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The New Freedom--From the Press : Why the White House Shouldn’t Lead the Retreat from Politics

<i> Jay Rosen is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University. </i>

Marlin Fitzwater, who will remain in his job as chief White House spokesman in the Bush Administration, has promised more access to the new President. He may mean it, but, no matter how many presidential press conferences occur in the next few years, deep conflicts will remain between journalists and George Bush.

The problem is not that the press is full of liberals eager to see a Republican President fail. Nor is it the inevitable tension between prying reporters and a government determined to manage the news. The problem is this: As the legitimate heir to the Reagan revolution, Bush now operates with a different concept of freedom from the one advanced by a free press. Inspired by Ronald Reagan, Bush believes in freedom from politics, while the press regards freedom--its own and others--as something that exists within politics.

To explain: “Less government” was certainly one of the most ringing themes of the Reagan era. But a more accurate headline would have been “less politics,” meaning a deliberate attempt to reduce the debate surrounding key policies. The best example is the Reagan economic program and its centerpiece, the 1981 tax cuts. It is now clear that the public rationale for the program was known to be false at the time the cuts were debated. Budget chief David A. Stockman realized that big increases in economic activity were not going to generate enough new revenue to make up for the lost taxes. This fact forces us to view Reaganomics in a different light. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has said, the real goal was to trigger huge growth in the federal deficit as a way of forcing Congress to reduce social spending.

The deficit, then, is not a problem that suddenly beset the nation like drugs or AIDS. It was a solution to a problem--how to extract deep cuts in social spending from Congress. But while the spending cuts were debated and in some cases resisted by Congress, the political strategy behind Reaganomics escaped the democratic process entirely.

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Bringing on record deficits to reduce social spending may be a defensible act. If social programs are truly out of control, and Congress is truly incapable of restraining itself, then it’s at least conceivable that such a risky maneuver could be justified. But neither Reagan nor any of his advisers tried to make a case for the deficit as a method to control social spending. Indeed, Reagan has yet to admit any connection between the 1981 tax reductions and the record federal debt. The deficit has thus entered political discourse as a problem rather than a solution, hampering public debate over the measures necessary to reduce it.

By declining to defend (or even recognize) his real policy, Reagan has excelled at taking the lead in a nationwide retreat from reasoned debate. That, after all, was the effect of his repeated claim that the tax cuts had nothing to do with the deficit and that, therefore, tax increases were not necessary to control it. Reagan not only won reelection in 1984 behind this claim, he made it impossible for either candidate last fall to talk honestly about the debt. On this issue at least, the entire political system now wallows in the freedom from politics that was the original inspiration behind Reaganomics.

Bush is Reagan’s most important disciple. His repeated instruction to read his lips while he proclaimed “no new taxes” inspired supporters all over the country to revel again in the release from serious debate that they were granted so often with Reagan. For that is what Bush’s lips said when carefully read--not “no additional taxes” but no greater willingness tobring into public discourse the policy that his predecessor refused even to acknowledge.

For journalists this is a dangerous and unacceptable state of affairs. The desire to be free from the requirements of reasoned debate is incompatible with the very idea of a free press. The job of the press is to pressure politicians into greater openness and to provide the information by which intelligent discussion can proceed in a democracy. The kind of freedom most precious to journalists involves free debate and free choice among those who see politics as a way of resolving common problems.

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But to be released from this definition is itself a kind of freedom, and for eight years Ronald Reagan urged Americans to share in his own capacity to enjoy it. The more he succeeded, the more the press was doomed to fail. Thus the arrival of the “Teflon President,” the man who seemed resistant to the watchdog work of the press.

Worse than a no-stick President, though, is a no-stick political environment in which facts regularly fail to leave their mark on policy debates. That is what we saw throughout the 1988 campaign, which seemed to take place in a realm removed from the actual problems facing the nation. On the evidence of his own campaign, Bush’s desire to restore political discussion to its rightful place in a democracy is very slight indeed.

Should Bush, following Reagan, succeed in exploiting the desire to be free of politics, he will suggest, as well, that Americans can be free of the press and its nagging reminders of how real our problems are. In the event of such a victory, neither democracy nor the press need suffer any further defeats.


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