Watchdog Blog

Bob Garfield: Fair and Anguished: How One Watchdog Has Grown Heartsick of Barking

Posted at 12:47 pm, October 25th, 2006
Bob Garfield Mug

If you forced me to quantify, yeah, the biggest reason I despise the Bush Administration is for its systematic dismantling of the Constitution. Then I guess it’s the war — equally the lies behind it and the outrages at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, which have robbed me of the special righteousness I still clung to as an American.

But very high on my list of reasons for my Bush hatred is my Bush hatred itself.

I resent it. I resent being radicalized. As the administration’s authoritarian excesses pile up, I resent not even being able to dismiss these people as a cabal of well-meaning clods. It’s hard to practice journalism when you can’t even afford your story subjects the presumption of non-malevolence. Kind of puts objectivity to the test.

There’s a bit of Nathaniel West in this. I feel something like Miss Lonelyhearts, sucked inexorably into the petty tragedies of his lovelorn correspondents. Or maybe like Roger Ebert, if he were locked into a screening room for a six-year loop of “Gigli.” How do you retain any sort of critical distance? How do you keep from shrieking?

This is obviously an occupational hazard of the criticism game, in which only a thin membrane of intellectual honesty protects you from stridency or worse. But this has been a very tough millennium for my poor membrane. For one thing, I have spent much more time and energy than I’d like questioning my own motives — and more energy still fretting over how my audience will perceive them.

On our show, NPR’s On the Media, we use a shorthand question, posed whenever our subjective brand of inquiry cleaves too close to conventional leftist wisdom: “Too Democracy Now?” The reference is to Amy Goodman’s show on Pacifica radio, one of media’s last bastions of tie-dyed-in-the-wool anti-establishmentism. OTM asks the question mainly because we take enormous pride in evaluating every story on its merits, not according to some orthodoxy, ideology or even predisposition. It’s our way of making sure our compass is pointing true north, and to avoid being perceived by listeners as, say, Rampartsmagazine of the air. When we feel a knee-jerk reaction coming on, we take great care not to reflexively kick. But that gets harder all the time.

I can’t speak for the rest of the OTM staff — much less WNYC or NPR — but I can tell you categorically that after 6 years of the Bush regime I personally have become predisposed to kicking a government that self-righteously claims to be defending our freedoms even as it takes them, piecemeal, away.

This isn’t a political pronouncement. I’m a registered independent whose political philosophy consists entirely of safeguarding the commonweal. I’ve even occasionally voted Republican. Sure, my “liberal bias” is probably on par with that of the average journalist, but I don’t apologize for it. Progressive values of reform, social justice and speaking truth to power do pretty much overlap with journalistic values — except maybe on the Fox News Channel.

The question is, when your beat consists largely of the relationship between media and government, can you do your job properly if you don’t fundamentally trust either party? Maybe the answer is that such distrust isn’t a handicap, but a prerequisite, the stuff of being a watchdog. I refuse, however, to dismiss the question so casually. The fact is, when you are constantly finding fault, maybe some listeners will deem you responsible or even heroic, but others will eventually question your essential fairness.

That particular journalistic value is at the very core of what we do. The very idea that by simply documenting the accumulated outrages of the Bush administration we have to fear being dismissed as partisan is frustrating and infuriating beyond words. I hate what these people have done to America, and I hate what they have done to me.

One Response to “Fair and Anguished: How One Watchdog Has Grown Heartsick of Barking”

  1. Ben Wise says:

    I’m a regular listener to OTM,and a great admirer of its usually tough probing of the mainstream media and its biases and lapses, and its wonderful spirit of intelligent humor. And I have always enjoyed Bob Garfield for his sometimes zany touches, and great personality, as well as astuteness. He’s a talented radio guy.

    As far as this soul-wrenched testimony is concerned, it seems like a marvelous and, yes, truly anguished example of the liberal who has taken it as long as he can, and hates himself for being forced by the outrages of naked injustice to conclude that being objective is not the same thing as being impartial…although he hasn’t quite put it that way, yet. Amy Goodman has long known this to be the case, which is why she is such an incredible breath of fresh air, unfortunately unique in the national media scene. Seeing the world from the perspective of the victims of injustice is, in fact, seeing it the way it really is rather than the way people of
    privilege would like to see it, and wish it was (speaking as one, myself, of course, so I do empathize with his anguish …except that I was lucky in that my “disillusionment” goes way back to lessons my father taught me, and later readings and experiences, about the class structure and the conflicting class interests of capitalist society, etc., etc., blah, blah. But it does help to explain what’s going on, I have to give it that, so Bush isn’t any disillusioning surprise to me, just the most horrendous, egregious, unskilled, unapologetic and callous representative of his class’s interest. In him, his class has lost all its “class,” and stands before us as the naked fool it is!)I agree with him that neither party

    So Bob, congratulations on getting “radicalized”! May you continue to see the light and speak the truth! And try not to worry what “some listeners” will think. What matters is what YOU think and that they get the benefit of hearing it!!

    Keep up the good work, and best wishes

    Ben Wise

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