When school children are taught civics, they learn that there is an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch, and one of the legislative branch's checks and balances on the executive is the function of oversight, investigating and demanding answers on executive branch actions.
But in today's politics, that's a hopelessly sterile textbook lesson. Under this administration, our fourth branch of government - the media - often discourages and insults the oversight process if the hearing has anything to do with a subject that could potentially damage the President.
For our latest installment, and for evidence of the media's extraordinary impact on this issue, see the predictably gutless Republican collapse on hearings on the raid to seize Elian Gonzalez. Then imagine the drama if Orrin Hatch had the guts to hold them.
The Republicans could have brought forth the liberals' (perhaps former) favorite legal experts Laurence Tribe and Alan Dershowitz to declare their passionate beliefs that the raid was illegal and unconstitutional. The hearings could have explored - and exposed - how this manipulative administration shopped for a magistrate to provide legal cover for the invasion of a private residence. How they brutalized a network camera crew, beating one up and threatening to shoot him if he so much as moved. How they scared the socks off a six-year-old boy by sticking a big gun in his face. How they short-circuited the asylum process by taking the boy back to the loving arms of a communist dictatorship and its psychiatrists armed with tranquilizers.
It's about the last thing the administration would like the public to see. Apparently the press agrees. With lightning speed, the media quickly moved to intimidate the checkers and balancers by taking polls that not only showed public support for a raid, but they opposed any congressional hearings to get at the truth of the raid. ABC and CNN/USA Today both produced quickie polls two days after the raid. ABC found that 65 percent of Americans didn't want oversight, and CNN/USA Today said no, it was 68 percent. Where, oh where were these reporters before the Iran-Contra hearings, when two out of three Americans cared so little about the issue they couldn't locate Nicaragua on a map?
These tactics leave the clear impression that the media change the modus operandi at will, and depending on the President's party affiliation. Congressional hearings in the Reagan years were the essence of democracy, and lying to these august representatives of the people was a serious offense. When Senate Democrats were still pounding the Iran-Contra drums five years after the details were revealed by the Reagan White House, ABC's Jeff Greenfield called it "something like a hit song from another time stirring old emotions."
Now oversight hearings are left to those few stout-hearted solons who don't exercise their constitutional duties based on the morning polls. House Government Reform and Oversight Committee leader Dan Burton is still probing the ongoing White House obstruction of justice through their electronic-mail system, and the White House is still trying to demonize the oversight process with liberal schmaltz.
Last week, former White House lackey Cheryl Mills preceded the usual amnesia by grandly proclaiming that nothing the committee could do would "feed one person, give shelter to someone who is homeless, educate one child, provide health care for one family or offer justice to one African-American or Hispanic juvenile." This was too much, even for liberal Republican Christopher Shays, who replied: "You're not the only one disillusioned by this process. I have been pushed from disappointment to anger by the pervasive ethical and moral minimalism of this White House." But only Fox News Channel and ABC's "Good Morning America" touched on the hearing.
When PBS's "Washington Week in Review" broadcast live from Northeastern University recently, a broadcast journalism student complained about how "The Clinton administration may have been one of the most investigated administrations in our history, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars," and would "lengthy and costly investigations" continue if Gore were elected? Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief David Shribman said it depended on which party won Congress, then added: "But I want to assure you, you may have no taste for that, if you think we do we don't either. We're tired of it and I think the public's tired of it, so I think the momentum is against that sort of thing."
Maybe we're too dumb for democracy. The Pew Center for the People and the Press released a study showing that "Three-quarters of national broadcast journalists say newsworthy stories are at least sometimes ignored because they are regarded as too complicated for the average person." No wonder Bill Clinton openly jokes about his scandalous behavior during White House correspondents' dinners. He's got an audience that thinks these scandals are only useful as the butt of jokes.