Pack journalism isn't pretty. But then nobody knows that better than journalists.
Except, perhaps, for the people they cover who fear and loathe journalists the most. They've discovered that the very ugliness of pack journalism is a dandy weapon of last resort against the entire profession -- as if the dog pack yelping after the fox were used to stand-in for all the world's yipping backyard beagles and Alaskan huskies rescuing lost sledders.
You saw a perfect example of this new technique in the recoil from Dick Cheney's shotgun. If ever there was a bit of news that offered absolutely nothing good to the Bush/Cheney White House, that was it. The very fact that the victim, 78-year old lawyer Harry Whittington, seemed, at first, so lightly affected, was an open-invitation for all late-night comedians and radio chortlers to have a field day (week?) with it.
That errant pellet in his heart and the subsequent small heart attack slowed the ridicule express down a mite but, even so, it was a godsend to the Mockery Establishment, which has largely determined the cultural and media climate since "Saturday Night Live" officially announced in the '70s the most comfortable ways intelligent, alienated (especially young) citizens could think about their country.
The ranks of the Mockery Establishment have swollen every year since SNL was founded in 1975. In the age of blogs, 24-hour news channels, and Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," it has become a kind of New Journalism all its own. The minute something happens, we now have a gigantic American apparatus to mock hell out of it -- instantly and, sometimes, with something approaching comic genius.
And that's the context, I think, in which you have to look at all those benighted snippets of undeniable White House press corps petulance that the administration and its rah-rah team have been clinging to as a life preserver against a sea of ridicule and vituperation. If you watched cable-TV news at all in the last six days, you have seen endless re-runnings of the White House press corps -- especially NBC's David Gregory's exasperation at a fatuous, stonewalling White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan -- looking like a fourth-grade class whining about the zoo field trip they weren't going on after all.
They were caught in the act of being a journalistic pack expecting to be fed information. So the White House, in a situation in which no single piece of a story made them look even close to good, stonewalled to the max and just waited for the White House press corps, on camera, to start yipping and biting in all directions, with that weird combination of too much chumminess and too much histrionic contempt that is the distinguishing feature of all pack journalism.
That's what happens sometimes to journalists in packs, especially when cameras are on. Questions are asked less to elicit information than to impress other journalists -- or one's superiors back at the office. A pack mentality sets in. Conformity prevails. So does rigidity. Prosecutorial hostility alone often suffices as a surrogate for truth-seeking. On the other side, shameless public brown-nosing instantly and publicly identifies the pack members who intend to play ball with the people at the podium, whoever they are.
Put it all together and it's a spectacle virtually designed to squash the intellectual dignity and individuality of each constituent member of the pack. It's also designed to strengthen the stranglehold on information of the source, whoever that is.
So take a story, any story. This one, say -- a press-hating vice president who, after having "one beer" at lunch, accidentally shot a 78-year old man in the face and then took his sweet time informing either the press or his president and even delayed, for a long time, answering questions that the local constabulary might have about the potentially fatal event.
Then watch as the story can be turned by those hemorrhaging in every direction into the tale of a media pack of spoiled elitists snarling out of deprivation of their entitled scraps.
The only thing uglier, at the moment, than pack journalism is the way it can now be exploited by those with the least interest in being open and candid.