When we started Consortiumnews.com back in 1995, it was already apparent that the mainstream U.S. press corps was beyond reform. The corporate media had, in effect, merged with the growing right-wing media in overplaying the “Clinton scandals.”

The endless Clinton bashing was followed by a deep hostility toward the presidential candidacy of Al Gore and a fondness for the prospect that George W. Bush would put “the adults” back in charge. Then, under Bush, mainstream and right-wing news outlets marched pretty much in lockstep into the Iraq War.

Eventually, Bush’s disastrous policies – and his growing unpopularity with the American people – frayed this coalition of mainstream and right-wing media, but the dynamic has reemerged during the early weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency with much of the mainstream press again aligning with the Right.

This resurgent alliance is perhaps best seen in the media consensus about Obama’s supposed "failure" to achieve the bipartisanship he called for during the campaign; regarding the Republicans’ “principled” opposition to the $787 billion stimulus bill; and in media attacks on the bill’s wastefulness that read like they come straight from GOP talking points.

A case study in how this current media double standard is playing out can be seen in the divergent treatment in the major news media’s reaction to Al Gore’s criticism of President Bush’s policies in 2002 compared to John McCain’s high-profile attacks on President Obama today.

In 2001, after having accepted defeat in a presidential election that he arguably won, Gore retreated from the public eye and avoided criticizing President Bush. Still, in a reprise of the mocking tone that much of the media had directed at Gore during the campaign, he was ridiculed for growing a beard while on vacation in Europe.

After the 9/11 attacks, Gore offered support to Bush, though Gore grew uneasy as Bush promulgated a global strategy of “preemptive war,” claiming the right to attack any country that might somehow threaten the United States sometime in the future. Still, Gore kept his concerns largely to himself for fear of disrupting national unity at a time of crisis.

Only when it became clear that Bush was hell-bent on an unprovoked invasion of Iraq did Gore offer a comprehensive critique of Bush’s radical departure from decades of American support for international law.

Speaking Out

In a Sept. 23, 2002, speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Gore laid out a series of concerns and differences that he had with Bush’s preemption policy and specifically Bush’s decision to refashion the “war on terror” into an immediate war with Iraq.

Gore, who had supported the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, criticized Bush’s failure to enlist the international community as his father did. Gore also warned about the negative impact that alienating other nations was having on the broader war against terrorists.

“I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century,” Gore said.

“To put first things first, I believe that we ought to be focusing our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on Sept. 11. … Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism.”

Gore raised, too, practical concerns about the chaos that might follow the overthrow of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Gore also cited the deteriorating political condition in Afghanistan where the new central government exerted real control only in parts of Kabul while ceding effective power to warlords in the countryside. [For more details on Gore's speech, see our book, Neck Deep.]

In hindsight – given today’s worsening security situation in Afghanistan and the bloody war in Iraq – Gore’s warnings sound prescient. However, in 2002, Gore’s speech was alternately ignored and denounced, not just by the usual suspects on the Right but by key mainstream opinion leaders.

Rather than welcome a vigorous debate on the merits and shortcomings of the so-called “Bush Doctrine,” both right-wing and mainstream commentators treated Gore as dishonest, unpatriotic – and “bitter.”

Helped by the fact that Gore’s speech received only spotty television coverage – MSNBC carried excerpts live and C-SPAN replayed the speech later that night – pro-Bush commentators were free to distort Gore’s words and then dismiss his arguments as “lies” largely because few Americans actually heard what he had said.

Some epithets came directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore a “political hack.” An administration source told The Washington Post that Gore was simply “irrelevant,” a theme that would be repeated often in the days after Gore’s speech. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]

Media Condemnations

But those judgments were echoed on the opinion pages of the elite newspapers and on the TV chat shows. Some of the nastiest commentary was published by The Washington Post.

 “Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]

“A pudding with no theme but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. “It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002]

At Salon.com, Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore’s speech “The Opportunist” and characterized Gore as “bitter.”

While many commentators depicted Gore’s motivation as political revenge and “opportunism,” columnist William Bennett mocked Gore for sealing his political doom and banishing himself “from the mainstream of public opinion.”

In an Op-Ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Al Gore’s Political Suicide,” Bennett said Gore had “made himself irrelevant by his inconsistency” and had engaged in “an act of self-immolation” by daring to criticize Bush’s policy. “Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the White House, and never will be,” Bennett wrote. [Wall Street Journal, Sept. 26, 2002]

The underlying theme running through these media attacks on Gore was that a thorough debate on Bush’s “preemptive war” policies would not be tolerated.

Rather than confront arguments on their merits, commentators simply questioned Gore’s motives and drummed him out of Washington’s respectable political society.

Respected McCain

By contrast, look at the respectful treatment that John McCain has received in the past few weeks as he attacked the man who defeated him only last November. Unlike Gore, who muted his concerns about Bush for more than a year, McCain has blasted not only Obama’s policies but his sincerity.

Typical was McCain’s appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Feb. 15, when McCain slammed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan as well as Obama’s supposed failure to live up to his commitment to reach across the aisle to Republicans.

“It was a bad beginning because it wasn't … what President Obama promised the American people, that we would sit down together,” McCain said. “So I'm not happy, and most of us aren't at the lack of true bipartisanship in approaching this legislation.”

Rather than questioning McCain’s motives for this harsh judgment – or asking if the Republicans might be the real culprits in sabotaging bipartisanship – CNN host John King reiterated key GOP talking points against the bill and essentially encouraged McCain to bash Obama some more. King said:

“Let's go to the process just a little bit more, because [the bill is] 1,000 pages. It's eight pounds. We had it FedExed out to us here. It is eight pounds. We're contributing to the economy just having it shipped out here [to Arizona]. Some of the changes were literally hand-scribbled on the side of the page. This happens all the time, unfortunately.”

McCain: ”That's the old business as usual.”

King: “Well, if it's the old business as usual, didn't President Obama promise a new way of doing things in Washington? You say it was a terrible start. Are you sitting in your office these days saying, ‘I told you so?’”

Though McCain resisted the bait, King kept encouraging more slams on Obama.

King: “Let's stay on the point of the start the new President is off to. You saw Gov. [Bill] Richardson had to withdraw. Former Sen. [Tom] Daschle had to withdraw. Nancy Killefer, who was going to be the chief financial officer, had to withdraw -- in two of those three cases, tax issues.

“Mr. [Tim] Geithner was confirmed [as Treasury secretary]. He had to pay back taxes. Then your good friend, Judd Gregg, was going to come into the administration. He says he realized, after saying yes, that he had too many philosophical differences.

“One of the things you said repeatedly during the campaign for the presidency was, he's a nice man, Sen. Obama, but he's not ready. Is this proof [to] you that he does not have the experience to be the chief executive?”

Talking Points

King’s recitation of these Republican talking points wasn’t an anomaly. It was the prevailing tone at CNN and other leading news organizations. CNN”s Anderson Cooper was among the commentators accepting at face value that the Republican opposition to the stimulus bill was grounded in “principle,” not in political calculation.

Yet the evidence could easily be read as a desire of national Republicans to strangle the Obama administration in the cradle – assuring that the new President fails – even if that would worsen the U.S. economy and throw millions of Americans out of work and out of their homes.

Certainly, McCain and other Republicans could be pressed on whether they are succumbing to the hard-line positions of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media voices in advocating Obama’s failure, or whether they are re-using Newt Gingrich’s 1993 playbook on how to undermine a Democratic President with the goal of improving GOP electoral prospects.

But not in this American news media. It would be considered a career-killer by the likes of the CNN anchors to get tough with John McCain or to question his motives in the way that Al Gore was widely labeled “bitter” for objecting to George W. Bush’s policies.

That kind of skeptical approach toward McCain would open a mainstream journalist to right-wing attacks for “liberal bias.” The journalist would be denounced as “in the tank” for Obama.

So, it makes eminent career sense for John King, Anderson Cooper and others to bend over backwards in praising the Republicans' “principled” stand on the stimulus bill and blaming Obama for the failed bipartisanship.

Until concerned Americans make a major investment in building honest media institutions that will stand up to the pressures that the Right can bring down on the head of a mainstream journalist, this tilt-to-the-Right dynamic is what the public can expect from most of the U.S. national news media.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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