In a September 8 article, The Washington Post reported Republican complaints that "Democrats are seeking political gain at a moment of national crisis," noted "strident" criticism of President Bush by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and paraphrased warnings by unnamed "strategists" of a "backlash" against the "harsh rhetoric" -- all while ignoring strident and false attacks against Democrats made by the White House and its allies.
The Post article seems to accept as its premise Republican spin about Democratic criticism. But what is most notable about the article is that it exists at all: that a newspaper that knows (but hasn't yet told its readers) Bush administration officials have been making false claims about Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco would choose to focus on alleged "strident" criticism by Democrats.
If the Post wants to characterize criticism as "strident" or "harsh," it might better begin with the false claim, made by a "senior Bush aide" -- and reported in the September 4 edition of the Post as though it were true -- that Blanco still hadn't gotten around to declaring a state of emergency as of September 3. In fact, Blanco did so on August 26, a fact the Post acknowledged in a correction on September 5. But neither the Post's correction, nor any subsequent article, even hinted at a basic, and extremely newsworthy, fact: The Bush administration is spreading false information about Blanco in order to shift blame to state and local efforts.
And yet, there has been no Washington Post article about this White House smear campaign, let alone any passing acknowledgment of it. It is surprising, then, that the Post would devote more than 1,000 words to repeating Republican spin that Democrats have been overly harsh -- particularly when there is no hint in those thousand words that any of the Democratic criticism has been false.
What the article did contain is a series of cheap shots and misleading claims under the guise of news. The article began:
The raging debate over what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has provided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) an opportunity to emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, stirring Republican criticism that she and other Democrats are seeking political gain at a moment of national crisis.
The Post's implication that Clinton is taking advantage of Katrina in order to raise her standing as a "national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party" is pure spin, "supported" by nothing more than statements by two Republican National Committee spokesmen. Clinton is already a "national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party," as anyone who has been alive for the last dozen years certainly knows. She is a former First Lady; is a senator from the nation's third-most populous state; has had prominent speaking roles at the last four Democratic National Conventions; and heads the Senate Democratic Steering Committee. Polls have found her to be the most admired woman in America. She hardly needs an "opportunity to emerge as a national spokeswoman."
The Post continued:
Clinton has long maintained that she is focused solely on serving the interests of her New York constituents. But she was on all three network morning shows yesterday to promote her call for returning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to independent status, and for creating an independent commission to investigate what went wrong when the storm hit and the levees gave way in New Orleans.
But the Post gave no reason, not even a hint, why readers should think that Clinton's professed focus on her New York constituents is contradicted in any way by her call to return FEMA to independent status. FEMA's status and effectiveness certainly affect the "interests of her New York constituents"; New York does need emergency assistance from time to time. The Post's suggestion that FEMA has nothing to do with the people of New York, or any other state for that matter, particularly in the wake of a horrific natural disaster, is simply bizarre.
Twelve paragraphs into an article that focuses heavily on Clinton's "role," filled with suggestions that her motivation is political, the Post finally got around to acknowledging the possibility that FEMA might just have something to do with her "New York constituents":
One Clinton adviser said the New York senator has chosen to speak out so forcefully in large part because of her longstanding opposition to the shift of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, and because of her concerns that an ill-prepared FEMA poses problems for her constituents in a state regarded as a prime target of terrorist attacks.
The article's acceptance of the Republican point of view is more subtle in other places, as with the beginning of the next paragraph: "Her high-profile role, which Republicans say is tinged with 2008 presidential politics ..." Yet it could just as easily be said that Republican dismissal of Clinton's role as "tinged" with politics is itself a political act. Why is Clinton's role characterized as politics, when Republican criticism of her is not?
Eventually, the Post (briefly) moved past its obsession with Clinton's supposed political gamesmanship and on to "strident" criticism by other Democrats:
Other Democrats, lead by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have been far more strident than the Clintons -- so much so that both Republican and Democratic strategists said yesterday the opposition party is in danger of overplaying its hand. The harsh rhetoric, the strategists said, could create a backlash among the public and engender sympathy for a president who has been on the defensive much of the past week.
Pelosi yesterday described Bush as "oblivious, in denial, dangerous" to problems in and around New Orleans, and to what she said were his administration's failures in their response. Reid urged a Senate investigating committee to probe whether Bush's out-of-town vacation contributed to what has been judged as a slow response by the federal government.
Curiously, the Post didn't include a key portion of Pelosi's comments, in which she made clear why she thinks Bush is "oblivious": according to Pelosi, when she referenced things that have gone wrong in the government's response to Katrina, Bush replied, "What didn't go right?"
Even more curious, the Post described Reid's urging of an investigation into whether Bush's month-long vacation contributed to the slow response as the kind of "strident" criticism that indicates that Democrats may be overplaying their hand.
This characterization of Reid's comments is particularly odd given that a Post report just three days earlier indicated that at least one Republican said the White House's slow response to Katrina was, indeed, the result of vacationing White House personnel:
One reason for the slow White House response, said a Republican who has been in contact with several officials, is that so many high-level officials and aides were on vacation. Vice President Cheney, for instance, was in Wyoming and did not return until Thursday, and Nicolle Devenish, the president's top communications adviser, is getting married in Greece with a number of mid-level aides in attendance.
To recap: On September 5, the Post reported that a "Republican who has been in contact with several officials" said the White House was slow to respond to Katrina because many high-level officials, including Cheney, were on vacation. Then, on September 8, the Post characterized Reid's call for an investigation into the very same possibility as a "strident" attack that could lead to a backlash. Is a more blatant double-standard possible?
Having passed judgment on Pelosi and Reid, the Post quickly returned to Clinton:
Hillary Clinton has no formal role as a designated spokeswoman on the disaster, but by virtue of her celebrity status and her presumed presidential ambitions, she attracts attention when she chooses to speak out.
It's true that Clinton -- like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Pelosi, Reid, and the vast majority of people in and out of government -- has no "formal role as a designated spokeswoman on the disaster," whatever that means. But the implication that it is therefore unusual -- and political in nature -- for her to talk about it, is false. Clinton does, after all, hold a leadership position in the Senate as chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Steering Committee, giving her every bit as legitimate a "role" as a spokesperson on Katrina as Frist, or Hastert, or nearly anyone else.
Members of Congress vote on and talk about a wide range of issues every day -- that is, after all, their job. Rarely do they have a "formal role as a designated spokeswoman" on an issue -- but the media don't point that out, presumably because it doesn't really mean anything. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) was quoted talking about Katrina in the September 8 edition of the Post -- with no disclaimer that she lacks a "formal role." For that matter, why did the Post take pains to suggest Clinton lacks credentials to speak about Katrina, but not treat Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman the same way? If the phrase "has no formal role as a designated [spokesperson] on the disaster" applies to anyone in the Post article, surely it is Mehlman, a man who holds no elective office and has no formal policymaking role of any kind; he's simply a partisan operative. Yet the Post didn't note his lack of standing to discuss the disaster in either of the two articles in which he was quoted on September 8.
The Post article concludes with a lengthy quote from RNC spokesman Brian Jones:
Having raised her visibility, she is now a clear target. "It's interesting that at a time when she could have differentiated herself from the ranks of [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and the far left ranks of the Democratic Party, she chose to join those on the front ranks of the blame game," said RNC spokesman Brian Jones. "It would have been interesting if she had shown some level of restraint."
Incredibly, the Post let an RNC spokesman criticize Democrats as engaging in "the blame game" -- while making no mention of the fact that a "senior Bush aide" falsely smeared Blanco in an effort to shift blame. The Post's editors must know that Bush officials are playing "the blame game," and doing it by spreading false information about Democrats -- yet the Post remains silent about it and quotes a Republican spokesman accusing Democrats of engaging in "the blame game."
But that's not all: Two paragraphs earlier, the Post referenced acrimony between Blanco and the White House. But the only example the newspaper gave was Blanco's hiring of James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director during the Clinton administration, as an adviser, a move the Post portrayed as "direct criticism" of the administration. The administration's smear campaign against Blanco -- conducted in the pages of The Washington Post and its subsidiary, Newsweek -- went unmentioned:
The image of one administration pitted against another has been reinforced by the weekend decision of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) to hire Witt as an adviser in the relief efforts. Blanco squabbled with the White House in the first few days after Katrina struck, and Witt's arrival was widely see as a direct criticism of the administration.