nixon's role in covering up the Watergate break-in and sundry other crimes. It remains one of the greatest - maybe the greatest - moment in the history of American journalism.

Now there is a new Republican president, elected even more controversially and pursuing a far more divisive agenda. Where are the pointy-head liberals now? The change can be summed up in Woodward's own career. As the Watergate investigator, he not merely protected his sources, he glamorised them. Now, still on the Post staff, he functions as a semi-official court stenographer to the Bush White House. And it is notable that those who talk to him - such as the president himself - always play the heroic role in his stories.

The worldwide turmoil caused by President Bush's policies goes not exactly unreported, but entirely de-emphasised. Guardian writers are inundated by emails from Americans asking plaintively why their own papers never print what is in these columns (in my experience, these go hand-in-hand with an equal number insulting us for the same reason). In the American press, day after day, the White House controls the agenda. The supposedly liberal American press has become a dog that never bites, hardly barks but really loves rolling over and having its tummy tickled.

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