In May 2001 -- just months into President Bush's first term -- Washington Post reporter John F. Harris wrote a column for his paper's Outlook section, arguing:
Are the national news media soft on Bush? The instinctive response of any reporter is to deny it. But my rebuttals lately have been wobbly. The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.
Above all, however, there is one big reason for Bush's easy ride: There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.
Reporters and editors do not work like commentators. There are no newsroom deliberations about how "soft" or "mean" to be on a president. And we aim to make our own judgments about what's important, rather than respond in Pavlovian fashion to whatever ideologues or interest groups are inveighing about. But there's no denying that we give more coverage to stories when someone is shouting. For example, the toughest coverage Bush has gotten has been over decisions to suspend environmental rules issued by Clinton, which infuriated liberals.
Harris's premise -- that negative stories about Bush hadn't gained traction because Democrats hadn't been "shouting" loudly enough -- has been dusted off and reused by others to defend the media's failure to thoroughly cover stories damaging to Bush. The Post's Dan Froomkin noted as much in January 2005, when he wrote: "One frequently mentioned factor in the algebra of White House coverage during the first term was that the opposition didn't make the anti-Bush case very forcefully."
The notion that tepid Democratic criticism of Bush is to blame for lackadaisical media coverage of the president was always a flimsy justification for not following up on Bush administration scandals, but now even "flimsy" is too kind: If they hadn't been before, House Democrats began shouting this week, with several openly discussing whether the president has committed impeachable offenses.
The week began with a report in the Middletown, New York, Times Herald-Record that Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) raised the possibility that Bush's misuse of pre-war intelligence may constitute an impeachable offense:
What if President Bush lied to Congress and the American people, used those lies to gain congressional approval for military action against Iraq and launched a war that killed 1,700 Americans and tens of thousands of others?
That might have been a hypothetical question a month ago; it might not be hypothetical anymore.
In fact, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, says the answer to the question could lead to the impeachment of President Bush.
[C]alls for a congressional inquiry into the questions raised by the memo are growing louder, with some even discussing a Bush impeachment.
"If the president intentionally twisted the facts about the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, and lied to Congress about it, and then elicited authorization from Congress to launch a war that's caused the deaths of 1,700 U.S. men and women along with tens of thousands of others, that is definitely an impeachable offense," Hinchey said.
Curiously, Hinchey's comments weren't picked up by any news source available on Nexis, other than in an op-ed published in the Baltimore Sun.
On Thursday, House Democrats held a forum to discuss the Downing Street memo and pre-war intelligence. The Associated Press reported:
Amid new questions about President Bush's drive to topple Saddam Hussein, several House Democrats urged lawmakers on Thursday to conduct an official inquiry to determine whether the president intentionally misled Congress.
At a public forum where the word "impeachment" loomed large, Exhibit A was the so-called Downing Street memo, a prewar document leaked from inside the British government to The Sunday Times of London a month and a half ago. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, organized the event.
Recounting a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair's national security team, the memo says the Bush administration believed that war was inevitable and was determined to use intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify the ouster of Saddam.
"The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," one of the participants was quoted as saying at the meeting, which took place just after British officials returned from Washington.
The president "may have deliberately deceived the United States to get us into a war," Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said. "Was the president of the United States a fool or a knave?"
The White House refuses to respond to a May 5 letter from 122 congressional Democrats about whether there was a coordinated effort to "fix" the intelligence and facts around the policy, as the Downing Street memo says.
Conyers and a half-dozen other members of Congress were stopped at the White House gate later Thursday when they hand-delivered petitions signed by 560,000 Americans who want Bush to provide a detailed response to the Downing Street memo. When Conyers couldn't get in, an anti-war demonstrator shouted, "Send Bush out!" Eventually, White House aides retrieved the petitions at the gate and took them into the West Wing.
"Quite frankly, evidence that appears to be building up points to whether or not the president has deliberately misled Congress to make the most important decision a president has to make, going to war," Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said earlier at the event on Capitol Hill.
Misleading Congress is an impeachable offense, a point that Rangel underscored by saying he's already been through two impeachments. He referred to the impeachment of President Clinton for an affair with a White House intern and of President Nixon for Watergate, even though Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.
But while the AP, The New York Times, CNN, and other news outlets gave the forum serious, if imperfect, coverage, The Washington Post covered it only with a "Washington Sketch" by Dana Milbank. Too busy cracking wise about Democrats' "trip to the land of make-believe" to provide readers a serious account of the proceeding, Milbank referred to the participants as a "hearty band of playmates" and described T-shirts worn by activists several blocks away -- but couldn't be bothered to note that more than 120 members of Congress, including the House Minority Leader, have signed a letter demanding the president answer questions about the Downing Street memo.
Milbank's snide dismissal of the forum, by the way, ran on page A6 of the Post; the tone and the placement of the piece call to mind Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.'s 2004 admission that the paper had been too dismissive of administration critics. Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote on August 12, 2004:
In retrospect, said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part."
Across the country, "the voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones," Downie said. "We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."
We eagerly await Downie's latest apology, and that of his colleagues. They'll need a new excuse, though: the claim that Democrats are failing to "shout" loud enough won't fly this time.
Hard to believe as it may be, the Post's wisecracks about the forum didn't constitute the most dismal coverage of the event: Fox News Channel didn't bother to show up. The closest Fox News came to covering the forum was Carl Cameron's report on Special Report With Brit Hume:
CAMERON: Meanwhile, Detroit Congressman John Conyers went over some old ground, unveiling and delivering to the White House a half-million petitions collected by the liberal group MoveOn.org. They demand answers about Britain's so-called Downing Street memo, which critics say indicates the Bush administration deceived the public in the run-up to the Iraq war, charges both the president and Tony have flatly denied and that White House aides almost refuse to discuss.
"Went over some old ground"? Where could Cameron have gotten the idea that the Downing Street memo is "old ground"? From White House press secretary Scott McClellan, perhaps? Cameron's report was followed by a clip of McClellan:
MCCLELLAN: This is an individual who voted against the war in the first place and is simply trying to rehash old debates.
To recap: members of the U.S. House of Representatives, meeting in the Capitol building, discussed the possible impeachment of the President of the United States -- and Fox News didn't deem that worth even mentioning. What, exactly, does a member of the minority party in have to do to get covered on Fox News? Self-immolate in the parking lot of the Capitol?
Back to the Washington Post: On Wednesday, the paper's editorial page argued:
Bloggers have demanded to know why "the mainstream media" have not paid more attention to them [British memos]. Though we can't speak for The Post's news department, the answer appears obvious: The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.
The Post is lying. Yes, lying.
Reasonable people can have honest disagreements about the significance of the British memos that have recently come to light; reasonable people can have honest disagreements about what, if anything, they "prove." But it is simply not honest, and not reasonable, to say they "add not a single fact to what was previously known." Perhaps the Post editorial board would like to direct us to previous reporting of the fact that the head of British intelligence thought in July 2002 that the Bush administration was "fix[ing] intelligence" to fit its decision to go to war? Presumably, the Post can also direct us to previous public disclosure of the fact that British intelligence officials were suggesting in July 2002 that the Bush administration was pegging the timing of military action to that year's congressional elections? We remember fondly a time when the Post tried to overcome cover-ups rather than taking a lead role in them.
But the Post hasn't done it alone: A new Media Matters study demonstrates that major print and broadcast media "largely ignored the Downing Street memo," rarely covering it and even more rarely conducting original reporting into the matter.
Salon.com's Joe Conason took "the nation's most prominent journalists" to task for downplaying new information about Bush's use of pre-war intelligence:
Deciding what constitutes news is a subjective exercise, of course, with all the uncertainty that implies. Yet there are several obvious guidelines to keep in mind while listening to the excuses proffered in the New York Times and the Washington Post by reporters who must know better.
A classified document recording deliberations by the highest officials of our most important ally over the decision to wage war is always news. A document that shows those officials believed the justification for war was "thin" and that the intelligence was being "fixed" is always news. A document that indicates the president was misleading the world about his determination to wage war only as a last resort is always news.
And when such a document is leaked, whatever editors, reporters and producers may think "everyone" already knows or believes about its contents emphatically does not affect whether that piece of paper is news. The journalists' job is to determine whether it is authentic and then to probe into its circumstances and meaning. There are many questions still to be answered about the Downing Street memo, but the nation's most prominent journalists still aren't asking them.
Media Matters laid out some of those questions this week:
The Downing Street Memo raises important questions that are most decidedly not "old news" and need to be asked. Among these questions reporters might consider asking are the following:
The Downing Street Memo relates discussions about Iraq between Richard Dearlove, chief of British intelligence agency MI6, and Bush administration officials. Presumably, the head of British intelligence would have met with senior administration officials. With whom did Dearlove meet? Who told him that military action was inevitable? Were these officials also making public statements indicating that the administration had not decided whether to invade?
Exactly what did American officials tell Dearlove that led him to conclude that the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy?
The memo states that in early 2002 the administration had begun "spikes of activity" -- i.e., increased bombings of Iraq -- to pressure Saddam Hussein. Documents recently released in Britain showed that the Royal Air Force dramatically increased bombings of Iraq during 2002, presumably in concert with the United States. Was the intent to goad Saddam into a military response that could be used as a pretext for invading Iraq?
The memo states, "No decisions had been taken, but [the British Defense Secretary] thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections." The Bush administration began to make the case for war in September 2002 because, according to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Were the November 2002 elections part of the calculation on the timing of the invasion?
According to the memo, "It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD [weapons of mass destruction] capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran." How does the administration square this with its multiple, unequivocal statements on Saddam's supposedly terrifying arsenal of weapons?
During their recent joint press conference, both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that the decision to go to war had been made by the summer of 2002. Yet no one has disputed the memo's authenticity. So were U.S. officials lying to Dearlove, telling him that war was a foregone conclusion when it wasn't? Was Dearlove lying to Blair about what he was told? Both possibilities seem absurd, yet someone somewhere was not telling the truth: either Dearlove, the American officials with whom he met, or Bush and Blair. Which is it?
In his June 15 online column, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote:
And [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] spoke to the liberal blog Raw Story :
" 'I've had reporters say to me, I have orthodontia, I have tuition, I have mortgage, I need access, I'm not writing your story,' Pelosi remarked. ...
Some thoughts: I seriously doubt that journalists told Pelosi they needed to maintain "access" to the administration to pay their mortgages, since even the best reporters have little inside access to the Bushies, who generally read from the same set of talking points. When The Post asked Peolsi, she said one younger reporter had said this -- one probably too young to have a mortgage.
Kurtz essentially called the House Minority Leader a liar -- twice -- based on nothing more than his own inability to believe her.
But I sympathize with Pelosi about the Democratic position being reduced to two sentences in many stories. With Republicans running everything in D.C., the minority party often gets short shrift. The Republicans had the same problem in '93 and '94. Lacking that White House megaphone makes a huge difference.
Did they? Republicans didn't have much trouble getting attention for their attacks on the Clintons' health care proposals, on "midnight basketball," on the so-called "largest tax increase in history," or on Whitewater and a host of other made-up "scandals." And a quick look suggests that Republican leaders didn't have the kind of trouble getting covered in major newspapers that current Democratic leaders have: we looked at Kurtz's own Washington Post as an example; below are the number of mentions of the top three minority-party leaders in the House and Senate that appeared in the Post from January 1, 1993 to June 15, 1993, and from January 1, 2005 to June 15, 2005:
2005 Democratic Congressional Leadership:
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: 38
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin: 15
Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan: 5
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: 98
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer: 9
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez: 3
Total: 168 articles
1993 Republican Congressional Leadership:
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole: 108
Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson: 9
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Thad Cochran: 13
House Minority Leader Bob Michel: 23
House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich: 47
House Republican Conference Chairman Richard Armey: 9
Total: 209 articles
The Democrats have a total of 168 mentions; the Republicans were mentioned a total of 209 times, or 24 percent more than the Democrats. Is Kurtz right that the lack of media attention given to Democratic leaders is par for the course? Maybe. It sure doesn't look like it, based on a cursory look at Kurtz's own paper; maybe Kurtz should have actually done some research rather than reflexively indicating that the current lack of coverage of Democrats is nothing unusual.
Kurtz went on to discuss the Downing Street memo:
A wide range of critics, including the ombudsmen of the NYT and WP, say the press bobbled the ball on the Downing Street Memo. The memo may not be the slam-dunk about the Bush administration fixing intelligence that its supporters believe -- the British author cites no specifics as proof -- but it was a newsworthy and provocative development, as the press is belatedly realizing.
In the case of Hillary's criticism, is she trying to work the media refs as she gears up for 2008? Maybe. But the tone of her comments -- calling the press spineless -- suggests she strongly believes this, as, undoubtedly, does her base.
The bottom line is this: There's still a huge amount of post-Iraq anger out there toward Bush, and liberals are frustrated that the red part of the country doesn't share their view. So the press must be doing a lousy job, right?
No, the bottom line is this: there's still a huge number of people who believe that WMDs have been found in Iraq; who believe that Iraq had something to do with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. So the press must be doing a lousy job. Many leading news organizations have acknowledged doing a lousy job in the run-up to the Iraq war; many of the same organizations now acknowledge that they've done a lousy job in covering the Downing Street memo. So the press must be doing a lousy job. Kurtz himself wrote an article less than a year ago that indicated his own paper had done a lousy job covering Iraq -- yet, suddenly, he's dismissive of criticism of media coverage of Iraq? Does he read his own articles?
Kurtz next acknowledged the obvious: media coverage of the Bush administration "has been far from perfect," which would seem to contradict his previous implication that criticism of the media is simply coming from angry and frustrated liberals. But Kurtz didn't stop there:
The press performance in covering this tightly disciplined administration has been far from perfect, especially on Iraq. But it's worth remembering that during the Clinton years, it was conservatives who saw the media as being embarrassingly soft on the White House.
Well, yes, it is worth remembering that conservatives thought the media was soft on Clinton -- but not for the reason Kurtz implies. It's worth remembering because it demonstrates just how empty conservative media criticism has become. The press was not "soft" on Clinton, not under any rational definition of the term "soft." Kurtz might also have noted that there was no shortage of people who saw the media as being embarrassingly hostile to the White House during the Clinton years. Eight years of obsessive focus on Whitewater; the media feeding frenzy about Monica Lewinsky, the media's creepy focus on Vincent Foster -- there was no shortage of complaints that these, and other, media-driven "scandals" comprised unduly harsh coverage of Clinton.
As Kurtz's Post colleague Terry Neal wrote earlier this year:
Some will also argue that the media only push aggressively to investigate Republican administrations. That's a difficult case to make. A simple Lexis search shows, for instance, that the Washington Post ran 415 stories about Monicagate on its front page in the 1998 calendar year.
Surely Kurtz must know this. But he pretends complaints that media was "soft on" Clinton and complaints the media has been "soft on" Bush are equally valid. Let's review: when evidence surfaced that Clinton may have lied about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, it set off a media feeding frenzy -- round-the-clock television coverage, extensive newspaper coverage, endless questions at White House press briefings, etc. When evidence surfaced that George Bush may have lied about his decision to go to war in Iraq, the media largely ignored it -- as Kurtz acknowledges: the Downing Street memo, he writes, "was a newsworthy and provocative development, as the press is belatedly realizing."
And yet Kurtz pretends that conservative complaints that the media was "embarrassingly soft" on Clinton were just as valid as current complaints they are soft on Bush.
Last week, we detailed several errors in Edward Klein's "scurrilous, despicable and politically motivated" anti-Hillary attack book currently being peddled by Sentinel, the conservative imprint of Penguin publishing.
This week brought news that the book would contain an allegation -- anonymously sourced, of course -- that Chelsea Clinton was conceived when her father raped her mother.
How over-the-line is this latest right-wing smear of Hillary Clinton?
So over-the-line that Bill O'Reilly -- who once falsified a George Soros quote to suggest Soros wished his own father would die -- refused to invite Klein on his show, saying "many of us are very tired of personal attacks and the people who make money using them."
So beyond-the-pale that radio host Michael Savage -- who once said lesbians are "jealous that they don't have an AIDS epidemic that they can cash in on" -- said of Klein's book:
I think that new book that came out sucks. I think it's an outrage that somebody would publish a book saying that Bill Clinton raped Hillary. I think it's disgusting, number one. And, number two, I think anybody who makes that a show topic should quit the business of talk radio.
But while O'Reilly, Savage, and many other conservatives ran away from the book, others don't have that luxury: NewsMax.com -- funded by Richard Mellon Scaife and operated by a former Scaife employee -- is promoting the book, as is the Conservative Book Club.
And, of course, Penguin bears ultimate responsibility for the book, and for the editorial process that allowed unverified smears and outright falsehoods to appear under the company's name.