The president's "not credible" critics

I just wrote a personal accounting of why I may be voting for a Democratic candidate for president for the first time in my life, but I thought I’d follow up on another interesting point from last night’s debates.

During the health care debate, Mr. Kerry invoked the reports of two networks that he said had described Mr. Bush's characterization of Mr. Kerry's health care plan as false.

When the president got his turn at the question, he started with a disturbing quote: "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about - oh, never mind," Mr. Bush said, his voice trailing off in a nervous laugh.

"Let me quote the Lewin report," he said, and proceeded to do just that, as he referred to one analysis that put the cost of Mr. Kerry's health care plan at $1.2 trillion.

Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in the actual dispute about the health care plan. I would rather focus for the moment on the quote that led into the analysis.

Our president stood in front of the nation and said (through the media, ironically) that it’s “not credible” to quote news organizations? And then proceeded to quote figures from a private report from within the Beltway?

I have major issues with this rhetorical turn of events.

First of all, it’s quite possible that the president was trying to be amusing by aiming his comments in the general direction of Bob Schieffer, the moderator. Schieffer, president of CBS News, has been speaking at length in the past few weeks about the national guard story run by Dan Rather on 60 minutes that was based on a document now proven to have been forged.

Side-stepping the debates surrounding this issue (that though the document has been proven false, several additional sources have verified the substance of the story, etc.), I thought the president’s remarks were inappropriate at best and frightening at worst.

Does the president really believe that the nation’s press cannot be trusted? As a whole? Does he think (as many of his supporters seem to) that the mistakes at CBS prove that “the media” has no credibility in reporting the day’s events?

But further, I found the strategy to exemplify everything I can’t stand about the administration’s approach to disputes over policy and judgment. Rather than answer the questions raised, the president attacked the reputation of the messenger, turned to an inaccessible, unverifiable private source and made a competing claim.

I firmly believe that democracy demands public discussion of policy initiatives. I think public criticism of all of our branches of government is healthy and serves to check the power of elite interests at the highest levels of our government. The American news media is an essential part of that equation, and I cannot see how discarding the judgment of those offering their debates up to public scrutiny should be deemed “not credible” in favor of private groups who deliberate in secret.

I believe in transparent government, and I believe in the role of the American news media in our society. Call journalists and reporters biased, mistaken or even malicious, but please recognize that those who stand in the light of public scrutiny will always be more trustworthy than those who deliberate in the shadows.

Sadly, the current administration seems to prefer sources that either agree with their views or who can be controlled outside of the public view. Hopefully, the American public will not allow this tendency to continue unchecked, no matter who wins on Nov. 2.