The latest to learn this hard lesson are four
producers at CBS, who demonstrated inadequate care in checking out memos
purportedly written by George W. Bush’s commanding officer in the Texas
Air National Guard in the early 1970s. For this sloppiness, CBS fired
the four, including Mary Mapes who helped break last year’s Abu Ghraib
A painful irony for the CBS producers was that the
central points of the memos – that Bush had blown off a required flight
physical and was getting favored treatment in the National Guard – were
already known, and indeed, were confirmed by the commander’s secretary
in a follow-up interview with CBS. But even honest mistakes are firing
offenses when the Bushes are involved.
By contrast, journalists understand that they get a
free shot at many other politicians who don’t have the protective
infrastructure that surrounds the Bush family. Take for example the case
of reporters for the New York Times and the Washington Post who
misquoted Al Gore about his role in the Love Canal toxic waste clean-up.
The misquote in late 1999 prompted knee-slapping
commentaries across the country calling Gore “delusional” because he
supposedly had falsely claimed credit for the Love Canal clean-up by
saying “I was the one that started it all.” But Gore actually had said,
“that was the one that started it all,” referring to a similar
toxic waste case in Toone, Tennessee.
Even after the error was pointed out by New
Hampshire high school students who heard Gore’s remark first hand, the
two prestige newspapers dragged their heels on running corrections.
While the newspapers dawdled, the story of Lyin’ Al and Love Canal
reverberated through the echo chamber of TV pundit shows, conservative
talk radio and newspaper columns. Al Gore was a laughingstock whose
sanity was in doubt.
The Post finally ran a “correction” a week after
the misquote, although the newspaper continued to misrepresent the
context of Gore’s remark. The Post falsely claimed that Gore’s use of
the word “that” referred to his congressional hearing on toxic waste
dumps, allowing the newspaper to pretend that Gore was still
exaggerating his role.
Three days later, the Times ran its brief
correction, which also failed to fully explain either the context of the
original quote or how the error had completely distorted what Gore had
For their part, the two reporters – the Times’
Katharine Seeyle and the Post’s Ceci Connolly – insisted that their
accounts were essentially accurate even though they clearly weren’t. At
least publicly, neither reporter was punished. Both continued to write
prominent stories for their newspapers. Connolly even got a job
moonlighting as a political commentator for Fox News.
Meanwhile, the real losers – besides Gore – were
the American voters who got a distorted impression of a major
The Love Canal misquote – and the refusal of the
two newspapers to publish meaningful corrections – gave momentum to what
became a dominant narrative of the campaign, that Gore was a dishonest
braggart. The media commentators also bandied about another bogus quote
attributed to Gore, that he had “invented the Internet.” [For details,
see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al
Gore v. the Media.”]
Exit polls in 2000 found that doubts about Gore’s
honesty were a major factor why many voters cast their ballots for
George W. Bush.
Gore’s media-created reputation as dishonest and
slightly crazy continued to dog him, even after he left office. In 2002,
when Gore spoke out against Bush’s rush to war with Iraq, the television
pundits and newspaper columnists again hooted him down, while reprising
his reputation as untrustworthy and daffy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics
Facing this unrelenting media hostility, Gore chose
not to enter the presidential contest in 2004.
But Gore is certainly not alone as a public figure
who has suffered from the Washington press corps’ proclivity for bad
journalism and no accountability.
The Whitewater “scandal,” which haunted President
Clinton during his eight years in office, started in March 1992 when New
York Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote an imprecise account that combined
a prosecutorial tone with a misleading storyline.
Gerth’s chronology was so confusing that it led
Times’ editors to give the story a faulty headline, “Clintons Joined S&L
Operator in an Ozark Real Estate Venture,” which missed the crucial
point that Clinton partner Jim McDougal didn’t own a savings and loan
when the Clintons joined him in the Whitewater land deal. McDougal
bought a controlling interest in Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan five
In the 1996 book, Fools for Scandal,
journalist Gene Lyons also noted how Gerth juxtaposed unrelated facts to
give the impression that Beverly Bassett Schaffer got her job as
Arkansas Securities Commissioner in the mid-1980s, presumably so she
could give preferential treatment to McDougal.
“After federal regulators found that Mr. McDougal's savings institution,
Madison Guaranty, was insolvent, meaning it faced possible closure by
the state, Mr. Clinton appointed a new state securities commissioner,”
Bassett Schaffer, Gerth wrote.
But Lyons found no correlation between Bassett Schaffer’s appointment in
January 1985 and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board report about Madison
in January 1984, a year earlier. Lyons quoted Walter Faulk, who was then
director of supervision for the FHLBB in Dallas, denying that Bassett
Schaffer or Clinton attempted to subvert normal procedures for coping
with a troubled S&L.
Bassett Schaffer also said Gerth ignored a lengthy explanation of her
actions that she had supplied. Nevertheless, Gerth’s story became the
guiding light for years of investigations by the news media, Congress
and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Even years later, after Starr’s investigation
failed to make a case against Clinton over Whitewater, the Times refused
to address the inadequacies of its original reporting on this central
“scandal” of the Clinton administration.
In fairness to Gerth, however, it's often true that
a groundbreaking story on a complex issue rarely gets every detail or
nuance right. Normally, some leeway is given to reporters who pave the
way for others to follow.
But that’s never the case when the Bushes are
involved. When a story puts the Bushes in a negative light, no leeway is
granted. A different set of rules apply.
Unlike other political figures, the Bushes must be
given the benefit of the doubt, even if an innocent explanation
stretches credulity. Also, any ambiguity in the reporting – such as
sources who are less than pristine or evidence that isn’t 100 percent
clear – must be interpreted in the Bushes’ favor.
Journalists or other investigators who violate
these Bush rules must expect that they are putting their reputations and
livelihoods in jeopardy.
Defiant journalists can expect the conservative
news media and right-wing interest groups to place critical Bush stories
under a microscope. Backgrounds of the witnesses and even the
journalists will be investigated, with any blemishes that are found
quickly becoming “the story” in both conservative and mainstream news
Even Republican investigators outside of journalism
can expect this treatment. Look, for instance, at the harsh attacks on
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh – a lifelong Republican –
when his probe threatened the long-running cover-up that had protected
George H.W. Bush’s false claims that he was “not in the loop” on the
arms-for-hostage scandal. [For details, see Walsh’s Firewall or
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Part of the reason for this protective phenomenon
surrounding the Bushes is that the family straddles two powerful
political groupings: the East Coast Establishment and the Texas oil
money. George H.W. Bush engineered this remarkable alliance of interests
in the years after World War II by putting down roots in Texas, after
being raised by a family with a pedigree in the world of Wall Street
Plus, the Bushes – particularly George W. Bush –
can count on help from the attack dogs in the conservative news media,
ranging from Fox News and the Washington Times, to Rush Limbaugh and
When this powerful defense mechanism strikes, it
can leave some writers who have crossed the Bushes so devastated that
they eventually turn to suicide.
In 1999, biographer J.R. Hatfield wrote
Fortunate Son, an account of George W. Bush’s early life. Though
most of the biography was fairly routine, Hatfield ran into trouble when
he cited three sources alleging that the elder George Bush intervened to
pull his son out of legal hot water over a drug arrest in 1972.
According to Hatfield’s account, George Bush senior
arranged to have his son’s legal trouble fixed by a friendly judge in
exchange for getting George Bush junior to perform some community
service. This claim brought heated denials from both father and son,
although George W. Bush always ducked direct questions about whether he
had used cocaine or other illegal drugs.
But the media sleuths didn’t demand a straight
answer from Bush about illegal drugs or other possible arrests involving
substance abuse – we learned later that Bush was concealing a
drunk-driving charge in Maine. Instead, journalists turned their
investigative attention to Hatfield. The Dallas Morning News soon
discovered that the writer had served time in prison for trying to kill
two of his bosses at a Dallas real estate firm.
Following that disclosure, Hatfield’s publisher,
St. Martin’s Press, recalled copies of Fortunate Son from the
bookstores and threw them into the furnace. “They’re heat, furnace
fodder,” declared Sally Richardson, president of St. Martin’s trade
division. [NYT, Oct. 23, 1999]
The national press corps hailed the decision to
recall the book, while castigating Hatfield and St. Martin’s for
publishing it in the first place. Conservatives in the news media were
gleeful, hoping the controversy would end the pesky questions about
Bush’s cocaine use.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times
joked that Hatfield “surely thought he would set the world on fire. He
just didn’t figure that it was his book that would be the kindling. …
One hopes the finality of the furnace puts an end to the story.”
[Washington Times, Oct. 28, 1999]
What was lacking in the intensive press coverage,
however, was any concern about the disturbing image of a book being
denounced by a well-connected political family and then being burned.
Through more than two centuries of rough-and-tumble American politics,
it is hard to recall any precedent for this sort of book burning.
In the years that followed, the discredited
Hatfield had trouble finding work and his life spiraled downward. In
July 2001, Hatfield, then 43, was found dead in a hotel room in
Springdale, Ark., having taken an overdose of prescription pills.
Hatfield left behind a suicide note listing
alcohol, financial problems and the controversy over Fortunate Son
as his reasons for killing himself.
“The finality of the furnace” – as the Washington
Times called it – also kept the U.S. news media from reexamining
Hatfield’s allegations even as new evidence emerged revealing that
something had occurred in the early 1970s that had deeply alarmed George
According to Bush family friends, the elder George
Bush did intervene in 1972 to protect the younger George Bush from the
consequences of some unidentified reckless behavior.
In early September 2004, some fresh details came
out in an interview that Salon.com had with the widow of Jimmy Allison,
a newspaper owner and campaign consultant from Midland, Texas, who had
served as “the Bush’s family’s political guru.” Allison’s widow, Linda,
said the senior George Bush was desperate to get his son out of Texas
and onto an Alabama Senate campaign that Jimmy Allison was managing.
“The impression I had was
that Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble
and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out
of Houston and under Jimmy’s wing,” Linda Allison said. “I think they
wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on him.” [Salon.com’s “George
W. Bush’s Missing Year,” Sept. 2, 2004]
Though Linda Allison’s
disclosure dovetailed with the general account that Hatfield had
reported in 1999 – that the senior George Bush was pulling strings to
get his wayward son out of trouble – the searing treatment of Hatfield
and then the bitter controversy over the CBS memos in mid-September 2004
kept the major news media from seriously reexamining Bush’s dubious
explanations of his youthful indiscretions.
Another reporter who fell victim to the Bush rules
of journalism was the San Jose Mercury News’ Gary Webb.
In 1996, Webb wrote a three-part series that
revived a decade-old controversy about the Reagan-Bush administration’s
protection of Nicaraguan contra groups that had turned to the cocaine
trade to finance their war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista
government. Though Webb’s series didn’t specifically target one of the
Bushes, it did reopen a controversy from the mid-1980s that threatened
the image of George H.W. Bush.
Not only did some contra supporters claim that
Bush’s vice presidential office presided over contra-support operations
that had veered into drug trafficking, but Bush then served as the top
government official responsible for drug interdiction. [For details, see
Robert Parry’s Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project
Truth’ – or Parry’s latest book,
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Rev. Moon’s Washington Times again stepped to the
fore, opening the assault on Webb’s series. The right-wing newspaper was
soon followed by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los
In scathing front-page articles, the newspapers
largely accepted the then-dominant conventional wisdom that the
contra-cocaine allegations were a bogus “conspiracy theory.” The big
papers pounded Webb and his series so hard that Mercury News editors
backed away from the stories and forced Webb to resign.
But Webb’s series did lead to internal
investigations by inspectors general at the CIA and the Justice
Department. In 1998, facts published by those investigations showed that
more than 50 contras and contra entities were implicated in the drug
trade and that the Reagan-Bush administration had obstructed criminal
investigations of these contra-drug smuggling operations.
If pieced together with other parts of the
historical record, the IG probes could have devastated George H.W.
Bush’s reputation, which was then underpinning the presidential
aspirations of George W. Bush. Instead, the major newspapers avoided any
detailed examination of the CIA’s drug admissions and let the
contra-cocaine story die.
For Webb, however, his career remained in ruins.
According to family and friends, he grew despondent; his marriage broke
up; eventually, he lost a job he had with the California state
government; and in December 2004, at the age of 49, he killed himself
with his father’s handgun. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]
So, by now, the Bush-journalism rules are well
understood by U.S. journalists, even if the rules are never formally
The consequences of crossing the Bushes – even if
you turn out to be right – can be devastating. Understandably,
journalists pull their punches when the Bush family is involved.
Another example of how this dynamic has worked to
George W. Bush’s political advantage can be found in the aftermath of
the botched CBS memo story in September 2004. While the news media was
ripping into Dan Rather and CBS, Bush slipped away almost unscathed
despite additional evidence that indeed he had shirked his National
While doubting the authenticity of the CBS memos,
Marian Carr Knox, a former Texas Air National Guard secretary, told
interviewers that the information in the purported memos was “correct.”
Knox said her late boss, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, indeed was “upset” that
Bush had refused to obey his order to take a flight physical and that
Bush’s refusal to follow the rules had caused dissension among other
National Guard pilots.
But instead of focusing on the actions of a
President of the United States, the glare of attention remained on CBS
and its failure to follow proper journalistic procedures. George W. Bush
came out the victim, again.
The dust-up left many American voters with the
impression that Bush was innocent of the charges that he had skipped out
on his National Guard duty.
That impression held even when an important new
piece of the puzzle was released by the U.S. government about a week
after the CBS memo flap – Bush’s hand-written resignation letter from
the Texas Air National Guard.
After moving to Boston to attend Harvard Business
School, Bush was supposed to finish up his National Guard service in
Massachusetts. Instead, however, in November 1974, Bush scribbled a note
saying he wanted out of the Guard.
Bush explained that he had “inadequate time to
fullfill (sic) possible future commitments.” His request was granted. He
was given an honorable discharge. [See
Reuters, Sept. 29, 2004]
If given half the attention that CBS’ missteps were
getting at the time, the cavalier attitude of Bush’s resignation letter
might have done severe damage to Bush, especially since he was forcing
today’s National Guardsmen to pull long and dangerous duty in Iraq.
After all, John Kerry was clobbered by questions raised about the extent
of his heroism in Vietnam combat.
If dealing with a non-Bush, the U.S. news media
also might have made a story out of the discrepancy between the
privileged treatment that Lt. Bush got in the 1970s and the sacrifice
expected of today’s Guardsmen.
For example, Charles and Billi Crockett were a
married couple serving in a National Guard unit from Sheldon, Iowa, the
2168th transportation company. When their Guard unit was sent
to Iraq, the Crocketts were forced to leave behind their two small
daughters, possibly for more than a year. The girls were placed with
relatives. [See PBS’ “Now With Bill Moyers”
transcript, Sept. 17, 2004. For more on Bush’s National Guard story,
see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush
But what’s clear now – as the U.S. news media has
learned to tip-toe around Bush family scandals – is the applicability of
that the old adage about the rich: “The Bushes aren’t like the rest of