Until Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans –
highlighting Bush’s weakness as a crisis manager, his skewed budget
priorities and cronyism at key federal agencies – the national press
corps had been held in sway by a mix of White House spinning and the
bullying of the occasional critic.
From Election 2000 to the 9/11 terror attacks to
the invasion of Iraq, the press corps often acted as if its principal
duty to the nation was to normalize Bush’s often abnormal behavior, like
the enabling family of a drug addict insisting nothing is wrong. While
traditionally journalists play up the unusual, in Bush’s case, the media
did the opposite.
This pattern can be traced back to Campaign 2000
when Al Gore became a favorite whipping boy of the national press corps,
apparently still annoyed by Bill Clinton’s survival of the impeachment
battles of 1998-99.
As a Consortiumnews.com article on Oct. 16, 2000, noted, “the
national news media have altered the course of Campaign 2000 – perhaps
decisively – by applying two starkly different standards for judging how
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, handle the
truth versus how Vice President Al Gore does.
“Bush and Cheney have gotten almost a free pass.
They have been allowed to utter misleading statements and even outright
falsehoods with little or no notice. By contrast, Gore’s comments have
been fly-specked and every inconsistency trumpeted to support the
media’s ‘theme’ – reinforced by Republicans – that Gore is an inveterate
liar.” [For details, see “Protecting
This media dynamic carried through Election 2000’s
recount battle as the national press corps treated Bush as the rightful
claimant to the White House even though he lost the national popular
vote by more than a half million ballots and was not even the choice of
a plurality of voters in the pivotal state of Florida.
During the recount, it was as if Bush could do
almost anything without being held accountable by the U.S. news media.
Even when Bush dispatched out-of-state thugs to intimidate vote counters
in Miami, there was only limited reporting and little outrage.
Bush appeared so confident about his media immunity
that his campaign paid for a post-riot celebration that featured Wayne
Newton crooning “Danke Schoen” and Bush and Cheney placing a thank-you
conference call to the rioters. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “W’s
Triumph of the Will” or “Bush’s
Conspiracy to Riot.”]
As the recount battle continued, many in the news
media began to treat the notion that the votes should be counted and the
candidate with the most should be declared the winner as some partisan
Democratic idea. Several prominent journalists openly expressed their
preference for Bush regardless of what the voters may have wanted.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for
many colleagues when he declared that “given the present bitterness,
given the angry irresponsible charges being hurled by both camps, the
nation will be in dire need of a conciliator, a likable guy who will
make things better and not worse. That man is not Al Gore. That man is
George W. Bush.”
Cohen and other Washington journalists exhaled a
collective sigh of relief when five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme
Court issued an unprecedented ruling preventing a statewide recount in
Florida, ending the long standoff and effectively handing the presidency
Rather than recognizing that the Bush campaign had
engineered what had the earmarks of a political coup d’etat (overturning
the will of the American voters), the prevailing media view was that the
nation must now put the divisive election in the past and unite behind
the new leader.
The media started handling Bush’s fragile
legitimacy like one might hold a delicate figurine.
In marked contrast to the taunting pre-Inauguration
reporting directed at President-elect Bill Clinton in December 1992 and
January 1993 – when he was seen as a bumpkin interloper from Arkansas –
the elite Washington media fairly radiated with enthusiasm about the
supposed “return of the adults” with George W. Bush in 2001.
The suppression of unpleasant images from the Bush
transition was so thorough that three years later, when Americans
watched Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” many were stunned to see the
dramatic challenge to Bush’s election by the Congressional Black Caucus
as well as scenes of angry demonstrators disrupting Bush’s Inaugural
The longer-term explanation for the media’s
kid-glove treatment of George W. Bush can be found in the strategy
developed by conservatives after Richard Nixon’s ouster over Watergate
and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam – both of which the Right blamed on
“liberals” in the news media.
The central element of that three-decade-old
conservative strategy was to build a pro-
Republican media infrastructure while also financing attack groups that
would neutralize mainstream journalists who challenged the Right’s
positions. [For details, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
By 2001, this Republican media machine had grown
into a giant Wurlitzer of magazines, newspapers, commentators, book
publishing, radio talk shows, television networks and Internet sites. It
rivaled the influence of the mainstream or corporate media, where star
journalists grew nervous about the risks to their careers if they got
So, with the Republicans back in the White House in
2001, the media tendency was to praise Bush for “exceeding expectations”
or to poke fun at his critics for “consistently underestimating” the
There were only a handful of mainstream sources
persistently voicing skepticism about Bush and his policies, most
notably economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times.
This Bush-friendly media dynamic gained powerful
momentum after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and
Washington. The mass slaughter on U.S. soil generated a
rally-‘round-the-President consensus, with conservatives shouting down
the few remaining vocal Bush critics as traitors who were aiding and
abetting the enemy.
The mainstream press corps joined in wrapping Bush
in this protective P.R. cocoon, censoring out information that might
raise public doubts about his leadership.
Because of that, millions of Americans also were
shocked by the scene in “Fahrenheit 9/11” showing Bush sitting frozen
for seven minutes in a second-grade classroom, after being told by chief
of staff Andrew Card that a second plane had struck the World Trade
Center and that “the nation is under attack.”
Under normal press rules, the commander in chief’s
strange – almost disqualifying – behavior would have been a major news
story. Certainly, the seven-minute freeze was known to members of the
news media since reporters were standing in the Florida classroom as
Bush continued reading “My Pet Goat.”
Instead, the excruciating seven-minute image of
Bush looking like a deer in the headlights was shielded from the
American people. His later stage-managed bravado – vowing revenge and
pledging to get Osama bin-Laden “dead or alive” – was spotlighted.
Even today, the New York Times and other major news
outlets describe the iconic scene of Bush and Sept. 11 as occurring
three days after the attacks when Bush appeared with a bullhorn at
Ground Zero. But for many Americans, the true iconic image of Bush on
that tragic day was the scene of him sitting in the classroom with a
children’s book in his lap.
Another early casualty of the media’s post-Sept. 11
protection of George W. Bush was the unofficial Florida recount that
major news organizations had undertaken after the Supreme Court’s
ruling, with the goal of judging the actual choice of the voters.
When the recount report was released two months after
Sept. 11, the obvious news “lede” – that Gore would have won if all
the legally cast votes were counted – was hidden by news executives who
focused instead on how Bush might still have won if, hypothetically,
some of the legal ballots had been excluded.
Rather than report the shocking result – that the
wrong person was in the White House – most news organizations chose to
normalize the abnormal with reassuring, albeit misleading, articles
declaring that Bush was the rightful winner. The thinking seemed to be
that no good would come from undermining the sitting President at a time
of crisis. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So
Bush Did Steal the White House" or “Explaining
the Bush Cocoon.”]
While the news executives may have congratulated
themselves for their patriotic spinning of the recount results, they
were, on another level, violating journalistic ethics, which put telling
the truth above achieving some pleasant political outcome.
The mis-reporting of the recount results also was
not just an innocent white lie without consequence. By publishing
stories that falsely enshrined Bush as the legitimate winner of Election
2000, the news executives strengthened Bush’s case for a second term in
2004 and weakened Gore’s argument for a rematch.
Indeed, still hounded in 2003 by pro-Bush activists
shouting “Sore Loserman,” Gore decided not to challenge Bush,
eliminating the person whom many Democrats saw as their strongest
candidate in 2004.
The Iraq War
The U.S. media’s post-Sept. 11 protection of Bush
also influenced his sense of invulnerability as he lurched toward a
military confrontation in Iraq.
To the national press, this hailing of Bush’s
war-time leadership may have been meant as hopeful encouragement to the
President. It’s also possible that many well-paid journalists knew the
career danger of probing too deeply into Bush’s weaknesses.
Nevertheless, the fawning coverage did more than
just boost Bush’s spirits. It seems to have fed an egotism that caused
Bush to discard any self-doubts.
The swelling of Bush’s head was apparent in his
interview for Bob Woodward’s Bush at War,
.which took a largely flattering
look at Bush’s “gut” decision-making but also reported some disturbing
attitudes within the White House.
“I am the commander,
see,” Bush told Woodward. “I do not need to explain why I say things.
That’s the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody
needs to explain to me why they need to say something, but I don't feel
like I owe anybody an explanation.”
In The Right Man,
former White House speechwriter David Frum followed a similar pattern of
praising Bush’s supposed leadership skills, while acknowledging Bush’s
autocratic and anti-intellectual behavior.
Bush is “impatient and
quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a
result ill informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader
probably should be,” Frum wrote.
Bush would describe
environmentalists as “green-green lima beans” and built a White House
staff with a “dearth of really high-powered brains,” Frum wrote. “One
seldom heard an unexpected thought in the Bush White House or met
someone who possessed unusual knowledge.”
By comparison the TV
show, “The West Wing,” with its dialogue imbued with sophisticated
political thinking “might as well have been set aboard a Klingon
starship for all that it resembled life inside the Bush White House,”
Still, these warning signs were largely ignored as
the media’s protect-Bush dynamic carried over into his case for war with
Many major news organizations, including the
Washington Post and the New York Times, published front-page articles
accepting – or even promoting – Bush’s claims about Iraqi weapons of
mass destruction while shoving the infrequent story expressing
skepticism onto the inside pages.
“We were so focused on trying to figure out
what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play
to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were
questioning the administration's rationale,” the Post’s Executive Editor
Leonard Downie Jr. said in a retrospective on the WMD controversy.
“Not enough of those stories were put on
the front page,” Downie said. “That was a mistake on my part.” [Washington
Post, Aug. 12, 2004]
Still, Downie and other news executives
have argued that it is unlikely that more critical press coverage would
have deterred Bush’s determined march toward war.
But the imbalanced news coverage was not
without its effects, either. The major media’s broad acceptance of
Iraq’s WMD threat contributed to the marginalizing of skeptics and
It also appears that some journalists shied away
from reporting aggressively about the holes in Bush’s WMD case out of
fear that caches of forbidden Iraqi weapons might later be discovered.
In that case, anyone who had doubted Bush’s claims would surely be held
up to scorn by the powerful conservative news media.
So, there was almost certainly a degree of
self-interest – or self-protection – in the media’s acquiescence to the
case for war with Iraq.
Over the past two years, the failure to find WMD
and the emergence of a fierce Iraqi resistance have caused chagrin within
many editorial offices. There also is a sense of guilt about the rising
death toll in Iraq.
Slowly, it has dawned on more and more journalists
that they fell down on their job of keeping the American people
informed. By trying to look patriotic and supportive of the President,
journalists had failed their real test of patriotism, telling the
American the truth as fairly and fully as possible.
So, when Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters struck
the Gulf Coast, not only the New Orleans levees were prepared to break.
The dams protecting George W. Bush from press criticism were cracking,
Plus, this time when Bush again hesitated in the
face of a national crisis, leading newscasters, such as NBC’s Brian
Williams and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, were on scene to witness the
For once, the White House and its allies in the
conservative news media couldn’t spin the reality.