On Bended Knee II: The Media Treatment Of Bush
by Jeff Elliott
what an election! It looked close there in October, but in the end, voters did the right thing, and we can now look forward to wise governance by our forward-looking national leadership. That refers, of course, to television's West Wing, where Nobel Prize-smart President Bartlett appealed to voter's common sense and intellegence to easily win reelection against his smarmy GOP rival. Here in reality-land, it's a different story entirely. |
To the surprise of almost everyone, the Republicans held on to the House and retook the Senate -- a sweep that was predicted by fewer than a handful of pundits. What happened? One way to look at the results is that the GOP won the tight election because they relentlessly promoted Bush more than their local candidate. This can be seen in a NY Times/CBS poll taken a couple of weeks later; over half of the people said that they voted for particular Congressional candidates to send a pro-Bush or anti-Bush message. The pro-Bush faction outnumbered the anti-B's about 2 to 1.
The White House stategy was brilliant, simple. For the final two weeks before the election, Bush barnstormed the country in a 17-city marathon, visiting some states more than once. In a tightly orchestrated plan, a GOP candidate would rendezvous somewhere with Air Force One, only to immediately fly back home on the Presidential jet. The photo op of the candidate standing next to Bush as they emerge from the plane was worth an easy bump in the polls. The strategy paid off: in Senate races where Bush campaigned, 13 out of 18 candidates won. Bush had even longer coattails for House candidates -- he stumped for 69 of them, and 60 won.
The common wisdom is that the Repubs won because the Demo candidates didn't deliver a compelling reason to vote for them. Well, that's a no-brainer -- you can say the same for almost any political loser in history. But at the same time, Democratic leadership was clearly not listening to their choir. Voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for more environmental protections. Why didn't the Democrats remind voters that Bush is the most anti-environmental President ever? Then there's Bush mishandling of the economy. Fewer than half approve of his performance (and that's according to a recent Fox News poll); a whopping 4 out of 5 voters are concerned. If the Democrats couldn't forge an opposition message out of those numbers, they weren't even trying.
But the Demos also had rotten luck. The Washington sniper story almost completely dominated the nation's attention for the first three weeks of October -- ending just in time for Bush to begin racing around the country and scaring the bejeebers out of voters with threats of nuclear-armed Iraq. Terrorism was also front and center: The FBI issued a new alert about possible al-Qaeda attacks on October 23 (the second for that month), the same day that terrorists made headlines by storming a Moscow theatre and holding the entire audience hostage for three days. America was not in the mood for thoughtful political debate.
Even if the Democratic party had a knockout message and there were no terrorist destractions, they probably would have had trouble delivering it. Particularly since 9/11, the U.S. media has mostly given Bush a free ride.
Easy examples of this bias can be seen in the uncritical national press attention given to Bush during the two-week blitzkreig. Probably every newscast lead with an item about the President; having frightened voters into believing that Saddam is scheming to drop an A-bomb on Milwaukee or Winnemucca, any comment he made about Iraq became big news. But his rote stump speech -- which varied only by inserting the local candidate's name at the appropriate spots -- repeated his claim that Hussein was linked somehow to al-Qaeda, even though it was known for months that there is no evidence to support it. Yet not one news report can be found that pointed out that the President was lying, or at best, repeating an unsubstantiated rumor. Likewise, a positive bias is demonstrated in the way his act of campaigning became newsworthy itself. On just the day before the election, the Bush plane landed in five states with many cable news anchors breathlessly tracking his progress. Gosh, where is he now? All of this kept Bush himself in focus as a top election eve story, pushing voters towards making their ballot-box decisions dependent on their feelings about Bush.
veteran journalists, this all sounds uncomfortably like the media's big rollover 20 years ago, during the Reagan years. What happened then is well documented in the remarkable book by
Mark Hertsgaard, "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency" (sadly, now out of print). Here is described how the U.S. press helped prop up the President who Clark Clifford -- an advisor or cabinet member for four presidents -- called an "amiable dunce"
Although Reagan rarely would trip over his tounge like our current President, the Great Communicator was also infamous for making up facts ("in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom"), inventing quotes by historical figures, and on more than one occasion, confusing movie plots with real events. He rewrote the history of the Vietnam War; during a 1983 meeting with Israeli leaders he claimed that he was there when the concentration camps were liberated (he never left Hollywood). After one press conference, writes Hertsgaard, the three networks spent as much time correcting his statements as they did reporting them. But the March 1981 assassination attempt was a watershed for Reagan; after that, fewer of his gaffes appeared in the press.
It wasn't that the President stopped inserting foot into mouth -- the press just stopped telling the public about it. "I used to spend a lot of time writing those stories," LA Times White House correspondent George Skelton said. "But I gave up... you get a lot of mail saying, 'You're picking on the guy, you guys in the press make mistakes too.' And editors respond to that, so after a while the stories don't run anymore. We're intimidated."
But the press took a large step beyond just ignoring Reagan gaffes; a new, lower standard for presidential expectiations was put into place. As a 1983 European trip approached, ABC News presented not one, but two, stories describing how hard Reagan was working to prepare. Later, it came out that his research included watching a Sound of Music TV rerun. Even when Reagan slept during diplomatic events (including his personal audience with the pope), it was rarely mentioned in the U.S. press. The White House aides, ABC anchorman Sam Donaldson later told Hertsgaard, "have got us to judge [Reagan] by a standard of just bare mediocrity. If he stays awake, we're to applaud."
By 1984, everyone in the White House press corps apparently understood that there were serious questions about Presidential competency. But, writes Hertsgaard, "they shrank back from raising that issue on their own; to avoid charges of unfairness to the President, they believed that they had to wait until Reagan raised it himself, in public." That opportunity came when Reagan stumbled badly in an October debate with Mondale, often appearing confused and sounding addled. Poverty, he said, "has begun to decline, but it is still going up" -- a flub worthy of the Bush dislexicon. Washington Post reporter David Hoffman told Hertsgaard "the American people saw something for the first time that we've been waiting to tell them."
With the election just a month away, the President's age and mental acuity suddenly became a campaign topic. But the press was too used to pitching softballs to Reagan to change now. While there were many print and broadcast think-pieces pondering if Reagan was too old to serve another four years, it was a classic red-herring. The real question wasn't whether Reagan would be competent four years hence -- it was whether he was competent in the here and now.
But there was no analysis at all of his many misstatements during the debate, and the White House spun the story that the President had been "overbriefed" for the event. As a result, Hertsgaard notes, most Americans probably thought that the Grand Old Man had just had an off night. So when America turned in to the next (and last) debate, everyone waited to see how he would answer the inevitable question about age. Asked if he would have the stamina that John F. Kennedy showed during the Cuban Missle Crisis, Reagan said he would have no problems. And, he quipped, "I want you to know that I also will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." The studio audience laughed and cheered. The perfectly-scripted line won the day, and Reagan swept the election with a 49 state victory.
likewise had a watershed event in his first year, and the press began to treat him gently after Sept. 11, just as the media went easy on Reagan after the assassination try. |
Now that he was commander in chief of a nation at war, any debate about his presidential legitimacy ended abruptly. Another way to put it: The Y2000 election controversy ended the moment the jets smashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The best example is the issue of Newsweek that was on the newsstands that horrible day. It featured a cover story on a new book, "The Accidental President," which rehashed the Florida voting debacle and the backroom dealing in the Supreme Court decision. The article is not kind to Bush, and predicts he will have credibility problems in the mid-term elections: "Bush, his standing still enfeebled by the manner in which he was elected, again has to demonstrate that he is Up to It..." Such cynicism of Bush competence also disappeared on 9/11, along with any readership for the book; Accidental President tanked, currently ranked below 22,000 at amazon.com. The book wasn't even republished in paperback, and other books about Bush vs. Gore fared just as poorly.
The War on Terror bestowed on Bush a Teflon coating that Reagan would envy, as he sailed through both political and personal scandals this year. Widespread corporate fraud generated plenty of stinging commentary in broadcast and print media -- but aside from Bush making a short speech about enforcing corporate accountability and prosecuting the guilty, few in the press mentioned that he wasn't doing much on either front. There was plenty of coverage when he signed a tough new law on corporate fraud, but fewer than a handful of newspapers reported that he gutted the law just hours later with a directive to interpret it as rigidly as possible.
Nor was there much reporting on the discovery that Bush had ordered his accountants to use Enron-style bookkeeping to keep his company afloat in 1990. That was revealed about the same time as news of Martha Stewart's insider stock trading; but which financial story do you recall receiving the most attention? Hint: All those editorial cartoons about decorating a prison cell didn't apply to Bush -- although having your corporation keep two sets of books is a far more serious crime than personally acting on a stock tip. All things being equal, Bush might be up for a felony charge.
But it really shouldn't be surprising that the media didn't pay much to his 12 year-old business scandal. Even before 9/11, the press had shown indifference to poking around in Dubya's murky past -- an oversight that certainly contributed to his election. So what if he apparently was AWOL from the National Guard for a year, or was a drunk until age 40? Again like Reagan, the press clearly had lower expectations about the man.
media's gentle treatment of Bush stands
in razor-sharp contrast to the mauling of Clinton. Right from the beginning, the mainstream press eagerly repeated lies and innuendo and became willing accomplices in a cabal to destroy Clinton that was engineered by hard-right conservatives and Arkansas grifters.
The whopping example of the media's antipathy for him is the saga of Whitewater, and how both broadcast and print media shamlessly twisted the story of a minor real estate deal -- where the Clintons actually lost money -- into a faux scandal. If you only read one book about current events this year, make it "The Hunting of the President" by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, which describes exactly how both The New York Times and Washington Post started to slur Clinton even before the end of his first year in office: "...one accusatory article had followed another to the front pages of the nation's two most important newspapers, followed by indignant editorials bristling with rhetorical questions." Unfortunately, neither the Times or Post have used much ink to wax indignant about those actual shady business deals of either Bush or Cheney that made them fortunes.
But the attacks on Clinton started before Whitewater, and continued throughout his presidency (and indeed, still continue). Most of these attempts to pump up a petty incident into a full-blown scandal are forgotten today, but taken together, they demonstrate a broad pattern of anti-Clinton media bias. Examples abound; one theme that appeared repeatedly concerned Clinton "abuse" of Air Force One.
Most well-known are the charges that the Clintons looted the famous jet as it flew them to New York after Bush's inauguration. Typical was columnist Tony Snow, who said it looked like it had been "stripped by a skilled band of thieves." Later, it was revealed the damage was completely a pack of lies, with a few broken or missing glasses and a few missing towels. Total value: $140. Only a single newspaper in the United States reported that the damage was inconsequential.
The first story of this genre can be found way back in May, 1993, months before Whitewater hit the political radar. Clinton had supposedly ordered takeoff of the presidential jet delayed long enough for a Los Angeles stylist come aboard and trim his hair. Hundreds of articles appeared in the U.S. press, almost all op/ed pieces using the incident to denounce the Presiden't arrogance and poor character: No other planes could land or takeoff while Air Force One was on the ground, but Clinton didn't care that ordinary people were inconvienced. One columnist warned that Clinton had better "groom his tarnished image," and NY Times columnist William Safire snarled, "[Clinton] will pay for trying to swagger through his presidency with $200 haircuts from Christophe" (that $200 price of the haircut was probably mentioned in every story). Also frequently mentioned was that the haircut was reportedly suggested by his Hollywood supporters; linking Clinton to Hollywood was already another favorite way for conservatives to hint that he was taking his marching orders from the "Hollywood mafia." But like the looting story seven years later, hardly any in the press reported a few days later that it was much ado about nothing == there were no airport delays at all.
Clinton also took flak throughout his presidency for making expensive trips abroad. The loudest squawking came in 1998-99, when the White House sex scandal was at full blast. Cribbing from the Senate Republican Policy Committee report, high-brow conservative media portrayed Clinton as a globaltrotting spendthrift and hypocrite, who was slashing the Pentagon budget even as he drained military resources with these trips (about 80 percent of the costs of these overseas trips comes from the Defense Dept. operations and transportation account).
Then the press discovered a sex angle; Kathleen Willey, a woman who now alleged that the President had tried to grope her in 1993, was on two overseas trips in 1995. Low-brow media (hello, Newsweek) quoted anonymous sources as saying that the junkets were a bribe to pay for her silence.
But like these other Air Force One Clinton scandals, these claims fall apart under examination. Military budgets weren't slashed under Clinton -- the Pentagon just wasn't given the sacks of cash that the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted. In fact, Clinton tossed in an extra $110 billion in 1999, much to the outrage of liberals. Willey's trips were more of a little patronage than a big payoff. She had been working at the White House as a volunteer and low-paid staffer for almost three years, and was nagging for a political appointment. She was not paid to attend those two UN conferences (social development in Copenhagen and biological diversity in Jakarta), and the next year, 1996, she turned down an offer for a fundraising job with the Clinton-Gore campaign because it paid an insultingly-low $30,000. But none of the commentators who later fussed over her two free overseas trips reported that there was no serious followup effort to keep her on the payroll. A bribe attempt? Not likely -- it was all icing, no cake.
If Clinton's diplomatic and trade missions became ugly metaphors for his foul personal flaws, Bush's actual abuse of Air Force One has become a symbol of... apparently just a guy flying on an airplane, in the eyes of the media.
All that barnstorming in the last few months received plenty of attention, as did the astonishing fact that Bush has now bypassed Clinton as champion fundraiser. Bush appeared at 67 rallies or rubber-chicken dinners for the GOP and its candidates, pulling in $145 million. About half of that money was raised during his roadtrips. And here's the punchline: You, dear taxpayer, coughed up about $16 million for Bush to raise $66 millions for the Repubs.
But you wouldn't know that -- unless you happened to read the single newspaper item to mention it. Only Dana Milbank's column in the Oct 29 Washington Post explained that those completely partisan events were subsidized by the public. Same for Vice President Cheney's fundraisers on Air Force Two. No longer shy about appearing at disclosed locations, Cheney raised another $40 million for the GOP at thirty events.
It will probably be a year before the actual costs of the Bush-Cheney fundraising are known, or whenever the GAO produces the report requested by Senator Harry Reid (D- Nevada). Less clear is whether the press will pay attention when it appears.
what's going on here? Is the media's pro-Bush tilt just a pendulum swing from its bias against Clinton -- or is there something more conspiratorial at work?
Just after the election, Gore gave an interview to the New York Observer and pointed a professorial finger at right-wing media:
"Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, The Washington Times and the others. And then they'll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they'll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they've pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist."
Good observation, Al -- but too little, too late. In 1997, a commentary appeared in the MONITOR that said the exact same thing. And it was old news, even then. The right-wing media machine was operating a full five years before that, since the beginning of the Clinton era.
The problem is not just muck from the RNC occasionally slipping into the mainstream -- it's that U.S. media is increasingly an active player in that disinformation campaign.
The most blatant example is the Wall Street Journal under editor Robert Bartley. A hard-right idealogue, Bartley has turned America's once-great financial newspaper into a mouthpiece and apologist for the GOP, no more credible than radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh.
Bartley led the anti-Clinton charge from the very beginning. Even before Clinton was in the White House, their star editorial writer was meeting with the Arkansas cabal that was rushing quickie book "Slick Willie" into print before the election. Bartley led the Whitewater charge with ruthless editorials and long "investigative" articles that contorted facts. It was the vicious WSJ attack that is credited with attorney Vince Foster's depression that led to his 1993 suicide. Shamelessly, Bartley then began spreculating that Foster had been murdered because he knew too much. In a fine example of the "echo chamber" mentioned by Gore, the Foster murder rumor then jumped to NBC Nightly News and other media. (To its credit, CBS' 60 Minutes debunked the story, but only after the lies had been circulating for two years.)
The Washington Post was also early on the Whitewater snipe hunt. The paper that had exposed Watergate still had a liberal editorial page, but was increasingly leaning towards presenting more conservative news coverage.
In early 1992, the Post produced a 40,000 word (!) profile of VP Dan Quayle that was so non-critical that even conservative columnists were amazed. During the Whitewater years, the Post newsroom slanted its coverage against Clinton, often by printing only one side of the story. A classic example is told in the Conason/Lyons book: During the Nov. 1995 Senate hearings on Whitewater, key witness L. Jean Lewis' testimony was discredited before she dramatically collapsed in front of the committee. Senators had earlier revealed that she had repeatedly lied about her years-long personal vendetta against the Clintons, which even had included a plan to market coffee mugs with Hillary Clinton's picture and the caption "Presidential BITCH." But readers of the Post the next morning saw none of this -- no mention of her fainting, no report of the evidence against her, no nasty slogan on a coffee cup.
The Post has contined drifting right under new editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. The only liberal columnists who remains on the editorial page are Dana Milbank and Mary McGrory, and much of the other op/ed is written by the same characters who often appear in the Wall Street Journal. The Post has stood foursquare behind Bush on issues like Iraq, and has downplayed stories that link the president to scandals such as Enron. Post news coverage also continues a pattern of covering up issues that might be embarassing to conservatives. When Henry Kissinger resigned as Bush's appointee to lead the Sept. 11 investigation, the Post reported that there were questions about Kissinger's possible business conflict of interests and his "reliability." No, the latter question was about his ethics, including charges of crimes against humanity. Saying that the issue was "reliability" -- whatever that would mean, in this context -- was simply dishonest.
The Post is now so conservative that last month Washingtoninan magazine quoted Terry Eastland, publisher of the right-wing Weekly Standard: "To the extent people assume there are two liberal editorial pages -- the New York Times and the Washington Post -- that's erroneous. The Post cannot be called liberal. At times, I like it better than the Wall Street Journal."
The way that the Washington Post dissembles the truth about Bush is shameful, but worse is that they're not alone in the mainstream press. Just like the Post, the New York Times also concealed every embarassing detail about the dramatic Whitewater 1995 Senate testimony described above. Worse, the Times lent its "newspaper of record" credibility to the Whitewater fiction by printing front-page stories -- but rarely printing corrections about factual errors. Both the Times and Post threw journalism standards out the window once the sex scandal broke. Only about half the Times news came from a named source, and the Washington Post used anonymous sources an irresponsible 84 percent of the time. (See 1998 MONITOR editorial, "Counting Lewinskys.")
The Times has also sidestepped reporting bad news about Bush. Like the rest of the U.S. media, the New York Times has shown no interest in opening closets that might hold Bush's skeletons -- a sharp contrast to the newspaper's obsession with Clinton, when their entire investigative reporting staff went digging through his past looking for dirty laundry. The Times' candidate profile of Bush before the Y2000 election tread lightly around the minefield of Dubya's personal history; the only newsworthy crumb that they reported was that aide Karen Hughes, ghostwriter of his autobiography, mistakenly credited Bush with a heart-warming tale that was really a 40 year-old ancedote about his dad.
The gentle touch continues. When Bush and Cheney money scandals surfaced at about the same time last summer, the Times presented articles that obscured important facts and were so oblique as to be impossible to read -- (Alexander Cockburn quipped that they read "as though written by someone who'd learned English late in life by reading insurance settlements." The author: Jeff Gerth, the same staff writer whose slanted 1992 story on Whitewater kicked off years of investigative reporting by the Times and Post. (Gerth later claimed that his inaccurate story was mangled by an anti-Clinton editor.)
Then there was that post-election Times/CBS poll showing voters wanted to send a pro or anti Bush message had another data nugget that was astonishing: Only 32 percent of the public say that they would probably vote for Bush in 2004. This is the exact opposite of the 65 percent approval rating that is frequently mentioned in all media. But the Times buried this important detail. It did not appear at all in the Nov. 26 front page story (headline: "Positive Ratings For the GOP, If Not Its Policy"). It can only be found by reading the online edition and clicking on the small, sidebar link for "Complete Results" and scrolling to the end.
and liberals can't blame Bush for all their problems. While his barnstorming certainly brought out crucial votes in the last days before the 2002 election, he isn't a mesmerist with hypnotic powers to make anyone vote Republican, anymore than he can make the electorate cluck like chickens.
It's increasingly clear that Bush has the advantage because the U.S. press shows him favor. Rarely is the bad stuff mentioned or framed in an alarming way -- exactly as the media kept the public from dwelling on the unpleasant little truths about Reagan's competence. The bias may come from a publisher's suggestion, be the result of a line or two cut from a news story by an editor, assigning a writer who is (un)sympathetic, or appear as an op/ed selectively darting around the facts. It is most likely that the bias is demonstrated in all of these ways, and probably every day.
But the media never sets the course by itself, either. In normal times, nudge comes from the opposition party, usually a committee investigation or scathing comment from Congressional leaders. Much has been written about the Democratic party's spineless lack of opposition to Bush, however.
In a just world, the media would have treated Clinton as gently as it treated Reagan, and should treat G.W. Bush as viciously as it treated Clinton. But this is not that world, and frustrations are great. Many Democrats and liberals can be heard playing the game of "Fantasy Double Standards" with the day's headlines. Would there be more upset about Enron if Ken Lay had been a close personal friend of Clinton's? Or reporting that Times poll with the dismal finding that most people don't want to reelect Bush, wouldn't an equivalent 1994 headline have read something like, "2 Out Of 3 Voters Say They Won't Vote Again For Clinton"? Contrasting such outright hostility to Clinton with the media's featherweight treatment of Bush can lead to stomach-churning frustration -- and you could play this masochistic little game almost every day. Beware: This way ulcers lie.
Albion Monitor Issue 106 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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