A Youtube video shows Montana Senator Max Baucus (D) giving a rambling rant of a speech from the Senate floor, waving his arms and slurring his speech like Uncle Billy in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as he condemns Republicans for being overly partisan in the run-up to the health care bill vote. Was he drunk? It sure looks like it to me, based on some considerable experience with such things, but no, the real reason he looks drunk to me must be my right-wing political bias, because only conservative blogs and media seem to see anything intoxicated about the good senator’s speech at all.
This isn’t just silly; it is harmful.
I don’t know for certain whether Max Baucus, who has enough ethical problems right now, was drunk or not. I do know that if I gave a presentation like that for a client, I would be in big trouble. I know that if I gave a speech like that in some of my past jobs, I would have been fired, placed on leave, warned or sent to a 30 day rehab. A U.S. Senator appearing drunk on the floor of the Senate is a breach of professional duty and protocol; it is serious, it is rare, and it obviously is news. But the headline on Politico is “Max Baucus’s Speech Under Conservative Fire.” Why conservative fire? Do liberals and moderates really think having a U.S. Senator drunk on the job is hunky-dory? Would that broad-minded attitude apply if, for example, Orin Hatch broke into a spirited rendition of “Show Me the Way to Go Home” on C-Span, or if John McCain started acting like Foster Brooks?
Somehow I doubt it. No, then Politico would be saying that Hatch or McCain were under liberal fire, while the conservative bloggers would argue that they were just tired, jolly, or having off days.
As I write this, not a single non-conservative website, newspaper or TV news show has shown any interest in the fact that Baucus either was or acted drunk on the Senate floor. Politico sees the news story as being the conservative claim that Baucus was drunk, not Baucus’s possible inebriation itself. The trend in the media and the blogosphere to run events through a various political litmus tests—“Does this help Obama?” “Does it threaten the Democrats?” “Does it help “our side” in the culture wars?” “Does it embarrass one of “our side’s” allies?”—before deciding whether they are “news” not only hides and obscures matters that the public has a right to know, it taints them, turning facts into Roshomon riddles.
Liberal or conservative, any media outlet and any citizen should be concerned when a White House “czar” turns out to have been a “Truther,” like Van Jones. Right or Left, any citizen should be concerned when the National Endowment for the Arts tries to use its grant-making power to encourage artists to use their talent for agitprop. Democrat or Republican, when ACORN employees show that they would advise a pimp on how to defraud the system, we should want to know about it, and be concerned that such an organization receives government money to spend. These were “conservative stories,” though: the New York Times and CNN and the rest had to be dragged kicking and screaming to cover them, and only did so because they wouldn’t go away.
Once a story is labeled liberal or conservative, you see, two things happen, both unethical: the story is ignored by a large number of news sources that have an ethical duty to cover it, and the story itself can be discredited, because the only people and news media who believe it is a story can be accused of doing so because they have a political agenda. It isn’t that Max Baucus was drunk as a skunk, you see. It’s all because he was one of the Democratic leaders pushing through the health care bill, and the bad conservatives are out to get him.
Me, I just don’t think professionals should be drunk on the job. Even more than that, however, I think that when a U.S. Senator appears to be drunk on the job, reporting the story is a journalistic obligation, not a partisan statement.