Are the media's truth-squadding troops ganging up on George Bush? And if so, does he deserve it?
In articles, columns and one internal ABC News memo, some journalists have argued that the president has engaged in far more serious distortions than John Kerry has, and that media outlets should blow the whistle on these falsehoods.
"Your instinct is that if we say bad things about one side you have to say bad things about the other side," says Adam Nagourney, the New York Times's chief political reporter. "You want to give equal scrutiny to both sides, but I don't think you should impose a false equivalence that doesn't exist."
The Bush team, which issued a release slamming a recent Nagourney story, is pushing back. "The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country," says spokesman Steve Schmidt.
At issue is how far reporters should go in analyzing the candidates' attacks and ads, especially if one side is using a howitzer and the other a popgun. Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, fueled the debate with a memo that leaked to the Drudge Report.
"Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win," Halperin wrote. While both sides should be held accountable, "that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that." Complaints by the Bush camp, Halperin said, are "all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions."
While some critics have mischaracterized the memo by Halperin -- one of the few journalists who sometimes criticizes a leftward tilt in the press -- others see it as a revealing snapshot.
National Review Editor Rich Lowry says the memo "reflected a mindset in a lot of newsrooms that Bush's campaign is uniquely dishonest and it's the role of the media, in the simplest and crudest terms, to keep him from getting reelected -- because if he is, it would be a triumph of dishonesty." Critiquing the candidates' arguments, he says, involve "inherently tough and subjective judgments."
The campaigns bombard reporters with statistics, cite studies by ideologically compatible professors or groups and validations by sympathetic news outlets -- with phrases sometimes taken out of context. Kerry often cites a former Clinton administration official, while Bush prefers the American Enterprise Institute, which has employed Dick and Lynne Cheney.
The key question is one of magnitude. Kerry had been saying the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion; that is the current estimate, but the price tag so far is $120 billion. (Kerry adjusted his answer in the final debate.) Bush keeps charging that Kerry is pushing a "government-run" health care plan, even though nearly all analysts and journalists have concluded that it builds on the existing system of private insurance. That would seem a more fundamental misrepresentation. (Bush repeated the charge in the Arizona debate, and when Kerry cited network reports challenging the claim, the president questioned whether "it's credible to quote leading news organizations.")
Charges are often technically true but still misleading. One Bush ad said Kerry supported a 50-cent gas tax under which "the average family would pay $657 more a year." Kerry briefly expressed support for such a tax in 1994 but changed his mind and never introduced or voted for such a bill.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was the lead writer on a May 31 story (to which this reporter made a minor contribution) that recited a litany of Bush charges, saying they "were all tough, serious -- and wrong, or at least highly misleading."
The Oct. 8 Times piece by Nagourney and Richard Stevenson attributed to "several analysts" the idea that "Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry's positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy."
Says Nagourney: "People who work for the larger papers and networks are more able to withstand attacks and have an added obligation to be out front on this."
Paul Krugman, the liberal Times columnist, writes that while Kerry might use "loose language," Bush's statements are "fundamentally dishonest. . . . Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry's choice of words are betraying their readers."
The issues and themes emphasized by daily reporting also have a huge impact on how the candidates are perceived. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs says that Bush's coverage on the network nightly newscasts fell from 41 percent positive in June, July and August to 29 percent positive last month. The drop was more dramatic for Kerry, whose coverage plummeted from 62 percent to 38 percent positive.
A typical comment: Kerry "muddled his message and failed to make this race more about Bush than himself," said ABC's Dean Reynolds.
Was Kerry doing so much worse during this period? Or did journalists decide to go after him -- and, even more so, the president?
On Fox's "Special Report," the comments made about Kerry over the summer were an eye-opening 5 to 1 negative. In September Kerry fared only slightly better, moving from 17 percent to 21 percent positive. Is that because Fox leans Republican -- or provides a balance to the more pro-Kerry networks?
Since Oct. 1, the conservative Washington Times has run these front-page headlines, seven of them leading the paper: "Bush rips Iraq flip-flops" (in the first debate); "Bush derides Kerry stance on defense"; "Bush slams Kerry's plan to 'retreat' "; "Bush defends the war as 'just' "; "Pundits see Bush win in 2nd debate"; "Buoyed Bush goes on offensive in heartland"; "Injured, angry, determined, Swiftees united to fight Kerry"; "Bush hits Kerry's view on terror"; "Bush seeks to paint a liberal"; "Energized Bush rips Kerry" (in the third debate). The stories contained true information, but the emphasis has been decidedly one-sided.
Whatever their orientation, journalists are the last line of defense against public deception. If they fail to challenge distortions by politicians, they might as well join the stenography pool.
Ron Brownstein went to the first presidential debate in Florida, which convinced him to cover the next two from Washington.
"For me it's a slam-dunk issue: Dateline or deadline?" says the Los Angeles Times correspondent. "In Miami I was sitting in a crowded, loud room where I had so little space I couldn't keep a legal pad next to the computer to take notes. I was far from a TV. I could not print out transcripts." And because the official feed didn't include the network cutaway shots of an unhappy George Bush, Brownstein "couldn't get a good sense" of what Americans were seeing.
Others have also concluded that flying across the country to watch the event on TV is a waste of time. "Debates are television events," says Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. "I don't see any reason to watch it in a filing center." Besides, he says, the post-game spin room "has become this incredible joke" in which people "degrade each other."
But Washington Post reporter Dan Balz says that "we ought to be on the scene. You can actually get a decent amount of reporting done because there's a concentration of people there."
All right, we have so much political news it's hard to know where to start. Maybe with USA Today and the latest Bush Bounce:
"President Bush surged to an eight-point lead over Democratic challenger John Kerry in the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-10-17-poll_x.htm national poll, giving the president a tie for his largest margin of the year with just more than two weeks left until Election Day.
"In a poll taken Thursday-Saturday, Bush received 52% support from likely voters, Kerry received 44% and independent Ralph Nader received 1%. Three percent of likely voters had no opinion. The 52% figure is a tie for Bush's largest support number since March."
The campaign is getting really, really negative, says the Los Angeles Times: | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-attack17oct17,1,256501.story?coll=la-home-headlines
"Three years ago, a line was quietly crossed in the annals of political history. In newspapers across South Dakota, an out-of-state conservative group ran a political ad linking a Democratic senator to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Critics cried foul, saying it breached standards of political decency.
"That was then. This is now, and campaign efforts to link politicians to terrorists are a dime a dozen. And they are coming not from little-known fringe groups but from such pillars of the political establishment as the speaker of the House.
"Therein lies the dubious hallmark of the 2004 election cycle. It has evolved into one of the most relentlessly negative political campaigns in memory, as attacks on a candidate's character, patriotism and fitness for office, which once seemed out of bounds, have become routine."
Time's Joe Klein | http://www.time.com/time/election2004/columnist/klein/article/0,18471,725080,00.html says the L-word may be losing its sting:
"I have no data to support this, no focus groups or instant polls, just a gut sense: George W. Bush hurt himself when he slagged John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal in the third presidential debate last week. 'You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank,' he scolded. 'As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.' The President chuckled -- heh, heh -- indicating that he thought this was clever, but he was greeted by total silence from the audience. . . .
"Bush's epithet slinging was a flop in all three debates. Not because the nation has taken a lurch to the left -- Kennedy remains the anachronistic embodiment of a welfare-state liberalism long discarded by the American public. No, it was more likely that the President had overdosed on invective during the long, long course of this election year and the public has become inured to it. Kerry helped that process along by his demeanor throughout (with the exception of his gratuitous mention of the Vice President's gay daughter). The Senator's dignity and consistency made Bush's attacks appear mingy, inaccurate and unpresidential."
The Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/10/17/kerry_takes_steps_to_unbutton_his_emotions/ says JFK is still, well, pretty stiff:
"With 16 days left to make his case to voters, John F. Kerry is trying to break through as a crowd-pleasing, storytelling political salesman -- although in many ways his communications style remains more buttoned-up and workmanlike than dazzling, according to some campaign advisers, allies, and analysts of presidential rhetoric.
"The Democratic nominee's efforts to connect with Americans have found Kerry to be something of a paradox: His most human and likable sides came across when he was at his lowest, ignoring bad polls and poking fun at himself with voters last fall, and drinking beer and cracking up reporters with off-color jokes.
"But now that more people want to see that personal side, Kerry is far more cautious -- hugging and mugging and listening to people's problems, yes, but rarely displaying his emotions, even shooing away Alex, his camera-toting daughter, as she tries to film his private moments for a documentary.
"Alexandra, I believe, as do most Americans, in the fundamental right to privacy. I ask, therefore, that you point that thing elsewhere so that I, who defended this country as a young man, can reach out to my fellow countrymen. . . . "
Kerry is getting religion, says the Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/9937390.htm:
"The national Democrats have found God.
"For decades, the party most closely identified with secular values had generally avoided talking about religion, except while stumping for African American votes on Sunday. But now, as evidenced by John Kerry's newfound willingness to air his Catholicism, national party leaders have determined that he can't win the 2004 presidential race unless he convinces uncommitted voters that faith informs his politics.
"So there he was, in the third debate last Wednesday, quoting from the New Testament Book of James ('What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds?'), sharing the childhood lessons he learned in a church school ('Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, body and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself'), and declaring that 'my faith affects everything that I do and choose.'"
In the New York Times Magazine, Ron Suskind, who wrote that book on Paul O'Neill, questions the president's faith-based approach, prompting a Kerry attack ad, prompting the Bush campaign to attack Suskind as biased, prompting me to write this ad watch. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40651-2004Oct17.html
One of those quoted is former Reagan and Bush I aide Bruce Bartlett: | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/17BUSH.html "'Just in the past few months,' Bartlett said, 'I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do. . . . This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . . This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.' Bartlett paused, then said, 'But you can't run the world on faith.'''
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com (while noting he hasn't endorsed Kerry) has some insta-reaction:
"Okay, so I know the piece was supposed to scare the living daylights out of anyone not already enrolled in Liberty University, but I was a little alarmed nonetheless. The good news is that Bush seems genuine about tax reform and social security privatization in his second term. Here's hoping. The bad news is that he thinks he's Moses. But what Suskind does innovatively capture is an evolution in Bush over the past four years. Remember the open-minded, engaged, querulous figure from 2000? We got a glimpse of him in the third debate, which may account for his blip upwards in the polls.
"But what you get increasingly from the president is an arrogance and contempt for critics that is bordering on dangerous. You saw this in the first debate when Bush looked genuinely shocked to hear anyone voicing criticism of his policies in his presence. That obviously hadn't happened in a very long time. You see this in the thuggish ways in which opponents are removed from campaign events, jailed and fired from their jobs. You realize eventually that Bush's cabinet is actually a royal court, in which criticism is simply treachery. In the broader political world, you're either with this president in everything he does or you are a traitor, an unbeliever, a leftist, and an enabler of terror."
Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2004_10/004927.php unloads on the Swifties:
"'Nightline' sent a crew to Vietnam, where they visited the hamlets of Tran Thoi and Nha Vi and interviewed the local villagers to get their recollections of what really happened 35 years ago. You can read the resulting story yourself, but it's summarized pretty easily: Kerry was right and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth honcho John O'Neill wasn't.
"But there was also this: Back in Tran Thoi, villager Nguyen Van Khoai said that about six months ago he was visited by an American who described himself as a Swift boat veteran and told him another American from the Swift boats was running for president of the United States. Nguyen said the man was accompanied by a cameraman.
"'They say he didn't do anything to deserve the medal,' Nguyen said. 'The other day, they came and asked me the questions and I said that the recognition for the medal is up to the U.S.A.'
"He said that, after they met, the Swift Boat veteran and the cameraman turned around and went back down the river. Nightline has not been able to identify the men. Unbelievable. The SBVT folks, hoping to dig up dirt on Kerry, interviewed these villagers six months ago and have known the truth all along.
"It wasn't just a case of differing recollections in the heat of the battle. They knew the truth. But they went ahead and told their lies anyway.
"What a revolting bunch of men. What a disgusting, repellent, sleazy operation. And now Sinclair Broadcasting is about to air their movie."
Actually, Sinclair is broadcasting "Stolen Honor," featuring a group of POWs, but some of them have now hooked up with the Swift Boaters.
Here's the latest on Sinclair | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A36668-2004Oct15.html and the movie, in case you missed it.
National Review's Byron York | http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/10/08/bulge/index_np.html chides the WP and NYT for jumping on the was-Bush-wired story after a Salon piece by Dave Lindorff:
"In both stories, it appears the Post and the Times placed particular faith in the judgment of Dave Lindorff. And who wouldn't? Just look at some of the things he's written.
"A pioneer in comparing George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, Lindorff wrote last year, on the website Counterpunch.org, that, 'It's going a bit far to compare the Bush of 2003 to the Hitler of 1933. Bush simply is not the orator that Hitler was. But comparisons of the Bush administration's fear mongering tactics to those practiced so successfully and with such terrible results by Hitler and Goebbels on the German people and their Weimar Republic are not at all out of line.'
"A few months later, Lindorff moderated his position just a touch, writing, "George Bush is not Hitler. Yet." But Lindorff added, "It's worth pointing out too that Hitler was not the monster of 1939 when he took power in 1933."
"Why would the Post and the Times rely on such a source for the 'mystery bulge' story? You'll have to ask them."
By the way, the New Yorker has a piece (not yet online) on The Note which says it is extremely and crucially important, almost as important as Mark Halperin thinks it is. Peter Jennings, Al Gore, George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, Karen Hughes, Teddy White and Tom Edsall make cameo appearances. It is really, really long, which is to say, almost as long as a typical edition of The Note. A mega-must-read for the Googling monkeys.