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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Bush Gets Stoned by the World Media

U.S. Press Less Interested in Drug Remarks

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; 6:00 AM

President Bush all but admits to illicit drug use for the first time.

Overseas it's the stuff of headlines. At home, the U.S. press has generally downplayed the story.

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The divergent coverage of Bush's apparent drug use is a textbook study in the difference between the international online media and their American counterparts. On the issue of youthful illicit drug use, most U.S. news editors -- liberal, conservative or other -- defer to Bush in a way that their foreign counterparts do not.

The New York Times broke the Bush marijuana story Friday in a front-page report on Doug Wead, a Christian activist who has published a book based in part on conversations with Bush that Wead secretly recorded in 1998 and 1999. On Wead's tapes, whose authenticity the White House does not dispute, Bush came close to admitting he had smoked marijuana and avoided answering a question about whether he had used cocaine.

"I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried," Bush said.

On a question about cocaine, Bush said he would reply, "Rather than saying no ... I think it's time for someone to draw the line and look people in the eye and say, you know, 'I'm not going to participate in ugly rumors about me and blame my opponents,' and hold the line. Stand up for a system that will not allow this kind of crap to go on,'" according to a transcript excerpt posted on ABC's "Good Morning America" Web site.

Since Bush has never acknowledged using drugs, the international media played up the marijuana angle.

The BBC emphasized Bush's discretion in addressing the subject, saying "Bush hints he tried marijuana." So did Aljazeera: "Tapes hint Bush smoked marijuana." Swissinfo, a news site in Geneva, asked "Did Bush smoke pot?"

In Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald focused on Bush's reasoning for not talking about the issue publicly. Bush worried young people would copy his cannabis use, the paper said.

From South America to the Middle East to Asia, other news sites concluded that Bush's statements amounted to a confession.

"Bush confessed to having smoked marijuana in his youth," declared Las Ultimas Noticias (in Spanish), a Chilean tabloid. "Bush's Marijuana Confession on Television," said Zaman, a leading Turkish daily. "Bush admits using marijuana," said Rediff, a news portal in India. In Tokyo, Japan Today said, "Secret tapes indicate Bush used drugs as youth."

A few foreign sites offered more light-hearted headlines. "Bush's own 'smoking gun'," said the South Africa broadcast outlet, News24. The Economic Times of India sounded less than shocked: "Oh boy! George may have puffed on marijuana" was their headline.

In contrast, most of the traditional leaders of American journalism -- the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the TV networks -- made no mention of drugs in their headlines, although all reported the substance of what Bush said on the tapes.

The Times' story carried the headline "In Secretly Taped Conversations, Glimpses of the Future President" and mentioned marijuana in the third paragraph. The Post followed up the next day with "Secret Tapes Not Meant to Harm, Writer Says." Bush's drug comments were mentioned in the fifth paragraph of The Post story. Among national U.S. news outlets, only ABCNews.com used the M-word in a headline declaring, "New Tapes Say Bush May Have Smoked Marijuana."

Other national news outlets were more indirect. The Los Angeles Times said "Secret Tapes Show Bush's Concern Over Past." National Public Radio reported, "Phone Tapes Suggest Bush's Unlawful Past." For these sites and many others, the news was not "pot" but the "past," a word choice that signaled that the accompanying news story was not really new.

The one medium where the drug angle was emphasized was local TV news, long regarded as the most sensationalist sector of American journalism. Stations from Los Angeles ("Tape Released of Bush's Wild Party Days") to New Orleans to Johnstown, Penn., highlighted Bush's apparent drug use.

What explains the difference between the elite American media and the rest of the world?

Admission of drug use by a national leader has made front-page news before. When Bill Clinton admitted in the 1992 presidential campaign to smoking marijuana both the Times ("Clinton Admits Experiment With Marijuana in 1960's") and The Post ("Clinton Admits '60s Marijuana Use") ran the story on page one. But that was during the heat of a presidential primary campaign when such revelations can be more consequential. It could be argued that the Wead tapes, coming to light after Bush's reelection, are unlikely to alter the political equation in Washington.

The Bush administration and its supporters have never shied from criticizing news outlets like The Post and the Times for a perceived liberal bias. On tape, Bush complained about a media "campaign" against him. "It's unbelievable... they just float sewer out there," he's quoted as saying.

If the big-name newspapers had played up the drug angle it's reasonable to assume that Republicans and conservatives on talk radio would renew such accusations. They might say liberal editors were dredging up an old story from a disloyal friend to thwart the agenda of a popular conservative president.

Foreign editors (and local TV) have no such worries. They have a simpler view: George Bush using illegal drugs is worth a headline.


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