The media’s kind treatment of George W. Bush and his administration has been remarkable and is grounded in structural conditions that shape the conduct of the contemporary press. During the campaign of 2000, journalists displayed strong aversion to Al Gore, whom they considered stiff, nerdish, and too ambitious. John Scarborough, a right-wing TV commentator and former Florida Congressman, remarked, “I think in the 2000 election, [the media] were fairly brutal to Al Gore.” They found Bush to be a very likeable fellow and did little to report his verbal gaffs and lack of knowledge. During the contest over the Florida electoral vote, it “accepted the debatable premise that Bush had won the election and Gore was grasping at straws to save his flawed position.”
As president, Bush pursued a partisan and conservative agenda without a clear electoral mandate, but the press gave him much more than the traditional presidential honeymoon, perhaps “to do its part to heal the deep divisions revealed during the Clinton impeachment and against the disputed election in Florida.” The Bush administration was the most secretive in the nation’s history, and journalists deemed unfriendly to it were simply deprived on information. The administration was so adept at not honoring requests for material under the Freedom of Information Act that there was a virtual shut-down on the acts enforcement. Reporters began to worry that they would be questioned by the FBI if they followed leads in regard to the war in Iraq, and Washington insiders began to clam-up, fearing repercussions for talking to journalists not tied to the administration. The administration viewed information as a weapon and tool and refused to share much of it with anyone, even its supporters. Some areas of government activity became very difficult to cover unless the journalist simply relied on the official story.
Writing in November 2003, Russell Baker referred to “the curiously polite treatment President Bush was receiving from most of the mainstream media.” James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Republican Chicago Tribune claimed the press was so busy “sucking up to Bush” that “we have been effectively emasculated....” Columnist Anna Quindlen noted that Bush enjoyed ” a Teflon coating slicker and thicker that that of Ronald Reagan.” Even after turning a budget surplus into a huge deficit, failing to find Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and admitting that there was no evidence to connect Iraq with the 9/11 attack on America, Bush enjoyed gentle treatment from the press. Quindlen asked, “Imagine what the response from Republicans--and reporters--would have been if Bill Clinton had been responsible for one of those things.”
The gentle treatment or “ free pass” George W. Bush received at the hands of the media during the campaign of 2000 could be attributed in part to superb strategy. His campaign duplicated the Reagan strategy of painting large pictures with few details. Bush was often confused on details and his economic notions were simplistic and laden with huge and obvious arithmetical errors. Reporters found Bush personally likeable . They were even known to boo him, like a gaggle of teenagers, when his image appeared on television monitors. They mocked Gore’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge and indulgently passed over in silence Bush’s problems with specific information. The press hounded Albert Gore on every perceived distortion of fact but generally passed over Bush’s mistakes in near silence.
James Pfiffer of James Madison University suggests that Bush’s reliance on a thematic approach made it very difficult to demand some details or bring up factual and mathematical errors without appearing to be carping. Moreover, the thematic approach meant that Bush later would not be held responsible for broken promises. The thematic strategy allowed him to connect to all the narratives the New Right had assiduously and successfully established over more than two decades. It also permitted him to appear as though he had an overall vision of how to proceed. Since the implosion of the liberal paradigm, Democrats have been unable to develop attractive, coherent themes. Gore’s many specific proposals, and his stiff demeanor, invited the constant press criticism he received. It is also likely that the press early on decided that Gore was guilty of strategic dishonesty, reinventing himself as conditions changed. They settled on this as his fatal flaw and built their reporting about him around this theme throughout the campaign. They were aware that Bush came into the campaign prepared with little knowledge but were inclined to give him a pass on his mistakes, thinking he could always hire aides to provide the knowledge he lacked. The result was that there were different standards for truth-telling and slips of the tongue. The press probably did not identify ideologically with Bush; they simply dislike Gore.
Electronic and print journalists “overwhelmingly bought into Bush’s compassionate-conservative facade and downplayed his radical economic conservatism” during the election of 2000. During the campaign of 2002, Bush claimed to be a “compassionate conservative” and cited his alleged support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program [ CHIP] to bolster his claim. The fact was that he fought hard to prevent its passage and later took credit for its passage. The national media seldom picked up this side of the story. Economist Paul Krugman did not join those who believed the media was bullied into giving George W. Bush a free ride. He believed that intellectual sloth and institutional listlessness accounted for its missing the big story, that the Bush administration has been very successful in enacting a radical right wing agenda that included changes in revenue policy which could make inevitable the sharp reduction of the nation’s safety net.
The mainstream press never called him to task” for the radical disconnect between how he got into office and what he has done since arriving.” New Republic editor Peter Beinart defended the press, claiming political writers worked under short deadlines and were generalists who lacked the time or expertise to understand or assess the consequences of Bush’s economic legislation. Moreover, he noted, “the conventions of newspaper evenhandedness dilute their analysis.” This could explain why the press did little to explain the bankruptcy legislation that passed in 2003, showering banks and credit card companies with benefits. Two years before it passed, David Broder was writing about the failure of the press to cover the issue or to note why Bill Clinton had vetoed it.
The press covered the Bush administration’s close ties to Enron, but the role of Ken Lay in screening candidates for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration [ FERA] was only discussed in a few papers and periodicals. Preoccupation with Enron and the effect of the bankruptcy on its employees who lost their retirement savings probably prevented coverage of a $665,000,000 contract to the Carlyle Group for development of the Crusader Advanced Field Artillery System. George H.W. Bush owns stock in the firm and is on its payroll. Spokesmen for the investment firm said that none of its officers lobbied for the contract.
Little was done to bring attention to the September 2001 resignation of John Di Iulio, head of the president’s faith-based initiative. Di Iulio, one of the very few Democrats in the Bush administration, had angered conservatives by saying that groups that mixed religion with public service should not be funded. He also told a gathering of Evangelicals that their record of concern for the urban poor needed improvement. There were calls for his resignation, but President Bush never spoke publicly on the matter. Di Iulio covered his resignation by claiming he needed more time with his family, and only The New Republic considered his resignation in the light of conservative opposition to his views.
The national media scarcely mentioned the trillion-dollar rainy-day fund Bush had promised and proceded as though the promise not to raid the trust fund was just normal politics, and something not to be believed in the first place. In August 2001, the younger Bush attended a conference of the Western Republican Governors at a hotel in Denver that was being boycotted by the NAACP due to its hiring practices. The White House issued no apology about its tacit support of the hotel, and the national media gave it little play.
Karl Rove, the president’s friend and assistant, met with officers of several corporations in which he held stock. The meeting was a possible violation of federal law. It was reported briefly in the press and dropped. Had that been a Clinton assistant, it would have received much greater play in the press and Congressional Republicans would have demanded at least a Justice Department investigation. At little later, it came to light that Rove had lied about ownership of a political consulting firm. This was only reported in a few papers. Alberto R. Gonzales, White House counsel, found it necessary to admit that Rove had also participated in formulating Bush administration energy policy while he still held Enron shares and stock in other energy firms.
Many have complained of declining journalistic standards, noting a tendency toward “more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous work.” Part of the slippage is due to the competition with round-the clock cable news. It is necessary to work faster and cut corners.” It has also gone soft on itself, rarely apologizing or even noting injustices it has done such as the hounding of Richard Jewell in connection with the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta. Greg Palast, an American writing for the Guardian and Observer of London, wrote that the American press seems to be conservative because of its particular “journalistic culture.” He portrays it as a bit “snoozy” and inclined to “reprinting a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporation public relations operations.” For example, he notes that there was almost no interest in looking into reports that a Florida effort to scrub the voter rolls of illegal voters actually took at least another 40,000 legitimate voters off the rolls. When CBS News, allegedly the most liberal of the network departments, heard the report, it only checked the matter with Governor Jeb Bush’s office. Hearing a denial there, it dropped the matter.
Palast did a report for his BBC Newsnight program and offered the tape to ABC News, which had a cooperation agreement with BBC. The American network refused to consider the matter and simply aired reports emphasizing how dumb voters in some Florida counties were unable to master simple voting procedures. Only Salon.com and The Nation pursued the matter. The Washington Post briefly covered the story seven months later; only after the U.S. Civil Rights Commission had investigated it and proven that more than 40,000 people were unjustly deprived of the vote. A frustrated Palast asked major newspaper editors why they refused to look into the story and was told that editorial committees feared that they would appear partisan if they reported it. Though he hints that US journalists may often have an aversion to hard work, he seems to settle for an explanation that a lack of funds and shortage of staff makes it difficult for the American press to look into stories that would verify the claims of liberals. By the end of George W. Bush’s third year as president, he had added two trillion dollars to the national debt, but as Charles R. Morris and Paul Krugman noted, the whopping amount of this new debt is scarcely ever mentioned in the mainstream press. Krugman attributes this failure to laziness and a hyper-concern to be evenhanded.
By 2006, George W. Bush’s approval rating had declined considerably, and the press was reporting more negative information about his policies. Nevertheless, it continued kid gloves treatment on most matters other than the Iraq war, which was shown to be the disaster it had become.
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!