Pitching Softballs: Why are Journalists Going Easy on Bush?

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San Jose Mercury News

Pitching Softballs: Why are Journalists Going Easy on Bush?

Imagine that while Bill Clinton was president, Secret Service agents had gone to fetch Chelsea Clinton's boyfriend from jail, where he'd been arrested for public drunkenness. One could imagine days of righteous indignation on talk radio and pundit television about misuse of the Secret Service and the lack of dignity surrounding the Clinton family.

In fact, the Secret Service did go to the aid of a drunken friend of the first family -- not the Clintons, but the family of George W. Bush.

The incident occurred in Fort Worth a few weeks ago when an intoxicated college student was arrested at a rowdy fraternity party and was, according to the county sheriff, ``very vocal about the fact that he was Jenna Bush's boyfriend.'' Partygoers said George W. Bush's 19-year-old daughter, a freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, attended the party.

After the student used his cellular phone to make a call from his cell, Secret Service agents arrived at the jail to get him out. It was reported that Jenna Bush waited outside the jail in a Secret Service vehicle. The White House didn't comment on the matter, and the story disappeared from the news in a day.

Lack of scrutiny

Perhaps the incident got little media attention because of solicitude for a teenager's privacy. Perhaps it wasn't well-scrutinized because it occurred early enough in the Bush tenure that the administration was still enjoying a bit of a honeymoon with the press.

But it's also possible that the lack of fuss points to a double standard in coverage of Democratic and Republican presidents, and that the flip side of the press corps' often justified obsession with Clinton administration spin and flimflam seems to be an overly indulgent view of the Bush camp.

Need another example? The national press and pundit corps frequently howled about the devious methods of the Clintonites. But they were largely silent when an embarrassing memo surfaced March 9, exposing a bit of Republican fakery on behalf of President Bush's tax cut. The memo was circulated by the National Association of Manufacturers in response to a call from the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. It urged corporate lobbyists to camouflage themselves as working-class folks for a GOP tax-cut rally on Capitol Hill.

A copy of the memo reached the Washington Post, which quoted from it: ``The theme involves working Americans. The speaker's office was very clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to participate -- AND WE DO NEED BODIES -- they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc. We plan to have hard hats for people to wear. Other groups are providing waiters/waitresses, and other types of workers.''

According to the Post, the political director of the manufacturers' association, Fred Nichols, who normally wears a suit and tie, attended the Republican rally in a faded ``Farm Credit'' hat, rugby shirt and green pants. (``It's casual day,'' he said, adding, ``My family farms in Missouri.'') The Capitol Hill photo-op, with its sea of hard hats, looked good on television for the Bush team.

One wonders if Washington journalists have been intimidated by years of charges of ``liberal bias'' from the GOP.

Because reporters are stereotyped as liberal, there's a perception that Democratic presidents would get favorable coverage. In fact, studies of presidential news coverage -- including Mark Hertsgaard's ``On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency'' and Robert M. Entman's ``Democracy Without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics'' -- suggest that the two most recent Democratic presidents -- Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- received tougher media scrutiny than the two most recent Republicans -- George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Strategy of intimidation

In 1992, Republican National Chairman Rich Bond acknowledged that intimidation is indeed a goal of media-bashing from the right: ``There is some strategy to it,'' Bond told journalists at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. His explanation cast the media as referees in a sports metaphor. ``If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is `work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time.''

Whatever the reason, there's been a willingness to give credence to Bush administration declarations that are stretched or distorted. Case in point: a March 3 Washington Post article headlined ``Richest 1% will get 22% of cut, Bush says.'' Only a close reader of the story would notice that Bush's claim was based on ignoring two key components of his tax plan: repeal of the estate tax and income-tax cuts that kick in in 2006.

True tax-cut figures

Consideration of the full Bush plan shows the richest 1 percent of taxpayers will get roughly 40 percent of the cut. ``There's little dispute among economists on the distributional impact of the proposed tax cut,'' said economist Dean Baker of Economics Reporting Review. ``Journalists create confusion by uncritically reporting the artful claims of the administration.''

Media critic Bob Somerby, in a lengthy analysis of the Post article on his Web site (www.dailyhowler.com), was even more critical. If a newspaper blandly repeats what it knows to be misleading propaganda, Somerby wrote, ``then the paper is prepared to be lied to about anything.''

News organizations, like other big corporate institutions, are predisposed to the status quo. After the unusual circumstances of last year's election, they seem bent on removing the question mark next to the Bush presidency.

At the end of February, broadcast networks and newspapers nationwide proclaimed that Bush did win Florida's election after all. ``Bush really won,'' bannered the New York Daily News. ``Florida vote review confirms Bush win,'' headlined the Houston Chronicle. These were dramatic conclusions -- and false. Or at best, premature.

The stories were based on a Miami Herald/USA Today analysis of certain contested ballots in a single county, Miami-Dade. That tally found additional votes for Al Gore, but it found insufficient new votes to surpass Bush when added to official, disputed tallies in three other counties where Gore had sought a recount.

The analysis did not pretend to settle the question of who received more total votes in Florida. In late February, two journalistic teams were still at work on statewide ballot reviews, with the more exhaustive review not due until mid-April, at the earliest. But many news outlets ended up misleading the public.

The fact that Bush entered the White House through a disputed election may not mean he should get tougher news coverage. But he and his administration certainly are not entitled to softer coverage.

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is here: http://jeffcohen.org

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