I believe I spoke with Eric Boehlert, the conscience and gadfly of American journalism who died last week in a tragic bicycle accident, only once, in 1996. As a young media critic for Salon magazine, Boehlert phoned to interview me about my book “Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.”
Two things stood out about our conversation: Eric’s diligence — he’d actually read and thought about the book, a rarity — and his personal warmth. He’d done me the great favor of independently fact-checking a few of the book’s more counterintuitive passages — such as one about a savings and loan “investigator” collapsing during a Senate hearing after being confronted with proof she’d manufactured evidence.
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“Mainstream” reporters deeply invested in the phony scandal somehow contrived to ignore the episode. Viewers of C-SPAN saw the whole thing. The New York Times, however, failed to notice.
Boehlert and I had stayed in touch by email ever since. And partly, I suppose, by quoting each other’s work. I considered his Press Run website an invaluable resource.
Like my old friend James Fallows, I found Boehlert “a conscience and inspiration. He was fearless and absolutely unsparing in his writing about this era’s mainstream press. I am so sorry for him, and for his family, and for all of us to have lost his courage and voice.”
Everybody who knew Eric personally spoke of his kindness and generosity. A fine athlete, he coached kids’ baseball and basketball in his adopted hometown of Montclair, New Jersey.
On his MSNBC program, Chris Hayes played a characteristic video clip of Boehlert talking bluntly about the deleterious influence of Fox News on the body politic.
“Fox News is a closed society,” he pointed out. “They do not have people on the air who disagree with them. None of these people venture into the public square to have actual debate. So they lie without consequence, and they’ve done it for years, and it’s just gotten more and more extreme. So they’re absolutely boxed in. But they don’t care, right? They know they can lie to their viewers. Their viewers expect to be lied to. This is the cushion that they’ve always had.”
Hayes ended a eulogy by saying: “I learned a lot from him, and he is going to be deeply, deeply missed.”
Amen to that.
That said, calling out Fox News on MSNBC is pretty much preaching to the choir. Where Boehlert really excelled was in confronting the blind spots and herd behavior of the so-called “mainstream” media.
Consider Boehlert’s final Press Run column, headlined “Why is the press rooting against Biden?” There his targets were CNN, The Washington Post, “Meet the Press” and Axios.
Keying in on the Biden administration’s extraordinary success in job creation, Boehlert’s column implicitly asked, “What’s worse, that you’re out of a job, or that the price of gasoline has risen 25 cents per gallon?”
Put that way, the question answers itself: Jobs are far more important than fuel prices.
So why were “mainstream” outlets virtually unanimous in burying last week’s blockbuster report of 400,000 new jobs in March? Sample headlines: “Booming Job Growth Is a Double-Edged Sword for Joe Biden” (CNN); “Biden Gets a Strong Jobs Report, But a Sour Mood Still Prevails” (Washington Post).
When it comes to the Biden economy, the glass is always half-empty. On CNN particularly, you are not going to see any positive economic news without the next shot being of a gas pump, with a motorist in an SUV complaining how he can’t hardly afford to fill his tank. Ditto NBC and the rest.
“That’s why,” Boehlert wrote, “according to a recent poll, 37% of Americans think the economy lost jobs over the last year, when it’s gained 7 million. Just 28% of people know jobs were up.
“Virtually all the Beltway coverage today agrees on this central point: When it comes to the economy, Biden’s approval rating is taking a hit because Americans are freaked out by inflation. But maybe it’s taking a hit because Americans are under the false impression that jobs are disappearing. Voters don’t know what they don’t know because the press isn’t interested in telling them.”
It’s hard to say exactly why. Maybe the Biden administration isn’t so good about blowing its own horn. Also, inflation affects everybody, while other people’s jobs directly affect only them, not necessarily you.
That said, Boehlert puts it bluntly: “Biden is facing not just one organized opposition in the form of the GOP, but another in the form of the Beltway press corps.”
Contrary to partisan mythology, it can definitely happen to Democratic presidents. In my experience, Beltway reporters lean not so much left or right, but pro-career. And as in the natural world, the safest place during a stampede is in the middle of the herd.
Eric, however, followed his own lead.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” Send letters to firstname.lastname@example.org