consortiumnews.com

Explaining the Bush Cocoon

By Robert Parry
August 24, 2005

Under traditional news judgment, the lead paragraph in American newspapers on the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, should have read something like: “If all legally cast votes in Florida were counted in Election 2000, Democrat Al Gore would have carried the state and thus won the White House, according to an unofficial tally of disputed ballots.”

Indeed, the tally found that Gore would have carried Florida’s key electoral votes regardless of the standard used for judging so-called “undervotes,” ballots kicked out by vote-counting machines which could detect no presidential choice. Gore won even ignoring Florida’s other irregularities – such as the badly designed “butterfly ballots” and the improper “felon purges” – that cost him thousands of additional votes.

To put it more starkly, a recount conducted by a consortium of major media organizations had determined that George W. Bush, the guy in the White House, not only lost the national popular vote but should have lost the Electoral College, too. To be even blunter, a pivotal U.S. presidential election had been stolen.

But that wasn’t how the major newspapers and TV networks presented their findings. Instead, they bent over backwards to concoct hypothetical situations in which George W. Bush might still have won the presidency – if the recount had been limited to only a few counties or if legal “overvotes,” where a voter both checks and writes in the name of the candidate, were cast aside.

Lost Purpose

Though the news media’s recount had started with the goal of assessing whether Florida voters favored Gore or Bush, that purpose was lost in a rush to shore up Bush’s fragile legitimacy in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The key discovery of Gore’s victory was buried deep in the stories or relegated to charts that accompanied the articles.

Any casual reader would have come away from reading the New York Times or the Washington Post with the conclusion that Bush really had won Florida and thus was the legitimate president after all.

The Post’s headline read, “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush.” Referring to Bush’s success in getting five U.S. Supreme Court justices to stop the vote-counting, the Times ran the headline: “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.”

Some columnists, such as the Post’s media analyst Howard Kurtz, even launched preemptive strikes against anyone who would read the fine print and spot the hidden “lede” of Gore’s victory. Kurtz labeled such people “conspiracy theorists.” [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]

After reading these slanted “Bush Won” stories on the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, I wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com noting that the obvious “lede” should have been that the recount revealed that Gore had won. I suggested that the news judgments of senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear patriotic only two months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore’s Victory.”]

My article had been on the Internet for only an hour or two when I received an irate phone call from New York Times media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then-Times executive editor Howell Raines. I got the impression that Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant story that didn’t accept the pro-Bush conventional wisdom.

[For more on Election 2000, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So Bush Did Steal the White House.” For a broader historical perspective, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Iraq War Prelude

This early example of the U.S. news media building a protective cocoon around George W. Bush’s presidency is relevant again today as many Americans try to understand how Bush was able to lead the nation so deeply into a disastrous war in Iraq and why the U.S. news media has performed its watchdog duties so miserably.

The history of the mis-reported Election 2000 recount also attracted the recent attention of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. After referencing Gore’s apparent Florida victory in one column, Krugman said he was inundated by an “outraged reaction” from readers who thought they knew the history but who really had learned only a false conventional wisdom about how the recount supposedly favored Bush.

In a second column entitled “Don’t Prettify Our History,” Krugman argues that “we aren’t doing the country a favor when we present recent history in a way that makes our system look better than it is. Sometimes the public needs to hear unpleasant truths, even if those truths make them feel worse about their country. …

“Election 2000 may be receding into the past, but the Iraq war isn’t. As the truth about the origins of that war comes out, there may be a temptation, once again, to prettify the story. The American people deserve better.” [NYT, Aug. 22, 2005]

Whether Americans can expect better is an open question, however.

A strong argument even could be made that Krugman is wrong suggesting that the news media just wanted to “prettify” American history or that I was wrong in speculating that the distorted reporting on the Election 2000 recount was just a case of putting patriotism over professionalism.

A harsher interpretation is that journalists put their careers – not their love of country – ahead of their duty to tell the American people the truth. In other words, big media personalities may have understood that challenging Bush would put their big pay checks in harm’s way. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Answer Is Fear.”]

At Powell’s Feet

That also appears to have been the pattern during the run-up to war with Iraq. It was safer for journalists to toe the line on Bush’s case for war with Iraq than to contest the dubious arguments presented by the likes of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

One only needs to look back at the op-ed pages in the days after Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, to see the lock-step thinking of columnists across the mainstream political spectrum.

Even though Powell’s speech was riddled with falsehoods and questionable assertions, none of the many journalists who safely positioned themselves at Powell’s feet suffered professionally for their lack of professional skepticism. Many of the same columnists are still holding down lucrative jobs on the Washington Post op-ed page or as pundits on TV talks shows.

There’s also little indication that skepticism has been ramped up to the levels that would seem justified by the long list of Bush’s discredited war rationales.

Last March, for instance, many commentators – including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the editorial boards of the Times and the Post – were hailing Bush’s new Iraq War rationale, that is was the instrument to advance “democratization” in the Middle East.

Just as the pundits had bought into the WMD claims in 2002-2003, they fell for Bush’s argument that the invasion of Iraq would spread democracy across the Islamic world and thus destroy Islamic extremism. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon Amorality” or “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled.”]

Since then, as the optimism about “democratization” has receded – from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Lebanon – the Bush administration and the pundit class have shifted rationales again, this time to a modern version of the “domino theory” – that a quick withdrawal from Iraq is unthinkable because it would undermine U.S. credibility.

Just as it was nearly impossible to find a prominent U.S. pundit who challenged Bush’s original WMD claims, there’s now a scarcity of commentators who dare to make the argument that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq might undercut Islamic terrorism (by driving a wedge between Iraqi Sunni insurgents and outside jihadists who have come to Iraq to kill Americans). That wedge, in turn, could help stabilize Iraq, while Washington could focus on removing other root causes of Islamic anger, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal.”]

Repositioned Pundits

Still, self-interest remains the driving force behind Washington punditry. So, some columnists seem to be repositioning themselves in the face of Bush’s slipping popularity, by sniping at Bush about style while continuing to support him on substance.

For instance, a Washington Post column by New Republic editor Peter Beinart chides Bush for refusing to meet with Cindy Sheehan, a mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. But Beinart, who supported the Iraq invasion, adds that Bush “is right to refuse” Sheehan’s call for a U.S. withdrawal because “it would be a disaster for national security and a betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq.”  [Washington Post, Aug. 18, 2005]

David Ignatius, another Post columnist and war supporter, struck a similar theme: “Let’s look at what the president is doing right: At a time when anguished Americans are calling for a quick withdrawal from Iraq, Bush is telling them a painful truth. ‘Pulling the troops out [now] would send a terrible signal to the enemy,’ [Bush] said.” [Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2005]

Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about the Iraq War is that despite all the errors and misjudgments, the Washington pundit class, which cheered the nation off to war, remains remarkably unchanged.

Though the Iraq War may be the most glaring example in decades of the U.S. government and the national news media letting down the American people and especially the troops sent off to fight, virtually no one responsible for this catastrophe has been punished.

While journalists have been fired for far-less serious errors, there’s been no known case of a media personality being publicly punished for buying into the Bush administration’s bogus arguments for invading Iraq. Instead, many of these same media personalities continue to lecture the American people about what needs to be done in Iraq.

But this Bush cocoon started years ago, when journalists forgot that their first duty in a democracy was to give the people the truth as fully and fairly as possible, even if some Americans didn’t want to hear it.
 


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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