Framing Obama -- by the WPost
March 19, 2009 (A Special Report)
An insidious power of a propagandistic newspaper – especially one with great influence – is how it can “frame” an issue so the assumptions behind a story guide the readers to a preordained conclusion under the guise of presenting a fair journalistic account.
As Barack Obama reaches the two-month anniversary of his presidency, he is facing such a problem from the powerful Washington Post, which is creating a negative “frame” for his administration.
The Post’s news pages have been filled with supposedly objective news stories that have portrayed Republican obstructionism not as the GOP’s determination to hobble Obama – much as the Republicans did to Bill Clinton in 1993-94 – but as Obama’s “failure” to achieve the bipartisanship he advocated during the campaign.
The Post and other leading news organizations also have suffered from a strange amnesia about the fact that today’s worldwide financial disaster has been in the making for many years and reached a crisis point in 2008 under the “self-regulatory” theories of President George W. Bush.
Instead of that context, the recession is portrayed as an Obama problem, with the Post and other news outlets even forgetting to mention in stories about the 6.2 percent drop in the gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2008 that the startling decline occurred under Bush, not Obama.
The Washington Post pulled those two peculiar threads together in a March 14 page-one article entitled “Obama’s New Tack: Blaming Bush,” which claims that Obama is violating his pledge of bipartisanship by alleging that the economic crisis predated his presidency. The story’s sub-head reads: “President Points to ‘Inherited’ Economy.”
The story by Scott Wilson opens this way:
“In his inaugural address, President Obama proclaimed ‘an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.’ It hasn't taken long for the recriminations to return -- or for the Obama administration to begin talking about the unwelcome ‘inheritance’ of its predecessor.”
In other words, the Washington Post has decided that it’s now something of a conspiracy theory – or at least a partisan argument – to suggest that the Bush administration bears any responsibility for the economic mess. Such points are put in quotation marks.
Once that frame is created, the conclusion becomes obvious: Obama is a liar for talking about bipartisanship during Campaign 2008 and at his Inauguration, while now trying to excuse his own failure to resolve the economic crisis by unfairly shifting blame to Bush and the Republicans, who are the victims.
Budget Tactic Assailed
Another Post front-page article on March 18, entitled “President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire,” signals a similar frame with its subhead: “Tactic May Break Obama’s Bipartisan Pledge, GOP Says.” That story, by Lori Montgomery, begins:
“Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the President's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes, a move that many lawmakers say would fly in the face of President Obama's pledge to restore bipartisanship to Washington.”
The article discusses the possibility that Obama might seek to use the budget “reconciliation” process to enact legislation that otherwise could be blocked in the Senate by Republican filibusters. Under “reconciliation,” a majority of votes can pass a bill rather than the 60 votes needed to shut down a filibuster.
The Post story quotes Sen. Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, as likening the tactic to the Mob putting Republicans “in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River.” But the article leaves out the House GOP reveling in its unanimous opposition to Obama’s stimulus bill and the Senate Republicans demanding a 60-vote super-majority for its passage there.
Rather than blaming Republicans for spurning Obama’s gestures at bipartisanship or noting how excessive use of the filibuster is anti-democratic, the Post article praises the notion that these GOP tactics will force the administration to water down its health-care and energy plans. The story cites fears that “reconciliation would empower [the Democrats’] liberal wing.”
The significance of how the Post frames the two-month-old Obama administration – both in its news pages and in its neoconservative-dominated opinion section – is that the Post is the dominant newspaper in the nation’s capital and thus influences the news agendas at other mainstream outlets, such as CNN and the TV networks.
(Washington’s two other daily newspapers – the Washington Times and The Examiner – are right-wing publications. The Washington Times, which is owned by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, has returned to its aggressive scandal-mongering, similar to its tone during the Clinton administration.)
A Fondness for the Bushes
Though many Americans still associate the Washington Post with exposing the Watergate scandal and bringing down Richard Nixon 35 years ago, the newspaper’s history is much more one of a long incestuous relationship with the nation’s insiders, from Washington to Wall Street.
In the early 1950s, for instance, when a young George H.W. Bush was starting his first oil company in Midland, Texas, Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer chipped in more than $50,000, some of which he put in the name of his son-in-law, Phil Graham, whose wife Katharine Graham later became chairman of the Washington Post Company.
Indeed, the family-owned newspaper always seemed to have a soft spot for the Bushes, who represented the well-born crowd of natural insiders. Arguably, what made Nixon particularly vulnerable to the Post’s Watergate coverage – besides the fact that he did abuse his power – was that he carried a large chip on his shoulder about the elites.
In 1981, when the elegant Ronald and Nancy Reagan came to Washington (with George H.W. Bush as Vice President), Katharine Graham restored the friendly social relationships that made her feel the most comfortable.
Those personal ties served President Reagan and Vice President Bush well during the Iran-Contra scandal when the word around the Post-owned Newsweek magazine (where I went to work in early 1987) was “we don’t want another Watergate.”
My Newsweek editors, who were personal hires of Katharine Graham, made clear they wanted the Iran-Contra scandal wrapped up as soon as possible – and kept at as low a level as was plausible – even as the evidence pointed to a much broader abuse of power and implicated the highest levels of the U.S. government, including Reagan and Bush.
The overall Washington media’s posture on Iran-Contra quickly became that it was “too complicated, too boring.” In turn, that disdain let congressional Republicans, including then-Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, work behind the scenes to frustrate Democratic investigators while former White House aide Oliver North grandstanded in public.
As the Iran-Contra hearings ground on in 1987, I received a call from one Senate investigator who asked me to meet him at a downtown Washington hotel. When I got there, I found the investigator visibly upset. He wanted to know why the news organizations weren’t covering the inside story of the congressional Iran-Contra investigation.
“In Watergate,” he told me, “much of the story was how the investigations were being stonewalled. Why doesn’t anyone care about that now?”
I told the investigator that the answer was that senior editors either weren’t interested or were openly hostile to the Iran-Contra issue, as mine were at Newsweek. With his head down, the frustrated Senate investigator departed.
The Iran-Contra congressional investigation ended with the acceptance of a politically convenient cover story that placed most of the blame on North and a few other “men of zeal.” But independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, an 80-year-old lifelong Republican who believed in the rule of law, continued to press the criminal investigation.
As Walsh advanced, the Reagan-Bush administrations put numerous obstacles in his path. For instance, by refusing to declassify many of the scandal’s documents, the White House forced Walsh to throw out many of the most serious charges against North and his cohorts.
Also, senior officials – from Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to President Reagan and Vice President Bush – dissembled in the face of investigative questions.
Still, Walsh managed to win convictions of North and others, although on largely technical charges of deceiving Congress or obstructing justice. But even many of those convictions were overturned by Republican judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Less than a month before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush issued pardons to six other Iran-Contra defendants.
Rather than protesting this thwarting of justice, many mainstream journalists – especially at the Washington Post – expressed sympathy for the cover-up and criticized Walsh’s obstinacy.
Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many capital insiders when he expressed relief that Bush’s pardon had spared the well-liked “Cap” Weinberger from prosecution. Cohen noted that he had seen Weinberger pushing his own shopping cart at the Georgetown Safeway.
“Based on my Safeway encounters, I came to think of Weinberger as a basic sort of guy, candid and no nonsense – which is the way much of official Washington saw him,” Cohen wrote in praise of the pardon. “Cap, my Safeway buddy, walks, and that's all right with me.” [Washington Post, Dec. 30, 1992.]
Explaining the media’s disdain for Walsh, Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams observed that “in the utilitarian political universe of Washington, consistency like Walsh’s is distinctly suspect. It began to seem … rigid of him to care so much. So un-Washington. Hence the gathering critique of his efforts as vindictive, extreme. Ideological. … But the truth is that when Walsh finally goes home, he will leave a perceived loser.” [Washington Post, April 11, 1993]
For his part, Walsh compared his experience to Ernest Hemingway’s maritime classic, The Old Man and the Sea, in which an aging fisherman hooks a giant marlin and, after a long battle, secures the fish to the side of his boat. On the way back to port, the marlin is attacked by sharks that devour its flesh and deny the fisherman his prize.
“As the independent counsel, I sometimes felt like the old man,” Walsh wrote in his memoir Firewall, “more often, I felt like the marlin.”
In my 1997 review of Walsh’s book, I wrote:
“In crucial ways, Watergate, the signature scandal of the 1970s, and Iran-Contra, the signature scandal of the 1980s, were opposites. Watergate showed how the constitutional institutions of American democracy – the Congress, the courts and the press – could check a gross abuse of power by the Executive. A short dozen years later, the Iran-Contra scandal demonstrated how those same institutions had ceased to protect the nation from serious White House wrongdoing.”
Another remarkable contrast was that in Watergate the Washington Post had led the fight against a White House cover-up. In Iran-Contra, the Post had aided and abetted the cover-up.
The War on Clinton
Starting in 1993, with the fondly remembered Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush gone, the Post took aim at a newcomer who was perceived to be a trailer-trash outsider with insider pretentions, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the new President.
Years later, Washington Post society columnist (and Georgetown doyenne) Sally Quinn described how Clinton got off on the wrong foot with the Washington Establishment.
In Clinton’s First Inaugural Address in 1993, he had described the capital as “a place of intrigue and calculation [where] powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.”
Though Clinton’s comment was undeniably true, it got under the skin of the thin-skinned Establishment, an irritation that deepened over the next several years. The Post and much of the mainstream press joined the Republicans and the right-wing media in going after Clinton and his associates.
When Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky surfaced in 1998, Quinn wrote that the insider community of Washington wanted Clinton to pack up immediately and leave town.
“Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the Presidency and the city any more humiliation,” Quinn wrote.
Beyond this example of the Establishment’s unbridled self-importance – sitting in judgment of a twice-elected President – there also was the hypocrisy, since many Washington power-brokers have dabbled in extramarital sex themselves, including Sally Quinn who had a notorious affair with Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, breaking up his first marriage.
Turning on Gore
After Clinton survived his impeachment battle with the Republicans in Congress, the Post and other top news organizations shifted their frustration over that unsatisfying outcome to Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore.
The major U.S. news media framed Campaign 2000 as a contest between a delusional braggart with suspect ethics, Al Gore, against the guy-you’d-want-to-have-a-beer-with, George W. Bush, who had the additional advantage of likely bringing back “the adults” from those warmly remembered Reagan-Bush-41 years.
As I wrote in an early 2000 article: “To read the major newspapers and to watch the TV pundit shows, one can't avoid the impression that many in the national press corps have decided that Vice President Al Gore is unfit to be elected the next President of the United States.”
“Across the board -- from the Washington Post to the Washington Times, from the New York Times to the New York Post, from NBC's cable networks to the traveling campaign press corps -- journalists don't even bother to disguise their contempt for Gore anymore.
“At one early Democratic debate, a gathering of about 300 reporters in a nearby press room hissed and hooted at Gore's answers. Meanwhile, every perceived Gore misstep, including his choice of clothing, is treated as a new excuse to put him on a psychiatrist's couch and find him wanting.
“Journalists freely call him ‘delusional,’ ‘a liar’ and ‘Zelig.’ Yet, to back up these sweeping denunciations, the media has relied on a series of distorted quotes and tendentious interpretations of his words, at times following scripts written by the national Republican leadership.”
One example that I cited was the Washington Post’s involvement in mangling a Gore quote regarding his role in the Love Canal toxic-waste case.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire. He was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can effect important changes.
As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tennessee, a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore's congressional office in the late 1970s.
"I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee -- that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After the hearings, Gore said, "we passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
The context of Gore's comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone -- "that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and "found" a similar case at Love Canal. He was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
‘Framing’ a Quote
The next day, Washington Post political writer Ceci Connolly stripped Gore's comments of their context and gave them a negative twist. "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste," the Post story said.
"'I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal,' he said, referring to the Niagara homes evacuated in August 1978 because of chemical contamination. 'I had the first hearing on this issue.' … Gore said his efforts made a lasting impact. 'I was the one that started it all,' he said." [Washington Post, Dec. 1, 1999]
The New York Times ran a slightly less contentious story with the same false quote: "I was the one that started it all."
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore's alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take. "Al Gore is simply unbelievable -- in the most literal sense of that term," declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. "It's a pattern of phoniness -- and it would be funny if it weren't also a little scary."
The GOP release doctored Gore's quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to say, "I was the one that started it all." So, the handout fixed Gore's grammar to say, "I was the one who started it all."
In just one day, the quote had gone from "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all" to "I was the one who started it all."
Instead of going on the offensive against these misquotes, Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
Spreading the False Quote
The national pundit shows quickly picked up the story of Gore's new exaggeration.
"It seems to me,” chortled Chris Matthews of then-CNBC's Hardball, " he's now the guy who created the Love Canal [case]. I mean, isn't this getting ridiculous? … Isn't it getting to be delusionary?"
The next morning, the Post's Connolly highlighted Gore's boast and placed it in his alleged pattern of falsehoods.
"Add Love Canal to the list of verbal missteps by Vice President Gore," she wrote. "The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie 'Love Story' and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site." [Washington Post, Dec. 2, 1999]
The following day, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post elaborated on Gore's supposed pathology of deception.
"Again, Al Gore has told a whopper," the New York Post wrote. "Again, he's been caught red-handed and again, he has been left sputtering and apologizing. This time, he falsely took credit for breaking the Love Canal story. … Yep, another Al Gore bold-faced lie."
On ABC's "This Week" pundit show, there was head-shaking amazement about Gore's supposed Love Canal lie.
"Gore, again, revealed his Pinocchio problem," declared former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos.
"Yeah," added Bill Kristol, editor of Murdoch's Weekly Standard. Kristol then read Gore's supposed quote: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I was the one that started it all." [ABC’s This Week, Dec. 5, 1999]
Later that week, the right-wing Washington Times judged Gore crazy.
"The real question is how to react to Mr. Gore's increasingly bizarre utterings," the Times wrote, calling the Vice President "a politician who not only manufactures gross, obvious lies about himself and his achievements but appears to actually believe these confabulations."
While the national media was excoriating Gore, the Concord students who had heard Gore’s actual words were pressing for a correction from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But the prestige papers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
"The part that bugs me is the way they nit pick," said Tara Baker, a Concord High junior. "[But] they should at least get it right." [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
Finally, on Dec. 7, 1999, a week after Gore's comment, the Post published a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: "In fact, Gore said, 'That was the one that started it all,' referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called."
The revision fit with the Post's insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore's clear intent by attaching "that" to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it's obvious the "that" refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore's hearings.
The Post's Connolly even defended her inaccurate rendition of Gore's quote as something of a journalistic duty. "We have an obligation to our readers to alert them [that] this [Gore's false boasting] continues to be something of a habit," she said. [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
In other words, the Post’s news columns were intent on “framing” Al Gore as a delusional braggart even if his words had to be changed or distorted.
The Pleasing Restoration
Not surprisingly, the Post’s journalistic rules switched back after another well-liked Bush – George W. – prevailed in Election 2000, although Al Gore managed to eke out a 500,000-vote victory in the national popular vote and apparently would have won the key state of Florida if all legally cast votes had been counted.
After Bush got five Republican allies on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of Florida’s votes and hand him the White House, the tone at the Post focused on the need for national unity and an end to partisan bickering.
That sentiment intensified after the 9/11 attacks, leading the Post and other major news organizations to distort their own findings from a recount of disputed ballots in Florida, which showed that Gore would have won regardless of the standards applied to the chads, whether hanging, dimpled or fully pushed through.
Since those results were not released until November 2001 – two months after 9/11 – the Post editors decided to frame the outcome by focusing on various hypothetical partial recounts that would have left Bush in the lead. The Post's page-one headline was “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush.” [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]
The Post buried the key finding of what the Florida voters actually voted for deep inside the newspaper. “Full Review Favors Gore,” the Washington Post said in a box on page 10, showing that under all standards applied to the ballots, Gore came out on top.
Apparently, however, no one was supposed to notice – or if they did they would be mocked. On the same day as the results were published, the Post’s media critic Howard Kurtz wrote a story headlined, “George W. Bush, Now More Than Ever,” in which Kurtz ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists” those who thought Gore had won.
Kurtz also put down Americans who believed that winning an election fairly, based on the will of the voters, was important in a democracy. “Now the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century – and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?” he wrote.
In other words, the elite media’s judgment was in: "Bush won, get over it."
Only "Gore partisans" – as both the Washington Post and the New York Times called critics of the official Florida election tallies – would insist on looking at the fine print. [For details on the election outcome, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Tilted News Coverage
This desire to bolster Bush-43’s legitimacy – like the earlier protection of Reagan and Bush-41 during the Iran-Contra scandal – fit with a pattern of tilting the news columns in favor of well-liked Republicans and treating out-of-favor Democrats dismissively.
Most tragically, this pattern continued through the run-up to war with Iraq when the Post, like many other major U.S. news outlets, either disdained or ignored war critics and bought into Bush’s false claims about Iraq’s WMD.
During the Bush-43 years, the Washington Post’s opinion section also became thoroughly dominated by neoconservatives and pro-Iraq War voices. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “WPost Is a Neocon Propaganda Sheet.”]
But these neocon trends extended well beyond the opinion pages, into the news sections, mostly through the Post’s framing of important national issues in ways usually favorable to Bush and to neocon sentiments.
Now, that pattern has continued into the early days of the Obama administration, with stories that selectively omit such key context as when the current recession began or that blame Obama for Republican obstructionism, rather than seeing it as a possible strategy for restoring GOP power in 2010 and 2012.
Until this problem of the U.S. news media’s rightward tilt is seriously addressed, it is hard to imagine how the nation will ever confront – let alone solve – its many challenges.
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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