When Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin used a Nazi analogy to describe incidents of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, it wasn't much of a story at first.
Even when White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Durbin's remarks "reprehensible," "NBC Nightly News" gave the matter three sentences and the other network newscasts ignored it. The NBC and ABC newscasts covered Durbin's tearful apology last week, but the "CBS Evening News" took a pass.
"I just don't think it's that big a deal," says CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, adding that the Illinois senator's apology got squeezed out on a heavy news day. "He said he went too far and I take him at his word. We don't cover every apology by a politician who says he didn't mean things quite that way."
The Durbin controversy has been fueled by a chorus of outrage from conservative columnists, bloggers and radio hosts, turning widely overlooked remarks into a full-scale furor for a lawmaker who initially refused to apologize. In that sense, it is the mirror image of the Downing Street memo, the British document questioning the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq, which drew even less media attention until liberal advocacy groups and bloggers spent six weeks berating journalists for burying the story.
For decades, the establishment media were like a walled village, largely insulated from the outside world. But technology has produced so many cracks in the wall that previously ignored stories can seep in -- sometimes in a trickle, sometimes a flood -- when partisans and pressure groups make enough waves.
In the old days, writes New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, "if the press ruled against you, you just weren't news." Now, he says, aggrieved parties "go into Supreme News Court and say: 'The press denied us, but we have a case.' "
Bloggers first made their influence felt in 2002 when the media downplayed Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. The fierce debates over CBS's Dan Rather, CNN's Eason Jordan and right-wing blogger Jeff Gannon were fueled by ideological critics.
Durbin made his remarks on the evening of June 14 to a virtually empty Senate chamber. Citing an FBI account of how prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had been chained in extreme temperatures and deprived of food and water, Durbin said such tactics were reminiscent of the Nazis, Soviet gulags and Cambodian despot Pol Pot.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham denounced Durbin after her producer Lee Habeeb saw the remarks on C-SPAN, the Chicago Tribune noted. Rush Limbaugh accused the media of circling the wagons around Durbin because "they share his contempt for George W. Bush."
The next day, June 16, the Washington Times splashed the story on its front page and McClellan ripped Durbin at the White House. Sean Hannity said on his Fox News program that the senator's remarks were "insidious" and "repugnant." MSNBC's new conservative host, Tucker Carlson, called the comments "outrageous" and "factually wrong." On CNN, National Review's Kate O'Beirne accused Durbin of "a stunning premeditated slander of American troops."
On June 17, however, the New York Times ran a three-paragraph story. The Washington Post carried a seven-paragraph account. The Orlando Sentinel ran a two-sentence wire. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times published nothing. The Tribune put its home-state senator on the front page, while an editorial called him "desperate for attention."
In the next few days, as Republicans rejected Durbin's tepid statement of regret, conservative bloggers ripped Durbin, and Fox debated the issue on one show after another. "The question for us is not whether we overplayed it," says Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody. "The question for everyone else is, did you underplay it?"
Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol said Democrats should ask Durbin to step down as their No. 2 leader. The Washington Times kept the story on Page 1 while running critical editorials ("Durbin's Slanderous Drivel") and columns by Newt Gingrich ("Durbin's Slanderous Charge") and Frank Gaffney ("Dustbin Durbin").
Still, network television lagged behind. Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," says Durbin's apology "gave it a significance that it lacked. It took a certain level for us to say, 'Okay, now's the time we can legitimately do the story.' "
Steve Capus, an NBC News senior vice president, says Durbin's remarks "were pretty strong" and the apology "equally strong," and he is "comfortable with the amount of attention we devoted to it."
After his apology Tuesday, Durbin told The Post that conservatives "are extremely well organized" and "inevitably, they drag the mainstream media behind them."
By contrast, the conservative media machine largely ignored the high-level British memo from July 2002 -- disclosed May 1 by London's Sunday Times -- charging that the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq. Newspaper coverage was spotty for weeks, sparking anger among left-wing bloggers, activists and some Democrats.
Georgia Logothetis, 22, a Chicago law student who wants to impeach President Bush, helped start the Web site DowningStreetMemo.com. "My job is not to investigate the president," she says. "That's actually the media's job, and they weren't doing their job."
The network evening newscasts ignored the memo until June 7, when CBS and NBC mentioned that Bush had been asked about it at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "While I found it interesting at the time," Schieffer says, "I didn't find it all that new. A lot of people had been making that charge."
ABC's Banner says his network has been "pilloried" for its skeptical reporting on the march to war "and I don't know that we felt, quite honestly, that this added a tremendous amount." NBC's Capus says the memo "didn't seem like it was much different from a lot of the reporting we had done. I can't tell you how many stories we did questioning the prewar planning."
Unlike the Durbin flap, the memo got little traction on cable. According to a database search, CNN first mentioned it May 12 in an "Inside Politics" segment on how bloggers were buzzing about the issue. "It certainly did spark my interest," says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "Were we slow in getting off from the start? I suspect we probably were."
Actor Tim Robbins brought up the memo May 25 on MSNBC's "Hardball," while liberal Fox host Alan Colmes raised it on May 11. Fox's Moody says the memo initially had a greater impact on British politics than in America, and that "for our audience, the amount of attention and timing of our stories has been about right."
There was no such media reticence when Karl Rove said Wednesday that liberals wanted to offer the attackers of Sept. 11 "therapy and understanding." With Democrats castigating the White House adviser, major newspapers (including The Post) and the NBC and ABC newscasts jumped on the story.
Clearly, both the left and the right have been selective in agitating for greater coverage of their causes. But both sides are having an impact on a news business that has grown hypersensitive to charges of bias.
Despite mounting criticism, at least three in four people still view media organizations favorably, although approval ratings for cable news have dropped from 88 percent to 79 percent in the last four years, and for national newspapers from 74 percent to 61 percent.
The Pew Research Center also found local TV news getting the highest rating -- 61 percent -- for being "mostly facts" (as opposed to "mostly opinion"), compared with 53 percent for network evening news and 45 percent for cable news and major national papers.
Partisan differences are stronger than ever. Two-thirds of Republicans, and just a quarter of Democrats, say the press is too critical of America. And 54 percent of Democrats say coverage is too easy on the Bush administration, up from 39 percent last year.
Correction of the Week: "Michael Schiavo is not suffering from a debilitating medical condition. Due to an editing error, Derek Melot's June 21 column assigned a condition to Michael Schiavo actually suffered by his wife, Terri."
-- the Lansing, Mich., State Journal
The most inflamed issue in the blogosphere continues to be Rove's 9/11 remarks and the Democratic counterattack.
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com asks who Rove was talking about wanting to give therapy to terrorists:
"It seems to me that Karl Rove's sickening generalization about 'liberals' in the war on terror is revealing in ways not obviously apparent. Sure, there were some on the hard left who really did jump to blame America for the evil perpetrated by the monsters of 9/11. I took names at the time. But all 'liberals'? The New Republic? Joe Lieberman? Hitch? Paul Berman? The Washington Post editorial page? Tom Friedman? Almost every Democrat in the Congress who endorsed the war in Afghanistan? You expect that kind of moronic extremism from a Michelle Malkin, but from the most influential figure in an administration leading a country in wartime?
"Ok, ok, I'm not surprised. Rove is a brutal operator. But to my mind, the hysterical attacks on Durbin and now this outburst (and the White House's subsequent endorsement of it) are an indication of some level of panic. We face at least three more grueling years of warfare in Iraq with our current troop level, and it's not at all clear that the public is prepared to go along with it, given the incremental progress we are making. Rove knows this. He also knows that the haphazard way in which the White House prepared for the war, its chronic under-manning of the occupation, its failure, as Abizaid conceded yesterday, to make any progress against the insurgency over the past six months despite the enormous psychological boost of the January election: all these have made the administration unable to really shift the blame."
Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com says we're focusing on the wrong sound bite:
"I'm a little curious about something related to the Karl Rove affair. Most of the attention seems to have focused on his 'liberals offered therapy and understanding' sentence, but isn't the following passage really the more serious one?
"Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.
"It's one thing to make belligerent pronouncements that contrast conservative toughness with liberal wimpiness. It's nasty and demeaning, but hardly something we haven't heard before. The Al Jazeera passage, on the other hand, goes considerably further: it says specifically that the motive of Dick Durbin and others who criticize prisoner abuse is to put our troops in danger. He didn't say Durbin was merely careless, he said Durbin wanted to put our troops in greater danger. That's treason.
"Generally speaking, I tend not to get too bent out of shape by occasional rhetorical howlers. It's just part of the game. But calling Durbin and his fellow liberals traitors -- which is clearly what that passage suggests -- really is beyond the pale coming from a highly placed political official, isn't it?"
Mahablog | http://www.mahablog.com/2005.06.19_arch.html#1119549595808 goes nuclear:
"Words cannot express the contempt I feel for Karl Rove and for the chorus of brainless little yappers applauding his recent remarks on liberal reactions to 9/11.
"I'd like to ask Karl and his puppies to stand anywhere in the vicinity of Ground Zero and repeat Karl's fatuous, lying remarks to a crowd of New Yorkers.
"Whole lotta liberals in New York. Whole lotta those liberal New Yorkers lost someone in the towers. Whole lotta liberal New Yorkers who lost someone in the towers might want to break Karl's jaw today. Karl would be well advised to keep his sorry ass out of New York from now on."
Blondesense | http://blondesense.blogspot.com/2005/06/liberal-soldiers-fight-and-die-too-mr.html wonders how this is playing in the military:
"Perhaps Mr. Rove believes all American soldiers are conservatives. When he made his callous remarks about the differences in liberals and conservatives, he failed to exclude the liberal soldier. He also failed to exclude the liberal soldier's family. Mr. Rove made a large mistake because he apparently forgot that liberal soldiers bleed and die in war just like conservative soldiers do. What does the family of the liberal soldier feel when they read that Mr. Rove said, 'Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,' and 'Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war.'? What does the liberal soldier feel when he reads those words?"
Josh Marshall | http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/week_2005_06_19.php#005870 sees a calculated strategy:
"For Rove, the war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan have always been nothing more than tools of domestic politics. He speaks for the president and the president speaks for him. So all of that applies to the president too unless and until we hear from him.
"The A-list press folks, especially on TV, are too well trained to call Rove out of bounds. So Dems will have to do it all themselves."
Peter Daou | http://daoureport.salon.com/synopsis.aspx?synopsisId=2c4b940b-f2d8-422d-b97f-a6caa52db966, Salon's blog-watcher, defends himself after criticizing Rove's remarks to the Chicago Tribune:
"I'll keep it simple: I challenge any of those outraged by Durbin to demonstrate that the senator, in his heart of hearts, thinks our troops are Nazis. It's painfully obvious that he was illustrating a point and used a hyperbolic analogy. In Durbin's case the outrage is feigned, and a political tool. It defies common sense to think Durbin actually believes 'all US troops are Nazis.'
"Now the same reasoning doesn't hold true for Rove, who expressed a thought that actually is widely held on the right: that liberals can't or won't defend America. Despite the sheer imbecility of it, many on the right really believe it to be true."
Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters | http://www.captainsquartersblog.com/mt/archives/004792.php is equally impassioned about Reid and other Democrats demanding that Rove apologize, resign or otherwise debase himself:
"Would this be the same Harry Reid who called George Bush a loser and a liar, and later said that he would only retract the 'loser' comment? Could this be the same party that has its chairman calling Republicans people who never did an honest day's work in their lives, the party of 'unfriendly . . . white Christians' and who 'hates Republicans and everything they stand for'?
"Surely the party that has stood up and demanded civil trials for captured terrorists instead of the military detention they require and bemoaned the loss of sympathy that the world had for us on 9/11 cannot have taken offense at Rove's assertion that 'liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.'
"What we have here, in this demand for a retraction after a season of personal attacks from Howard Dean, Harry Reid, and the entire leadership of the Democratic Party is pusillanimity at its most hypocritical. Talk about dishing it out and not being able to take it! That the party of Harry Truman has descended to this jaw-dropping level of political cowardice and sheer crybaby status boggles the mind."
The New York Post | http://www.nypost.com/postopinion/editorial/48763.htm editorial page is in Karl's Korner:
"To judge from the rising Democratic outrage, you'd think presidential counselor Karl Rove came to town Wednesday and compared liberals to Nazis, or Stalin, or Pol Pot.
"That was Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the United States Senate -- slandering U.S. soldiers.
"All Rove did was speak about the comparative attitudes of liberals and conservatives on how best to conduct the War on Terror.
And you know what? He was right. . . . Actually, the Democrats' outrage is understandable -- since they can't defend their own record, better to lash out at the White House."
The other emerging theme is, how bad are things in Iraq? In the LAT, Doyle McManus | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-bushiraq26jun26,0,1423729.story?coll=la-home-headlines says Bush is being hit by friendly fire:
"For months, President Bush has struggled to maintain public support for the war in Iraq in the face of periodic setbacks on the battlefield. Now he faces a second front in the battle for public opinion: charges that the administration is not telling the truth about how the war is going. . . .
"But last month, Vice President Dick Cheney broke from the administration's 'message discipline' and declared that the insurgency was in its 'last throes.' The White House has been paying a price ever since. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, complained that the White House was 'completely disconnected from reality.' Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), another supporter of the war, charged that Bush had opened not just a credibility gap, but a 'credibility chasm.' Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld distanced himself from the vice president's words."
Newsweek | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8359694/site/newsweek/ examines a different kind of gap?
"How, then, to explain the very different versions of reality in Iraq that come out of the mouths of top Bush administration officials and of senior generals on the ground in Iraq? On Memorial Day, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the Iraq insurgency was in its 'last throes.' Yet last week, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Abizaid said that, actually, the insurgency has not grown weaker over the last six months and that the number of foreign terrorists infiltrating Iraq has increased. . . .
"No wonder the American public is confused, unsure what to believe, and that support for the war is down to 42 percent in the latest Gallup poll. What is the reality? And why can't the president and his generals seem to agree?"
You know that conservative guy hired by CPB chief Ken Tomlinson who monitored pro- and anti-Bush guests on Bill Moyers's show "Now"? Frank Rich | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/26/opinion/26rich.html?, checking in with Sen Byron Dorgan, says he had other targets as well:
"Sifting through those pages when we spoke by phone last week, Mr. Dorgan said it wasn't merely Mr. Moyers's show that was monitored but also the programs of Tavis Smiley and NPR's Diane Rehm.
"Their guests were rated either L for liberal or C for conservative, and 'anti-administration' was affixed to any segment raising questions about the Bush presidency. Thus was the conservative Republican Senator Chuck Hagel given the same L as Bill Clinton simply because he expressed doubts about Iraq in a discussion mainly devoted to praising Ronald Reagan. Three of The Washington Post's star beat reporters (none of whom covers the White House or politics or writes opinion pieces) were similarly singled out simply for doing their job as journalists by asking questions about administration policies."
That is pretty chilling.