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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

Continuation of Are the News Media Soft on Bush?   


By Rachel Smolkin
     

In early July, the media seized on the first prolonged controversy surrounding Bush since the September 11 devastation. At issue were 16 ill-fated words from Bush's January State of the Union address in which he declared, despite earlier CIA warnings to avoid the dubious claim: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" for its nuclear weapons program. But even this media firestorm needed four months to kindle.

As early as March 7--the day after the catatonic press conference at the White House--Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced that documents purportedly showing Iraqi officials shopping for uranium in Africa were "not authentic." Seymour M. Hersh tackled the administration's culpability in a tough New Yorker piece March 31 headlined, "WHO LIED TO WHOM?; Why did the Administration endorse a forgery about Iraq's nuclear program?" Hersh included the soon-to-be infamous State of the Union sentence and noted that the forgery "became the object of widespread, and bitter, questions in Europe about the credibility of the United States. But it initially provoked only a few news stories in America, and little sustained questioning about how the White House could endorse such an obvious fake."

Hersh then posed some pointed questions: "Who permitted it to go into the President's State of the Union speech? Was the message--the threat posed by Iraq--more important than the integrity of the intelligence-vetting process? Was the Administration lying to itself? Or did it deliberately give Congress and the public what it knew to be bad information?"

After this explosive piece, questions about faulty intelligence and Bush's State of the Union speech faded, overshadowed by the war and its aftermath. Anxious to appear supportive of U.S. armed forces, congressional Democrats muted their criticisms of Bush--an attitude not shared by their counterparts in London, who mercilessly hounded British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The uranium dispute did not take off in the mainstream U.S. media until July 7, when the Bush administration acknowledged for the first time that the allegation should not have been included in the speech.

The previous day, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former U.S. ambassador, disclosed on the New York Times' op-ed page that he traveled to Niger at the CIA's behest in February 2002 and concluded then that "it was highly doubtful" the uranium transaction had occurred. "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," Wilson wrote.

Then, on July 7, a British parliamentary report questioned the credibility of British intelligence--the same intelligence Bush cited in bolstering his case for war. After a "day of questions--and sometimes contradictory answers from White House officials," in the words of the New York Times' David Sanger, the administration released a statement conceding that the uranium declaration should not have appeared in Bush's address.

With postwar fatalities in Iraq mounting, no promised weapons of mass destruction in sight and an admission of fallibility from the White House, the press corps finally seized on the 16-word controversy. A White House famous for discipline and message control for the first time could not straighten out its story.

Energized Democrats called for investigations, further fueling coverage. The Washington Post in particular played the uranium dispute as a high-profile story, publishing 15 front-page articles on that issue or related intelligence controversies from July 8 to July 30, when Bush took responsibility for his words during the ninth solo news conference of his presidency. The uranium contretemps in that time period earned seven page-one stories in the New York Times, four in the Los Angeles Times and one in USA Today--a story leading with Secretary of State Colin Powell's defense of the administration.

"We're looking at information that Bush gave to the public [to] cast a light on that and hope to hold the president accountable for his words," says Post National Editor Liz Spayd. The administration's arguments for war "began to be drawn more into question once the war had largely ended, and we had had no success in finding weapons of mass destruction. It became obvious that at least there were a lot of questions about assertions the administration had made.... We all began to look harder at some of the claims preceding the war."

Unfortunately the Post, like other major media outlets, did not consistently play up coverage of precarious intelligence claims until after the war. But Pincus had provided excellent, albeit not very prominently showcased, reporting on Iraq intelligence questions long before such stories became en vogue. In addition to the March 18 "dubious allegations" story he wrote with Milbank, Pincus authored an A17 story on March 16 headlined "U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms" that examined the "concerns among some members of the intelligence community about whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence." On February 7, two days after Powell's speech to the U.N. Security Council, Pincus wrote an A21 story, "Alleged Al Qaeda Ties Questioned; Experts Scrutinize Details of Accusations Against Iraqi Government." On January 30, he and Dana Priest wrote an A14 story, "Making The Case Against Baghdad; Officials: Evidence Strong, not Conclusive." In late May, the Post began playing Pincus' stories more prominently. He wrote or co-authored seven page-one stories on Iraq intelligence claims from May 29 to June 30.

Once the uranium issue ignited in July, the Post stories dissected inconsistencies in administration statements and called for accountability. "In the face of persistent questioning about the use of intelligence before the Iraq war, administration officials have responded with evolving and sometimes contradictory statements," wrote Priest and Milbank in a page-one story on July 15. Two weeks later, on July 29, Milbank wrote in his White House Notebook, "five times, questioners have invited the president to take responsibility for the Iraq-uranium allegation that found its way into his State of the Union address. Five times, Bush has deflected the question." The Post's editorial page, which had vociferously supported the war in Iraq, that day called on Bush to hold a news conference; the next day, he did just that, telling reporters, "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course."

Notwithstanding its July stumbles, the White House communications team has molded coverage throughout Bush's incumbency by limiting press access, plugging administration leaks, rationing information, crafting images and coordinating messages. This mirrors the way the Bush administration handled the media while he was governor of Texas (see "On Message," April 2001).

"You could certainly argue that being so incredibly disciplined and controlling leaks has led to improved coverage" from the administration's point of view, Copley's Condon says. "When you don't have leaks, you have fewer stories about internal dissension. They are the best I've seen at getting their message out and making it difficult for you to get beyond that message."

Harvard's Kalb agrees Bush aides have put together an "exceptionally effective press program.... This White House very wisely and very effectively created a message system that made it seem as [if] the Bush administration walked on water, and the media went along for the walk." Each day, a single message is delivered by a single person, or by multiple people echoing one another.

Team Bush is equally proficient at fashioning the resplendent television pictures that served Reagan so well. In a front-page New York Times story published May 16, White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller asserted that Bush's carrier landing "was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before." The White House has stocked its communications operation with former network television experts in lighting, camera angles and backdrops, and Bumiller quoted Michael K. Deaver, Reagan's image guru, as observing that Bush's aides "understand the visual as well as anybody ever has."

Bush's team also knows which settings the president prefers, and the extended press conference is not among them. As of August 29, Bush had held 58 press conferences, compared with Clinton's 101 at the same point in his first term and George H.W. Bush's 101 as well, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political science professor who specializes in White House communication. The younger Bush had held only nine solo news conferences without a foreign leader or administration official joining him, compared with Clinton's 34 and his father's 63. And he had held only two in prime time: one March 6, the other October 11, 2001, four days after launching airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan.

Bush has "turned the tradition into a rarity, both because of his distaste for the format and his staff's determined message management," Washington Post White House reporter Mike Allen wrote March 7. Allen also noted that Bush's aides say he frequently takes short bursts of questions in other settings, particularly when cameras are allowed for photo-ops at the beginning or end of a presidential event.

Those controlled bursts do not satisfy many White House reporters, who crave more sustained interrogations of the president. "A spokesman can never replace the president of the United States," says Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas, who has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. "We want to hear it from the horse's mouth." Thomas calls press conferences "indispensable to a democracy" and "the only forum we have to make a president accountable."

Brookings' Hess says presidents generally maintain control even during press conferences, where questioning isn't usually too aggressive. "Reporters have lost the art of asking the sort of tough question that it's very difficult to avoid," Hess says. "There was a time when I thought that Sam Donaldson was a master at that--construction of a question [in a way] that the president answered it or looked devious for not answering it."

But Donaldson himself felt "great sympathy" for the press corps during the March 6 news conference. "I'm not going to sit back here in my retirement chair and hurl brickbats [at] the White House press corps," says the ABC News correspondent and former White House reporter. "I don't put the problem of obtaining information from this president at the reporters' doorstep as much as I put it at the president's doorstep. I've never seen a president who is so confident in not answering the question that the public will not think ill of him in any way."

Because Bush is so successful at stiff-arming the press corps, Donaldson suggests that reporters ask direct questions and eschew multipart queries. "Like the old World War II torpedo language, it's got to be hot, straight and true" so the viewer or reader will realize when Bush dodges a question. Donaldson also advises reporters to "remember that this is not a social occasion" and skip comments such as "Thank you for taking the question" or "Good evening, sir." "You can be respectful, but when called upon, you rise and ask a direct question," Donaldson says. Still, he emphasizes there is only so much reporters can do. "If he's not going to answer the question, he's not going to.... You can't hog-tie him, throw him down and stand there and debate him."

Complaints also have surfaced over White House treatment of reporters who annoy the administration. Robert Kuttner, coeditor of the liberal American Prospect, argued in a July 16 Boston Globe piece that "the press has given the administration an astonishingly free ride." Kuttner contends the Bush team is "very effective at pressuring and isolating reporters who criticize Bush, so working reporters bend over backwards to play fair. And the administration benefits from a stage-managed, right-wing media machine that has no counterpart on the liberal left." In an interview, Kuttner cited the dogged Milbank as "the classic example. They freeze him out. They don't return his phone calls." (Milbank says his calls are returned, although he can't judge whether White House officials return them as quickly as those of other reporters.)

In "What Liberal Media?" Alterman asserts the "Bush team plays a kind of hardball that the Clintonians were never able to master." He cites Houston Chronicle reporter Bennett Roth's May 10, 2001, question to Fleischer about underage drinking by the president's daughter. Fleischer later called Roth and ominously informed him that his question had been "noted in the building."

More recently, then-Washington Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove disclosed on July 18 that somebody at the White House was "apparently hopping mad" over a story by ABC News correspondent Jeffrey Kofman about declining morale among U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Internet gossip Matt Drudge told Grove that "someone from the White House communications shop" tipped him to the ABC story and a profile of Kofman in the Advocate, a gay newsmagazine. Drudge "quickly linked the two stories on his popular Web site," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on July 20, "first headlining the Advocate piece 'ABC NEWS REPORTER WHO FILED TROOP COMPLAINTS STORY--OPENLY GAY CANADIAN.' Eight minutes later, he amended the headline to read, 'ABC NEWS REPORTER WHO FILED TROOP COMPLAINTS STORY IS CANADIAN.' " Dowd concluded: "Beset by problems, the Bush team responds by attacking those who point out the problems."

Scott McClellan, who replaced Fleischer as press secretary, said in a July 23 briefing that if there were any truth to reported White House involvement, "it's totally inappropriate...that's simply not the way we operate." But he added that he had "no reason to believe that there is any truth that that has happened."

Drudge is but one example of the legion of conservative columnists, radio talk-show hosts, cable hosts and pundits who disseminate the administration's views, overpower a muffled chorus of liberals and blame the media for purported bias. In "What Liberal Media?" Alterman constructs a compelling case challenging conventional wisdom that the media lean left. "The myth of the 'liberal media' empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States to the point where liberals cannot even hope for a fair shake anymore," Alterman writes.

Former CNN executive Sesno concurs that the "discussion about liberal bias has gotten altogether skewed and altogether out of proportion. There were legitimate complaints by the right a few years ago, but now the pendulum has swung wildly to the other side in terms of radio and talk shows on television."

CNN and MSNBC, he adds, are "dealing with the harsh reality that Fox has become the ratings leader, built on the pretention that it is 'fair and balanced.' " The Post's Shales in late July called Fox "shamelessly pro-Republican in its treatment of the news." (Fox officials declined repeated requests for comment for this article.)

When the uranium story exploded in July, some conservatives pounced on the media. William Kristol, the influential conservative editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote in the July 28 issue that "American journalism's frenzy over the thing--the hyperbolic, rush-to-judgment, believe-the-worst character of the coverage--has been plenty bad enough."

But Sesno offered a more positive take. "It's sort of like the media is finding their voice again," he said in late July, adding, "the question is, do they immediately transition into a feeding frenzy, which is just as illogical." The American Prospect's Kuttner, while arguing that the "politicization of intelligence" is a larger story than articles about the State of the Union sentence indicated, nevertheless says he's glad the press covered it as a serious issue. "This could be a real turning point both in the Bush presidency and in the way the press treats the Bush presidency," Kuttner said July 21. One day later, the deaths of Saddam's sons knocked the 16 words off newspapers' front pages.

The deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein showed the futility of trying to predict a turning point in coverage during this volatile, post-September 11, post-Iraq war period. Rising U.S. fatalities in Iraq and a reinvigorated debate over the quality of intelligence that led us to war may darken coverage of Bush's presidency. Despite White House efforts at damage control, the Washington Post has continued to chip away at pre-war claims about the Iraqi menace. The headline for a 5,587-word, front-page story on August 10 by Barton Gellman and Pincus declared, "Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence." As the 2001 terrorist attacks recede into painful history and the 2004 presidential election nears, coverage will turn more adversarial, particularly when a Democratic victor emerges from the swarming field of contenders.

Unless the Bush administration unearths those elusive weapons of mass destruction. Or Congress passes a prescription drug bill. Or another unfathomable terrorist attack shakes us. Or the Democratic candidate fails to find an effective line of attack. Or...

"With the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons on Tuesday in Iraq, a bad political month for President Bush got palpably better," New York Times White House reporter Richard W. Stevenson wrote in a story published July 24. "Suddenly the big summer story was no longer whether Mr. Bush had misled the nation in his State of the Union address."


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