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Like President Bush's State of the Union address itself, the media's repetition of false claims and adoption of misleading rhetoric in covering the event were more disappointing than surprising.
CNN's Jeff Greenfield kicked things off by complaining that a Democratic member of Congress, apparently Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), "put out a scathing attack on the speech" before Bush delivered it, concluding that "there wasn't a chance in the world that this congressperson had seen the speech."
But as Greenfield surely must know, it is standard practice for the White House to release the text of major speeches before they are delivered. As Media Matters for America noted, The Washington Post posted excerpts from the speech on its website at 5:15 p.m. ET -- long before Bush's speech, and before Wexler's press release was issued.
And, before Greenfield's comments, his CNN colleague Dana Bash read viewers a direct quote from the speech. Does Greenfield think there "wasn't a chance in the world" that Bash "had seen the speech?" Has Jeff Greenfield somehow managed to spend 40 years of his life working in politics and the media without once learning of the concept of an advance copy of a speech? And if he's so out of the loop that he didn't see at least excerpts from the speech before it was given, why on earth should CNN continue to employ him as a "senior analyst"? Or was Greenfield deliberately misleading CNN viewers for the purposes of trashing a Democratic member of Congress?
If this seems like an insignificant throwaway line, think again. Comments like Greenfield's create an impression among the public, and among his fellow journalists, that critics of the president are reckless and irresponsible, interested only in tearing him down, regardless of the facts. The next thing you know, you're watching CNN's Paula Zahn tell viewers there is a "perception" that Democrats "have no agenda of their own ... basically the only thing they're good at is blasting the president."
Which is, of course, utter nonsense. The public thinks Democrats are good at plenty of other things. Polling finds that the American people have more confidence in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party when it comes to Social Security, Medicare, reducing the deficit, Iraq, finding terrorists without violating the average American's rights, standing up to lobbyists and special interests, dealing with the issue of corruption in government, ability to manage the federal government, abortion, and end-of-life decisions.
On the other hand, the public thinks Republican members of Congress are more likely to take "bribes or gifts that affect their votes."
Given his abysmal approval ratings, Zahn would have been far more accurate if she had said there is a perception that President Bush is only good at blasting Democrats.
Nor did Zahn address the obvious implication of her claim: if the public really does think the "only thing" Democrats are good at is "blasting the president," that must mean the American people like to see Democrats blast the president. They must like it a lot.
After all, a CBS/New York Times poll just found that 53 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while 40 percent have an unfavorable view -- compared to 44 percent favorable/51 percent unfavorable for the Republicans and 37 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable for President Bush.
But to Zahn and many of her colleagues, somehow, it is the Democrats who are poorly received by the American people.
The simple reality is that polls consistently show the following: The American people don't like President Bush. They don't approve of the way he's done his job. They don't trust him to handle key issues. They don't trust him, period. They think he deliberately misled the nation into war. They think history will judge him poorly. They think Congress should consider impeachment. They don't like his political party. They like Democrats better. They trust Democrats more on more important issues.
Any journalist or pundit who makes reference to public opinion in a way that contradicts these basic facts, without offering specific data, is simply misleading the American people.
To the extent that there are people who think the Democrats lack ideas or an agenda, Zahn and her colleagues might want to examine why they think that. It certainly isn't because Democrats actually lack ideas or an agenda. HouseDemocrats.gov offers plenty of detail about the House Democrats' ideas and agenda; as do the websites of many progressive organizations, like the Center for American Progress.
If people think Democrats lack ideas, it is largely because news organizations ignore the Democrats' ideas. It's because Paula Zahn devotes an hour every night not to assessing the political parties' policy proposals, but to urgent topics like "Breast Milk Black Market"; "Oprah Flip-Flops on Controversial Book" and "New Clues in Missing Honeymooner Case?" -- and those are all from a single edition of Paula Zahn Now. Other recent editions have focused on "A Life Changed By Cosmetic Surgery," the always-popular "Googling For Pornography," and the pressing question: "Can voodoo make a comeback?"
But back to how media covered Bush's "ideas."
Bush promised in his State of the Union address that his plan to increase ethanol production will "help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."
But he didn't mean it, as Knight Ridder explained:
One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic advisor said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.
What the president meant, they said in a conference call with reporters, was that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil imports equivalent to most of what America is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025.
But America still would import oil from the Middle East, because that's where the greatest oil supplies are.
He pledged to "move beyond a petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."
Not exactly, though, it turns out.
''This was purely an example,'' Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.
Asked why the president used the words ''the Middle East'' when he didn't really mean them, one administration official said Bush wanted to dramatize the issue in a way that ''every American sitting out there listening to the speech understands.'' The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he feared that his remarks might get him in trouble.
Got that? When the president told the American people he had a plan to "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025," he didn't mean that literally. His specific promise to accomplish specific reductions in oil imports from a specific region by a specific date was "purely an example." He said it not because it was true, but because viewers could "understand" it. Bush apparently valued clarity over truthfulness.
So, how did the media cover Bush's comments about America's "addiction" to foreign oil? Let's take ABC as an example.
On Good Morning America the morning after Bush's speech, host Charles Gibson told viewers:
"[I]f there was anything new in the speech, it was his [Bush's] call for an end to America's addiction with foreign oil, a calling for a reduction on America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil of 75 percent in 20 years."
But Bush's "call for an end to America's addiction with foreign oil" wasn't new at all, as Media Matters noted:
However, in every prior State of the Union address since 2002, Bush called on Congress to pass his energy proposal, saying the United States needed to reduce its dependence on foreign sources of energy. Bush signed that plan into law in August 2005.
And, as Knight Ridder explained later that day, that whole "75 percent in 20 years" part was a lie. So, surely, ABC followed up with another report, telling viewers that, in fact, the president hadn't told the truth?
No, it didn't. To be clear: ABC did run several more segments later in the week about Bush's energy comments; it just didn't bother to mention that the line in Bush's speech ABC found so compelling that they quoted it the next morning turned out to be a lie.
Knight Ridder's article was available online on February 1.
The February 2 broadcast of Good Morning America featured a segment about Bush's energy proposals, introduced by Diane Sawyer's mention of "President Bush's statement that he's now going to try to end what he calls America's addiction to foreign oil." No mention was made of the Knight Ridder article.
Later that day, ABC's News Now reported: "President Bush heads to Minnesota today, where he'll continue to push the agenda he introduced at Tuesday's State of the Union address. When, while he reminds Americans of the need to reduce dependency on foreign oil, Mister Bush says he has no beef with the oil industry." Again, no mention of the fact that the "agenda he introduced at Tuesdays' State of the Union address" turned out to be fictitious.
Nor was ABC alone in touting Bush's promise, then failing to point out that it wasn't sincere. NBC's David Gregory reported on February 1:
GREGORY: Last night's address was modest, a reflection of the president's political weakness at home. His priorities? Reducing America's "addiction" to Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent by 2025 through alternative fuel sources, confronting competition abroad by training 70,000 new advanced placement teachers.
On February 2, after the Knight Ridder article had appeared, NBC's Ann Thompson told viewers: "President Bush wants to reduce oil from the Middle East where we get about one-fifth of our imports." But she didn't mention that the Bush administration had already backed away from its promise to reduce oil imports from the Middle East. Nor did that fact come up in host Matt Lauer's ensuing discussion of oil consumption with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
The New York Daily News reported this week that special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to lawyers for former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby that numerous emails from 2003 are missing from White House computer archives.
This seemingly explosive news was promptly ignored by most other news organizations, as Media Matters explained:
Media Matters examined cable and network news coverage on February 1 (from 4 p.m. to midnight ET) and February 2 (from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and also looked at newspaper and wire coverage on February 1 and 2 for mentions of the letter, following the publication of Meek's article. This survey found that only CNN, the Associated Press, and The New York Sun have devoted any substantial coverage to Fitzgerald's revelation.
While most news outlets have entirely ignored Fitzgerald's letter, several did so despite devoting substantial coverage to related developments in the Libby case. For example, on the February 1 edition of MSNBC's The Abrams Report, host Dan Abrams discussed a recent court filing by Libby's defense team with two former government lawyers. But during the seven-minute segment, Abrams made no mention of Fitzgerald's letter, which was attached to that same filing.
The Times and the Post still haven't reported on the missing emails.
We've spent a lot of space the last two weeks comparing media coverage of Bush administration scandals to coverage of Whitewater and the Lewinsky investigation. We won't belabor the point this week; we'll just note the following 1,600-word, front-page article that appeared in the December 19, 1995, edition of The New York Times: "Senate Committee Says Files On Whitewater Are Missing."
Missing Whitewater files: a very big deal.
Missing Bush administration emails: Nothing to see here, move along.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week to discuss the Bush administration's warrantless domestic spying operation.
A January 31 Washington Post report suggested that Gonzales may have previously lied to the committee when he testified -- under oath -- during his confirmation hearing that a question about warrantless wiretapping was a "hypothetical" and that he would, as the Post put it, "hope to alert Congress if the president ever chose to authorize warrantless surveillance." (Think Progress had been drawing attention to the Gonzales testimony for more than a month before the Post article.)
Among the news organizations that have ignored the Post report: The New York Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, and NBC.
But perhaps most inexplicable is CNN's handling of the story. On Tuesday, CNN's Kelli Arena reported:
ARENA (voice-over): Senator Russ Feingold is accusing the attorney general of misleading Congress during his confirmation hearings last year, when he was asked about warrantless wiretaps.
SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D-WI): Does the president in your opinion, have the authority, acting as commander-in-chief, to authorize warrantless searches of Americans homes and wiretaps of their conversations, in violation of the criminal and foreign intelligence surveillance statutes of this country?
GONZALES: In my judgment, you phrased it as sort of a hypothetical situation.
ARENA: In fact, the NSA program had been in place for more than three years. When pressed, Gonzales had this to say.
GONZALES: It's not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes.
FEINGOLD: Finally, will you commit to notify Congress if the president makes this type of decision and not wait two years until a memo is leaked about it?
GONZALES: I will commit to advise the Congress as soon as I reasonably can, yes, sir.
ARENA: Feingold, who wasn't briefed about the program, says he wants an explanation.
FEINGOLD: The chief law enforcement officer of this country apparently told the committee under oath that something was merely hypothetical, when in fact he knew very well and was involved in it, actually being an ongoing practice.
Two days later, Arena interviewed Gonzales -- but apparently didn't bother to ask him about his 2005 testimony or about Feingold's allegation that the testimony was misleading.
To sum up: the attorney general of the United States is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week about a secret warrantless domestic spying operation that has been widely described as an illegal and unconstitutional assertion of presidential power. A member of the Judiciary Committee has essentially accused the attorney general of having previously lied to the committee, under oath, about such spying. And Arena -- who two days before reported that a member of the Judiciary Committee has essentially accused the attorney general of having previously lied to the committee -- didn't bother to ask the attorney general about it?
Even more amazing, some journalists view all of this as in insignificant matter. They praise Bush's "strong" and "vigorous" defense of the warrantless domestic spying -- without noting that the defense may have been "vigorous," but it was also riddled with inaccuracies. They repeat Bush's false claim that Congress was briefed about the program; they repeat his false explanations of his previous false claims.
To be clear: these are not the usual suspects from Fox News or The Wall Street Journal editorial page who are carrying Bush's water. They are the most prominent and powerful journalists in the country: NBC's Tim Russert, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, CBS' Gloria Borger, and CNN's Jeff Greenfield, among others.
Most incredibly of all, a Time magazine editor asserts that Bush has "won it. ... [H]e's put the NSA story to bed."
An ever-growing number of scholars and experts -- left, right, and center -- think the warrantless domestic spying operation is illegal; by a 19-point margin, the American people want a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate; and it appears that the nation's chief law enforcement officer may have lied under oath to the United States Senate in order to keep the program secret.
And Michael Duffy, Time's assistant managing editor, declares that the story is over. Nothing to see here. Move along.
The same Michael Duffy, by the way, wrote an October 13, 2003, Time article about the outing of Valerie Plame that contained information Duffy knew to be false.