Bumiller echoed White House denials that Bush is criticizing media over Iraq coverage

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

During a roundtable discussion on NBC's Meet the Press, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller uncritically repeated Bush administration assertions that the administration was not attempting to blame the media for negative public opinion about the Iraq war. In fact, administration officials have repeatedly suggested that the media have painted a distorted and disproportionately negative picture of Iraq.

During a March 26 roundtable discussion on NBC's Meet the Press, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller uncritically repeated Bush administration assertions that the administration was not attempting to blame the media for negative public opinion about the Iraq war. But while President Bush and White House press secretary Scott McClellan have stated that Bush's recent public comments should not be taken as "criticism" of the media, the full context of those remarks -- as well as comments made by other administration members -- suggests that the White House is attempting to have it both ways: Bush and McClellan have repeatedly suggested that the media have painted a distorted and disproportionately negative picture of Iraq while simultaneously stating -- in Bumiller's words -- that "[w]e're not blaming the media for the war in Iraq."

An article in the April 3 issue of U.S. News & World Report pointed out that Bush "is trying to rally the conservative base" by "attack[ing] the mainstream media." Noting that "Bush argues that things are going far better in Iraq than media reporting indicates," U.S. News reported that "administration officials say it will be a standard part of his speeches for the foreseeable future." On the March 23 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, correspondent David Shuster reported that "[p]rivately, White House officials and supporters believe they can rally the president's base with media critiques" of coverage of the Iraq war.

On Meet the Press, Russert highlighted two examples of this apparent strategy, citing Vice President Cheney's March 19 appearance on CBS's Face the Nation and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's March 19 Washington Post op-ed:

RUSSERT: A big discussion in our country about Iraq, the way the issue is being covered by the media. Vice President Cheney last Sunday made these comments: "There's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq." Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld weighed in: "The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case. Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack."

Russert then played footage of Bush's March 22 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which Gayle Taylor, an audience member, complained that "our major media networks don't want to portray the good" in Iraq and instead "just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed."

Bumiller asserted that in his response, Bush "pulled back somewhat" from Taylor's comments and "was very, very careful not to jump on her bandwagon." Bumiller cited no evidence beyond her own observation to support this assertion, noting only that Bush said he did not support suppressing freedom of the press -- something that Taylor never suggested.

Later in the discussion, Russert asked Bumiller if the administration believed it could "secure the base of the Republican Party" by "go[ing] after the media a little bit." In response, Bumiller uncritically noted that McClellan had denied shifting blame to the media: "I have noticed this past week Scott McClellan saying, the White House press secretary, you know, 'We're not blaming the media for the war in Iraq.' He said that a couple times this week, and so it's -- they're -- again, they're being a little more careful here than usual."

But Bumiller's assertion ignored the context in which McClellan had issued this denial. In addition to Cheney's and Rumsfeld's comments cited by Russert, Bush and McClellan have repeatedly suggested in recent days that supposedly distorted media reports -- rather than actual conditions on the ground -- were to blame for the war's increasing unpopularity. At the same time, Bush and McClellan have insisted that such comments do not constitute "criticism."

During a March 21 press conference, Bush said: "[F]or every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq that's hard to capture on the evening news."

Later in the press conference, Bush did respond to a question about public discontent with the war by saying: "I'm not suggesting you shouldn't talk about" bad news in Iraq, adding, "[P]lease don't take that as criticism." Bush then said: "But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy's capability to affect the debate, and they know that. They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show. And, therefore, it affects the woman in Cleveland you were talking to. And I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win."

Referring to Bush's press conference, McClellan said in a March 23 press briefing: "I think the president specifically said that 'I'm not saying you should not cover this violence or cover the car bombings or things of that nature.' And he said, 'Do not take this as criticism.' "

McClellan stated: "But I've seen some of the coverage try to suggest that there was -- that we were blaming the media; far from it. The president specifically said -- and you heard again from him yesterday -- what the president is saying is that there is real progress in spite of the violence; look at the rest of the story." He then added: "So sometimes when I see these stories, it makes me think that the media doth protest too much."

As Media Matters for America has documented, Bush and McClellan made similar comments about coverage of the war several days earlier. At a March 20 press gaggle, McClellan stated: "There is certainly the dramatic images that people see on the TV screens which are much easier to put into a news clip. But there is also real progress being made toward a democratic future for the Iraqi people and I think the president will touch on this a little bit in his remarks."

And in his March 20 speech to the City Club of Cleveland, Bush stated:

BUSH: The situation on the ground remains tense. And in the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken. Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't. So today I'd like to share a concrete example of progress in Iraq that most Americans do not see every day in their newspapers and on their television screens.

From the March 26 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Let me turn to Iraq. A big discussion in our country about Iraq, the way the issue is being covered by the media. Vice President Cheney last Sunday made these comments: "There's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq." Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld weighed in: "The terrorists seem to recognize that they are losing in Iraq. I believe that history will show that to be the case. Fortunately, history is not made up of daily headlines, blogs on Web sites or the latest sensational attack." And then this Wednesday, President Bush went to a town meeting in West Virginia of his supporters, and here's one of the questions that was asked:

[start videotape]

TAYLOR: And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus --

[applause]

BUSH: OK, hold on a second.

TAYLOR: They just want to focus on another car bomb, or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed.

[end videotape]

[...]

RUSSERT: The White House?

BUMILLER: The other thing that's interesting, what you didn't show was the president's response to her. I was there that day, and he was very, very careful not to jump on her bandwagon. In fact -- I mean, obviously, he didn't have to; she did it for him. But the point is he said, "Look, wait a minute. You know, I understand your frustration, but we have a free press in this country, we can't tell them what to do." He pulled back somewhat from her comments. And I think you're right, [Cook Political Report editor and publisher] Charlie [Cook], that they are -- they know they can't sell this, and when they've tried in the past, it has backfired on them.

RUSSERT: But the president also said don't be afraid to go to blogs and find out some more information.

BUMILLER: Yes. I mean, I mean, I'm, I'm -- these are gradations here in White House response.

RUSSERT: But is the White House convinced that in order to secure the base of the Republican Party for the president, it doesn't hurt to go after the media a little bit?

BUMILLER: Not -- of course not. They do it all the time. And -- and they complain all the time about what we do. But I have noticed this past week Scott McClellan saying, the White House press secretary, you know, "We're not blaming the media for the war in Iraq." He said that a couple times this week, and so it's -- they're -- again, they're being a little more careful here than usual.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
NBC
Person
Elisabeth Bumiller
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
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