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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

Are the News Media Soft on Bush?   

That much-ballyhooed “liberal press” hasn’t been nearly as tough on President Bush as it was on his predecessor. One key reason: Bush’s controversies have involved policy rather than personal peccadilloes, and the media have a much bigger appetite for the latter. But does the weapons of mass destruction flap presage a shift?


By Rachel Smolkin
     

Ninety-four reporters gathered in the stately East Room of the White House to bear witness to a rarity in George W. Bush's presidency: a solo, prime-time press conference.

At 8 p.m. on March 6, Bush began his remarks about "our war against terror," flatly asserting that Saddam Hussein "possesses weapons of terror" and that he and his weapons "are a direct threat to this country." Bush then parried with 18 reporters, who asked 30 questions about the looming war against Iraq and three about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Nary a word passed from reporters' lips about the ballooning deficit, rising oil prices, surging unemployment, soaring prescription drug prices or any other domestic issue.

If a sure loser emerged from that evening assembly, it was the White House press corps. Scathing commentary followed. New York Press contributing writer Matt Taibbi likened the press conference to "a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function." Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales panned Bush's performance, then said that the "lethargy was contagious; correspondents were almost as logy as Bush was. Nobody even bothered to ask a question about Osama bin Laden."

ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran, who participated in the questioning, told the New York Observer that Bush wasn't "sufficiently challenged" by reporters and that the president's performance left the press corps "looking like zombies." Letters posted on Poynter's Romenesko Weblog branded the news conference a "sorry spectacle"; one observed, "the pack appears to have been totally domesticated."

Bush himself acknowledged the event was "scripted" when he called on CNN's John King from a predetermined list of reporters. Critics argued the press should not have succumbed so meekly to such an indignity, and some even accused the White House press corps of submitting questions for advance approval--an allegation that beat reporters vehemently denied.

"I was amazed at the reaction after the press conference," says George E. Condon Jr., Washington bureau chief of Copley News Service, who asked two of the three North Korea questions and thought most queries were appropriately tough. "It just became an article of faith among a lot of people: 'Look at this White House press corps; it's just abdicated all responsibility.' "

That pre-war press conference crystallized critics' frustration with coverage of Bush. While complaints about reporters' treatment of a president are as widespread as political polls, these protests cannot be dismissed merely as the howls of liberals stranded in the wilderness.

Reporters have handled Bush gingerly, particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks prompted a surge of patriotism. The administration skillfully capitalized on that sentiment, just as it excelled at controlling information, staying on message and limiting access to Bush from the nascent days of his presidency.

Bush and his allies also have benefited in press coverage from having a weak opposition party. Democrats foundered after 9/11; then the discordant voices of 10 presidential candidates diluted attempts at a unified message.

And as voices from the right saturate radio and cable talk shows, the media have become increasingly sensitive to the venerable conservative shibboleth of liberal bias, a development that also favors the first Republican president in eight years.

These factors softened the adversarial coverage that defined Bill Clinton's presidency--at least until July, when 16 words from Bush's January State of the Union address sparked the first sustained negative coverage of the president since the terrorist attacks.

"Any objective person would say that in some ways Clinton was covered too aggressively in some areas, and Bush is not covered aggressively enough," says ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin. Among stories receiving insufficient attention in his view: the growing deficit, the lack of transparency regarding energy policy formation and, at least initially, the rationale for committing troops to the war in Iraq.

Halperin attributes the uneven coverage in part to the demise of the Independent Counsel law used relentlessly by Clinton's opponents and to the dwindling prestige of the White House beat after the Cold War that gradually led to "less experience and, in some cases, less skill" among White House correspondents. "People like [ABC's] Terry Moran and [CBS'] Mark Knoller are not able to battle the White House by themselves," says Halperin. The president and his staff know the public mistrusts the press and that they can "dismiss us and steamroll over us."

Darrell West, a Brown University political science professor, concurs "there certainly has been a dramatic change in scandal coverage in that Bush has gotten much less scrutiny than Clinton. Bush has not had lifestyle scandals the way that Clinton did, but there are lots of questions about the energy commission and possible conflicts of interest within the Bush administration, and those have gotten relatively little attention." The terrorist attacks "made everybody focus on external problems more than internal ones, and that has played to the Bush administration in a lot of different ways. It's helped the Bush administration set the agenda on security grounds, which always makes it more difficult for the press to do their jobs."

Frank Sesno, former CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief, says the rising influence of Fox News Channel and concerns about allegations of liberal bias also have shaped coverage. "American journalism has been Foxified essentially, especially television," Sesno says. "The combination of the Fox influence, and the overhang from 9/11, and the overall presumption in America that the media have leaned terrifically left, have made it harder for tough questions to be asked."

Of course, the notion that the press has bestowed kinder, gentler treatment upon Bush is by no means unanimous. "Each president I've covered dating back to [Gerald] Ford thinks no other president gets more heated coverage than he did--they all think they get it hotter than their predecessors," says CBS' Knoller. "That tells me that the press is treating each president without fear or favor."

Tucker Carlson, conservative cohost of CNN's "Crossfire," adds: "I never thought that anybody could whine more about the media than the right. But it turns out I was wrong. The left has turned out to be every bit as whiny as conservatives ever were." Carlson says the disputed presidential election fueled unfounded charges from the left about soft media coverage. "There are people who believe that [Bush] won unfairly or didn't win," Carlson says. "If you believe that, you're casting about for ways to explain how it happened."

A July report released by the nonpartisan Council for Excellence in Government examined the first year of three presidential administrations--Ronald Reagan's, Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's--and concluded that coverage was predominantly "negative" for all three. "Bush is being treated normally for a president, which is to say negatively," says S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent group that conducted the study. "The media are tough on presidents."

Investigators analyzed the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC (but not the cable networks) and the front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and four regional newspapers--the Austin American-Statesman, Des Moines Register, San Jose Mercury News and St. Petersburg Times. They determined that TV and print favored Clinton's administration over Reagan's to a statistically significant degree, and Clinton's personal coverage did not diverge significantly from the two Republicans'. The national media had treated Bush's administration about the same as Clinton's "except for a slight tilt toward the Clinton team's domestic policies in the New York Times." However, the regional papers studied favored Clinton's administration to Bush's. The most pronounced pro-Clinton coverage emerged in the Des Moines Register; the Mercury News and the American-Statesman provided the most balanced White House coverage.

The study also found that although Bush was covered more favorably after 9/11, overall coverage of his administration became more critical. But the report, which purports to be objective because it crunches numbers, does not distinguish between appropriate skepticism--the role of an engaged press corps--and unjust negativity.

Despite these findings of pro-Clinton leanings, some critics perceived gentler handling of Bush early in his term. In "What Liberal Media?" Eric Alterman, a liberal media columnist for The Nation, contends that Bush "received extremely indulgent coverage from the so-called 'liberal media' long before September 11." Alterman dissects coverage of the short-lived China "crisis" after a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter in spring 2001 and concludes the Bush administration "succeeded in manipulating the media to the point where its incompetence was portrayed as heroism."

On May 6, 2001, former Washington Post White House correspondent John F. Harris observed in a story in the paper's Outlook section that "this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton.... What is being hailed as Bush's shrewd diplomacy [regarding the surveillance plane] would have been savaged as 'Slick Willie' contortions."

These observations highlight two Bush advantages that softened coverage from the early days of his presidency: the media's minimal expectations of his acumen, and their propensity to fixate on peccadilloes rather than policy.

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, contends the prevailing narrative about Candidate Bush shaped misleading coverage of President Bush. "The press for a long time was locked into a totally unwarranted and clichéd view of Bush: that he was sort of a dim weakling led around by his wily adviser, Karl Rove, and propped up by other advisers," including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The media's attitude was no doubt unfair to Bush, but it also triggered positive stories about the president's prowess whenever he exceeded media expectations, as the spy plane incident illustrates. This tone in coverage, noticeable before 9/11, became even more pronounced after the terrorist attacks, when, as the New York Times editorial page put it on October 12, 2001, Bush displayed a "new gravitas."

Bush also precipitated favorable coverage early on by managing to avoid salacious faux pas: He fired no travel office employees; he solicited no exorbitant haircuts on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport; he had no Paula Jones specters stalking him in the White House.

Bush's controversies generally have centered not on character but on policy, an arena where newspaper and television reporters are less comfortable characterizing actions. New Republic Editor Peter Beinart says newspapers today allow reporters more freedom to analyze a politician's character and gaffes, "but there's still this notion that on policy you need to convey both sides." For example, many of the administration's tax-cut claims, he says, have been "probably bogus." But reporters have balanced Democrats' criticisms and the administration's defense "without arbitrating in that dispute.... [The Bush administration has] benefited a lot from the media's reticence."

Nine months into Bush's term, the terrorist attacks transformed the nation's mood and heightened media restraint. Confronting unfathomable horror, the press largely abdicated its watchdog role. In late January 2002, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Dan Balz penned a nearly 40,000-word, eight-part series offering an "inside account" of what happened from September 11 to September 20 but skirting the issue of whether the administration missed signs of terrorism. American flags fluttered on newscasts and anchors' lapel pins, and Bush was portrayed as a brave leader shouldering a painful burden.

"Principally on cable television, journalists have sounded off in a very pro-administration, very pro-patriotic tone," says Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, who coedited "The Media and the War on Terrorism" with Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. The flags in news broadcasts had "very little to do with journalism, very much to do with patriotism."

James P. Pinkerton, a Newsday columnist and former aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says the current Bush's "war on terror" is larger and less tangible than Clinton's controversies. "The Clinton scandals, such as they were, were kind of embraceable: did or did not cheat on his wife, did or did not cheat on his real-estate deals, did or did not molest Paula Jones," says Pinkerton, a contributor to Fox News Channel. "It's a little harder when you come across the Bush doctrine. It takes a little longer to get your legs under you intellectually."

Scandals in the Clinton administration provided easy targets for reporters. ABC's Moran says Clinton coverage "was way over the top, excessive scandal-mongering, pointless." He believes Bush has been covered aggressively, with examinations of his environmental, fiscal and foreign policies. But rather than "fully and fairly informing the American public," Moran says White House reporters tend to focus on scandal--a tendency that did not evaporate after 9/11.

In January 2002, when the press learned the scandal-plagued Enron Corp. had sought help from the Commerce and Treasury secretaries, Moran was awaiting then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's arrival in the briefing room when he overheard some print reporters. "I heard people saying, 'All right, we're back, to hell with the war [in Afghanistan],' as if chasing the shadows and ghosts of potential appearances or possible conflicts of interest was more important than the war the country had been thrust into," Moran says. "I was shocked.... I'm not sure that lower Manhattan had actually stopped smoldering."

But White House ties to Enron never exploded into a full-fledged Bush "Gate"--as in Travelgate, Filegate or other early Clinton brouhahas--and only briefly marred laudatory coverage of the president in the months after the terrorist attacks.

National Review's Lowry concedes "coverage was relatively favorable in the wake of September 11.... There were exceptions, certainly, including the New York Times," particularly when the Times in August 2002 inaccurately described Henry Kissinger as one of the "leading Republicans" breaking ranks with Bush over his administration's "high-profile planning for war with Iraq." The ensuing outcry stoked perceptions that now-deposed Executive Editor Howell Raines was using the news pages to advance a personal agenda.

But the Kissinger misstep hardly embodies the media's performance prior to the war in Iraq. In the weeks before the Pentagon commenced its "shock and awe" campaign in Iraq, questioning of the administration's assertions--a subject that dominated coverage in July--was noticeably absent.

On March 17, Bush ordered Saddam Hussein to leave within 48 hours or face invasion. The next day, Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus and White House correspondent Dana Milbank wrote that the administration was preparing to attack Iraq based on a number of allegations "that have been challenged--and in some cases disproved--by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports." Among the evidence "refuted by subsequent discoveries": Bush's assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium. The story, headlined "Bush Clings To Dubious Allegations About Iraq," was buried on page A13, while coverage of Bush's ultimatum appeared on the front page--but it was one of the few stories to challenge the administration's evidence at the outset of war.

Although reporters lacked access to intelligence reports and security briefings, they should have treated administration declarations more skeptically--even emphasized that some claims could not be independently confirmed--and published and aired dissenting international voices more prominently.

"Did the media do their job in the march up to the war?" asks former CNN Vice President Sesno. "I certainly don't think the broadcast media were sufficiently rigorous. There was not sufficient discussion as to why the French, Germans, Chinese, Japanese and Turks felt as they did. There was not sufficient healthy skepticism as to why the administration's case was not strong.... I was told flat-out by a network producer that there were not more international voices put on the air because it would have been a ratings killer."

But Sesno qualifies his remarks by saying, "Certainly post-9/11, there has been some excellent and even heroic journalism."

New Republic Editor Beinart says the press "really needs to take a step back and look at the way in which certain claims and statements were repeated so often that they were just taken as fact." At some point, the media dropped cautious phrasing about weapons programs that Iraq might have, opting for assertions such as "they have" or "they possess."

The media also permitted the impending war to dominate coverage, neglecting important domestic issues. Brookings' Hess, a one-time speechwriter for President Eisenhower, deems the March 6 Q&A session a "terrible" press conference. "When it was quite clear that the president wasn't going to say anything about Iraq," he says, reporters "should have changed the subject to try to get some other news."

Once combat began, the press quickly discarded upbeat dispatches in favor of dire predictions that the war could drag on for months. But those negative assessments predominantly focused on Rumsfeld's strategy rather than Bush's leadership. (See "Media Mood Swings," June/July.)

When Bush celebrated the war's official conclusion on May 1 with a "Top Gun"-style landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, cable news networks aired live coverage and adoring commentary. Bush arrived in "historic, spectacular fashion," Fox News Channel host John Gibson gushed. On rival MSNBC, correspondent Bob Kur enthused, "Now, a little bit more on what we're calling the president's excellent adventure today," while Kur's colleague, John Elliott, exclaimed, "It's cool. I mean, it's history in the making.... And that's new to me from Bob Kur, that we're calling it the president's excellent adventure. I like that. Kudos to the gang at MSNBC."

The on-air team at CNN was a bit more restrained--although correspondent Chris Burns observed that Bush "used to fly with the National Guard in his younger days, so this is not a big, big new thing for him," but failed to mention that Bush had never flown in combat situations.

"That was not, journalistically speaking, a reason for wall-to-wall coverage," Kalb says. "Nothing happened, so the idea of having him be carried live by all of the cable operations seemed to me excessive."

Newspapers devoted front-page coverage to Bush's evening address, even though Pentagon officials had declared an end to major combat operations on April 14. New York Times White House reporter David E. Sanger wrote in a page A17 sidebar that Bush "walked across the flight deck with a swagger that seemed to suggest he had seen 'Top Gun.'... Even in a White House that prides itself on its mastery of political staging, Mr. Bush's arrival on board the Lincoln was a first of many kinds. Never before has a president landed aboard a carrier at sea, much less taken the controls of the aircraft." (A correction published May 3 stated that while Bush was the first president to land in a plane on a carrier, other presidents have flown in helicopters to carriers.)

Although several reporters, including Sanger, noted White House officials "clearly intend" to use the triumphal image in the 2004 presidential campaign, few questioned the political wisdom of staging a victory lap when chaos still reigned in Iraq.

Bush received much more muted coverage of a July 2 challenge to Iraqi militants attacking U.S. troops. "My answer is: Bring 'em on," Bush declared. "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Washington Post reporters Milbank and Vernon Loeb wrote about Bush's "colloquial taunt" in a front-page story: "The colorful challenge by Bush provoked indignation from some congressional Democrats, who said the president's bravado was inviting attacks on U.S. soldiers."

But other major newspapers buried or ignored the president's controversial declaration. The New York Times tacked Bush's quote to the end of a page A10 story by Amy Waldman headlined, "U.S. Attributes Explosion at Iraqi Mosque to Bomb-Making Activity." Below the story came this cursory addendum by the Times: "Reaction From Bush," followed by two paragraphs with Bush's quote and no context or reaction from Democrats. Bush's declaration appeared on page 14A of the Baltimore Sun; USA Today published a wire report on page 16A.


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