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Nearly two years ago, in the very first edition of this weekly newsletter, we addressed the media double-standard toward the "flip-flops" of Sen. John Kerry [D-MA] and President Bush. Because news reports tend to fit into pre-existing storylines, Kerry's shifts in position -- real and imagined -- were highlighted, while Bush's were ignored, lest they undermine the Bush-as-resolute-leader storyline. As we explained at the time, there is nothing new about this phenomenon:
In March 2000, Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp wrote that the Post "seems to have assigned [roles] to the actors in this unfolding political drama. ... Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a 'maverick'; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass."
This typecasting wasn't unique to the Post. As Paul Waldman* (co-author, with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of The Press Effect, which illustrates the media's tendency to shoehorn news reports into preexisting story lines) wrote in 2003, "Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told."
Likewise, this year, Senator John Kerry is being skewered for flips he never flopped. As Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) recently noted, "The Bush campaign has been remarkably successful at getting the press to buy the notion that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. ... But reporters have been much less quick to look at various Bush reversals of policy through the same lens."
Even two years later, when everyone must know how this works by now, it continues. News organizations just can't break the habit; they just can't bring themselves to report that Bush is a serial flip-flopper.
Take The Washington Post editorial board, for example. On March 11, 2004, the Post ran an editorial about Kerry titled "Flip-Flop, Hedge and Straddle," so we know the paper isn't philosophically opposed to branding politicians flip-floppers. Yet this week, after Bush gave a televised prime-time address on immigration in which he seemed to strongly differ with a bill passed by the House of Representatives that he had previously endorsed, the Post downplayed his abrupt change.
When the House passed its legislation in December 2005, Bush said, "I applaud the House for passing a strong immigration reform bill. America is a nation built on the rule of law, and this bill will help us protect our borders and crack down on illegal entry into the United States. Securing our borders is essential to securing the homeland. I urge the Senate to take action on immigration reform so that I can sign a good bill into law."
That sounds like a pretty clear endorsement of the House bill, making his current opposition to its key provisions a pretty clear flip-flop. Also, in a December 16, 2005, statement on the House floor, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the House bill's sponsor, noted the administration's support for an amendment to the House bill that would strengthen one of the bill's -- in The Washington Post's word -- "draconian" provisions -- the section that would make criminals of illegal immigrants. As Media Matters for America documented, in arguing for an amendment to reduce the offense of illegal presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor, Sensenbrenner noted that the administration wanted to facilitate criminal prosecutions:
SENSENBRENNER: The administration subsequently requested the penalty for these crimes be lowered to 6 months. Making the first offense a felony, as the base bill would do, would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge and a jury trial.
Also because it is a felony, the defendant would be able to get a lawyer at public expense if the defendant could not afford the lawyer. These requirements would mean that the government would seldom if ever actually use the new penalties. By leaving these offenses as misdemeanors, more prosecutions are likely to be brought against those aliens whose cases merit criminal prosecution.
But that's not how the Post described Bush's position on the bill. Instead, the Post asserted that Bush had "responded weakly when the House passed its draconian measure." This is wrong: Bush did not respond "weakly" to the House bill at first. He endorsed it, and according to Sensenbrenner, had pushed for the provisions that the Post's editorial board would presumably consider most "draconian." Which means Bush has now flip-flopped. It's as clear as day, but the Post -- which once titled an editorial about Kerry, "Flip-Flop, Hedge and Straddle" -- hid from readers the fact that Bush did a 180 on the issue.
At least the Post didn't praise Bush's "consistency" while doing so. That's what "liberal" pundit Joe Klein did during an appearance on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. Discussing Bush's views on immigration a day after his prime-time address, Klein said:
KLEIN: Look, this is a deeply held position with the president. I would watch him during the 2000 campaign night after night go into country club, conservative Republican audiences and be asked hostile questions about immigration and take essentially the same position he took last night. I -- I think that it's really important for journalists to acknowledge it when a politician goes up against his base as he's going up against the conservative base of the Republican Party on a matter of conscience.
That's Time magazine's purportedly liberal columnist praising a conservative president who has just completed a nationally televised flip-flop for his consistency, for staying true to his "deeply held position." Is it any wonder that progressives lose political and policy battles when they have people like Joe Klein speaking for them? Is it any wonder that they lose when they don't confront these storylines head-on? The Daily Howler editor Bob Somerby correctly noted that the problem isn't limited to media coverage of Bush; conservatives overall are portrayed as resolute and honest while progressives are "fake":
This tendency will badly damage Dems in Campaign 2008, as the press corps rolls out its familiar script: Dem contender are [sic] fake, inauthentic. Republicans are straight-talking straight-shooters. This script has been killing Dems for the past fifteen years -- and party leaders simply refuses [sic] to address it. To all appearances, so do a set of liberal bloggers who are tied to the Dem Party structure.
Result? Get ready to go down once again as the script is applied to [Sen. John] McCain [R-AZ]. For the latest examples, keep reading.
The press corps has worked off this script for years. And just as [Daou Report founder and editor Peter] Daou says, Democrat leaders and strategists simply refuse to address this problem. Put more simply, they refuse to discuss the way our world works.
As Somerby noted, Bush isn't alone among conservatives in getting a pass from the media on his flip-flops. In December 2005, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff dismissed the potential use of U.S. National Guard troops for border security as "a horribly over-expensive and very difficult way to manage this problem." Now that Bush has decided to do exactly that, Chertoff advocates his plan -- and, as Media Matters detailed, the media ignored the inconsistency. Chertoff's previous comments are simply disappeared by news organizations.
And we haven't even gotten to John McCain yet. As Somerby and others have noted, the media storyline on McCain is in place: he's a "straight talker," no matter what lies he tells. He's "authentic" and "politically courageous" and a "maverick," no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. And that media portrayal of McCain isn't going to change, regardless of how many examples to the contrary progressives accumulate. It isn't going to change until progressives directly challenge journalists on the assumptions they make in their reporting.
And it isn't going to change until those journalists who understand the problem -- and there are many -- do something about it. When Joe Klein went on CNN and talked about Bush's "deeply held position" on immigration -- the one that directly contradicted the position he had taken in December 2005 -- none of the other journalists present corrected him. Host Lou Dobbs didn't. CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider didn't. New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Tom DeFrank didn't. Surely, at least one of them knew the position the president of the United States had taken on one of the nation's most hotly-debated issues just a few months before. But none of them said a word. When talk show pundits praise McCain's "straight talk," or mock former Vice President Al Gore's "exaggeration," how often do their fellow panelists challenge them rather than nodding along and chuckling appreciatively.
* Waldman is now a senior fellow at Media Matters; his most recent book is Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success (Wiley, April 2006).
Another common storyline: Democrats and progressives are unpatriotic; they're not serious about security -- and, in fact, actively help terrorists by taking policy positions conservatives disagree with.
Last week, we noted CNN anchor Miles O'Brien's suggestion that opposing the Iraq war constitutes an "unpatriotic" betrayal of U.S. troops fighting it. Other similarly noteworthy recent statements:
- Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke denounced the telecommunications company Qwest for "basically helping terrorists" by reportedly refusing to give the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of millions of its customers without a court order or approval according to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
- Fox News' Carl Cameron told viewers that "the idea that so many Democrats are complaining about the NSA programs without really knowing what they are is precisely why so many Republicans say Democrats just aren't serious about security." Cameron made no mention of the fact that many Republicans are defending the programs without really knowing what they are, or what that says about how serious they are about security.
- Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot wrote that opponents of the NSA's warrantless domestic spying operations "favor unilateral disarmament in our struggle against the suicide bombers." Boot added that Qwest should advertise "itself as the preferred telecom provider of Al Qaeda."
- Fox News' John Gibson said: "The Iranian president and the Dems [are] in lockstep" on a range of issues and "if he's borrowing their talking points, maybe they should adjust a bit."
Got all that? Thinking that the NSA should follow the law and get court authorization before it rifles through your mother's phone records constitutes "unilateral disarmament in our struggle against the suicide bombers." Questioning a program that experts say is illegal and ineffective is an indication that you "just aren't serious about security." Protecting your customers' privacy is "basically helping terrorists."
Just one problem: the terrorists, we were told, "hate our freedoms." They "kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life." They "hope that America grows fearful."
So, who exactly is "basically helping the terrorists"? Isn't it conservative pundits like Kondracke and Boot, who trip all over themselves to willingly give up the very freedoms the terrorists are trying to take from us? Isn't it "leaders" like Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), who give in to their fear, declaring that civil liberties must be curtailed because "you don't have any civil liberties if you're dead." Isn't it John Gibson, who thinks Americans should let the Iranian president dictate their speech?
New White House press secretary Tony Snow gave his first televised press briefing this week, earning widespread praise from Washington journalists and pundits.
Kondracke said he "did an especially good job tightrope-walking" the NSA scandal and praised one Snow statement on the scandal by saying, "That's great. That's good stuff."
Time's Mike Allen said Snow "was very astute about sticking to the facts that he knew," adding that he "had a very effective way of disarming some of the questions."
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux said Snow "did pretty well" and referred to the White House press corps as "the class bullies" -- a comment she made immediately before airing a clip of Snow's former Fox News colleague Carl Cameron. Malveaux went on to praise Snow's "refreshing candor" and "sense of humility, a sense of humor" and his "bluntness" and "sense of honesty that is refreshing." Malveaux's CNN colleague Ed Henry noted Snow's use of "humor" and "candor."
The standards for "candor" and "honesty" among journalists covering the Bush administration are apparently quite low these days.
As Media Matters noted, Snow's very first answer at the briefing was misleading at best; he went on to misrepresent news reports, polls, and the NSA's domestic spying operation. Yet on CNN and Fox News, he won praise for his "refreshing" "candor" and "honesty."
Similarly, Bush's nominee for CIA director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, was praised by Time for "effectively defending the National Security Agency's no-warrant wiretapping program after it was exposed in December." Time didn't bother to mention that Hayden's defense of the program included mutually inconsistent statements and claims that were contradicted by other administration officials. To Time, apparently, the fact that Hayden wasn't truthful is less significant than how "effectively" he misled the nation. Never mind that Hayden's defense was effective precisely because news organizations let him get away with making false and misleading claims.
Gore's critically acclaimed new film, An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics, May 2006), appears in select theaters on May 24. The "straightforward but quietly devastating film," as the Los Angeles Times put it, argues that "we can no longer afford to view global warming as a political issue" and places it among "the biggest moral challenges facing our global civilization."
Of course, when you combine the victim of a multi-year media smear campaign -- Gore -- with a topic the oil companies would rather we continue to ignore, you can be certain the film will be greeted by a stream of lies and distortions.
Indeed, before the film even opened, Fox News hosted Cato Institute senior fellow Patrick J. Michaels, whose work on climate issues has been funded by fuel companies. Michaels wasted no time in smearing Gore, falsely claiming that Gore endorsed exaggerating the threat of global warming.
Also on Fox, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Rob Pollock and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen got the science of global warming wrong. And ABC News' John Stossel (who previously called global warming "another foolish media-hyped scare") dismissed the threat of climate change, claiming "the alarmist scientists who always get the most play in the media, and most scientists don't agree with that."
In fact, the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global warming is real, that it is a threat, and that human activities have made it worse. And contrary to Stossel's claim, it is actually the few (usually industry-backed) scientists who disagree who get disproportionate media attention. As Jules and Maxwell Boykoff explained in an article in the November/December 2004 edition of Extra!, a bimonthly magazine from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR):
In our study called "Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press" -- presented at the 2002 Conference on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change in Berlin and published in the July 2004 issue of the journal Global Environmental Change -- we analyzed articles about human contributions to global warming that appeared between 1988 and 2002 in the U.S. prestige press: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.
Using the search term "global warming," we collected articles from this time period and focused on what is considered "hard news," excluding editorials, opinion columns, letters to the editor and book reviews. Approximately 41 percent of articles came from the New York Times, 29 percent from the Washington Post, 25 percent from the Los Angeles Times, and 5 percent from the Wall Street Journal.
From a total of 3,543 articles, we examined a random sample of 636 articles. Our results showed that the majority of these stories were, in fact, structured on the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, giving the impression that the scientific community was embroiled in a rip-roaring debate on whether or not humans were contributing to global warming.
More specifically, we discovered that:
53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations.
35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.
6 percent emphasized doubts about the claim that human-caused global warming exists, while another 6 percent only included the predominant scientific view that humans are contributing to Earth's temperature increases.
Through statistical analyses, we found that coverage significantly diverged from the IPCC [the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] consensus on human contributions to global warming from 1990 through 2002. In other words, through adherence to the norm of balance, the U.S. press systematically proliferated an informational bias.
In other words: despite the fact that there is very little disagreement among scientists -- at least among those who aren't on the oil companies' payroll -- about the human effects on global warming and its disastrous implications for the survival of the planet, news reports about global warming consistently suggest the opposite.
There is, of course, a way around this media misinformation: See the movie.
- Our friends at FAIR catalogued New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's two-and-a-half years of statements that the next six months in Iraq will determine whether a favorable outcome is impossible. Maybe it's time to start listening to people who haven't been wrong about Iraq for nearly three years?
- On May 10, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said: "The American people, for the first time now, really have a majority view that we were wrong to go to Iraq." Two days later, he noted "most Americans for months now believe it was a mistake to go to war." Then he wondered: "Yet the mainstream media continues to act as if most people support the war, and it's the outside weirdoes that oppose it. That's not true. The average American opposes this war. ... [W]hy does the media still act as if it's a gung-ho country on this?" Good question.
- When Matthews's guest, New York Times reporter Bill Carter, explained that "the media has been very much courting favor with the administration for a long time," Matthews wondered why, then agreed with Carter's explanation that it "was the only way to get access with these guys." Remember, Matthews was Media Matters' 2005 Misinformer of The Year largely on the strength of statements like his claim that Bush sometimes "glimmers" with "sunny nobility" and that "Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs."
- White House senior adviser Karl Rove lied about Bush's personal favorability ratings, claiming they are in the 60s. In fact, they have been in the 20s, 30s, and 40s for much of the year; they haven't been in the 60s for years. Fox News and the Associated Press credulously repeated Rove's false claims.
- Think misinformation in the media about Bush's attempt to privatize Social Security is behind us? Think again. The New York Times this week referred to the Republican "[P]arty's plan to add private investment accounts." In fact, the GOP plan wouldn't have added anything; it would have carved private investment accounts out of the current system. More, and worse, misinformation about Social Security is likely on the way.