Where's the skepticism?

Let me guess… The overriding theme among the pundit class today will be "gridlock" in Washington: With the bailout talks broken down for the moment and a presidential debate in jeopardy, why can't our leaders "get things done" at a time of epic crisis?

I'm pretty sure about all this because the overwhelming consensus among the pundit class is that a bailout is absolutely necessary — after all, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke say so.  Once upon a time, journalists felt their job was to hold the powerful to account.  Now they augment the authority of the powerful, lest they get uninvited to the cocktail parties the powerful attend.

Fortunately, at least one mainstream journalist hasn't lost sight of the mission.  Former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston has a downright impertinent post on a journalism message board.  It turns out I'm not the only one seeing parallels between the Patriot Act and the present sorry situation:

Journalists, start your skepticism.

In covering the proposed $700 billion bailout of Wall Street don't repeat the failed lapdog practices that so damaged our reputations in the rush to war in Iraq and the adoption of the Patriot Act. Don't assume that Congress must act instantly, as so many news stories state as if it was an immutable fact. Don't assume there is a case just because officials say there is.

The coverage of the Paulson plan focuses on the edges, on the details. The focus should be on the premise. And be skeptical of what gullible Congressional leaders, most of them up before the voters in a few weeks, say after being given a closed-door meeting on supposed horrors…

As of now we are, as a group, behaving just as we did the last two times the administration sought to rush through a hastily thought out, ill-conceived plan. Why in the world are we being so gullible and naive? whatever happened to the core value of journalism — check it out?

The questioning on the Sunday talk shows was all softball. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, shame on your anchors and roundtable regulars all for engaging in lightweight faux journalism. This passivity, superficiality and gullibility was at its worse Monday night on NBC in the banter between anchor Brian Williams and a CNBC correspondent with its utter lack of skepticism.

Hear, hear!  Johnson even has a list of questions journalists ought to be asking.  But since he posted this entreaty on Tuesday, I haven't exactly seen a shift in consciousness taking place.  And so, the Broder-ized Beltway Class, along with the tech-and-housing shills on CNBC, will wring their collective hands today, wondering where the bipartisanship has gone.  (Not that the Republican resisters have much of a leg to stand on.)

At this moment I'm reminded of an apocryphal conversation attributed to many anonymous souls at different times under different circumstances.  My favorite attribution is to the Central Powers during World War I.  A German general telegraphs, "Here the situation is serious but not hopeless," while an Austrian general at another front replies, "Here the situation is hopeless but not serious."