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The Fourth Estate

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Matt Drudge is obviously not happy: "ABC TURNS PROGRAMMING OVER TO OBAMA; NEWS TO BE ANCHORED FROM INSIDE WHITE HOUSE," his headline screams, in even bigger type than that.

I don't blame ABC for one minute for agreeing to be taken over, at least logistically. You tell me which network would turn down an opportunity to anchor its news and prime-time special from the East Room of the home of the most popular guy in the world.

Lesley Stahl tells a great story of doing a critical report on President Reagan's record on the environment in connection with his visit to some spectacular backdrop, which she covered with her usual attention to detail. She expected the White House folks to be furious, but instead they thanked her for the great shots.

None of the viewers listened to her; they were mesmerized by the pictures. They knew this because they watched test audiences. Reagan, the beautiful backdrop: It was a home run.

So, I predict, will be ABC's night at the White House for all involved -- even though I trust the network news division to retain appropriate control of content, and anchors Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer to ask questions just as difficult and well-researched as they would in any other venue or studio. In short, I have no doubt that ABC will do as well or better than any news organization at retaining its journalistic integrity while scoring a huge ratings blowout -- which, we shouldn't forget, is the dog not the tail.

But it's what people see that worries me, and what people are saying about it that should ultimately trouble defenders of a free press. What they'll see is a joint production of the Obama White House and a group of supposedly independent journalists. They'll see the media not covering the White House, but dressing it; not reviewing the show, but hosting it. What is said matters less than what is seen. People watch TV. We all know that. People don't say: I heard you on TV. They say: I saw you. They don't say: You sounded good. They say: You looked great. Or on not so good days: You look younger in person.

As we play the game of who should have known what when about the mistakes of the Iraq invasion, the inclusion of journalists as part of units and the reporting that produced surely belong on the list. Reporters of great courage risked their lives to ride side by side with soldiers trained for such action in order to provide us with dramatic coverage of the American effort. The problem is that they truly became part of those units, embedded in the war and not covering it from the outside.

The First Amendment protects the press from government restraint. That assumes the press is on the outside looking in, in need of protection from being shooed away too far or too harshly. It ensures a free press.

One of the first things you learn when you move to Washington as part of a new administration is that administrations come and go, but the media stay forever and they run the town. They are, most of them will be the first to tell you, too powerful, and it affects reporting in all kinds of insidious ways, too many of which were on display in the details revealed in the trial of Scooter Libby.

The great danger these days -- and this was also true in the post 9/11 days of the Bush administration -- is not just that the only critical coverage comes from the ideologues, who are dismissed as that, but that the public understandably comes to forget why it is we put up with all the excesses of a free press. How could they not?

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