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Less than eight weeks before midterm elections, there seems to be a general consensus among the political media that national security issues are the most important matters facing America -- and that they are of extraordinary electoral significance. And there is a broad consensus that, excluding Iraq, those issues play to the political advantage of President Bush and the Republican Party.
On the September 14 edition of the Public Broadcasting Service's The Charlie Rose Show, ABC News political director Mark Halperin and Time magazine assistant managing editor Michael Duffy provided a clear example of the way political journalists cover the midterm elections. Halperin explained that "the national debate is about national security, fighting terror." Duffy said national security "absolutely" is "straightforward" and "works for" the GOP.
Maybe those things are true; maybe they aren't; there is more than enough polling available to bolster both sides of that debate. The more important question for news organizations to consider is simple: What role do they play in whatever success Bush and the Republicans may have in convincing people their approach to national security is best?
The media's coverage of Bush's approach to Osama bin Laden answers that question very clearly.
Earlier this month, Media Matters for America noted the shocking lack of media attention given to investigative journalist Ron Suskind's report that Bush was personally warned that bin Laden would escape in the mountains near Tora Bora if Bush did not send U.S. troops to capture him. Bush did not do so, and bin Laden escaped.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) criticized Bush for relying on local Afghan militias to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora rather than using U.S. troops to do so -- which is precisely what happened, according to Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006). Bush angrily denounced Kerry's "wild claim," as the Associated Press reported on October 25, 2004:
He accused Kerry of "throwing out the wild claim that he knows where Osama bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 -- and that our military had a chance to get him in Tora Bora."
That was a reference to Kerry's frequent assertion that the administration "outsourced" the job of hunting down bin Laden to Afghan warlords.
"This is an unjustified and harsh criticism of our military commanders in the field," Bush said. "This is the worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking."
Of course, Kerry wasn't blaming "our military commanders in the field" -- he was blaming Bush.
The Tora Bora controversy got a great deal of media attention in 2004, but now that Suskind has reported that Bush was personally warned that bin Laden would escape if Bush failed to send U.S. troops, the nation's leading news organizations apparently couldn't care less.
On September 12, CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 featured a report on bin Laden's "escape from Tora Bora." Host Anderson Cooper told viewers bin Laden "simply disappeared" in Tora Bora and promised to explore "how he got away." After CNN played a video clip of the former CIA operative who was in charge of the hunt for bin Laden explaining that he thought at the time that "the Afghans were not reliable enough" and that he "requested the support of the U.S. military in the form of ground forces," Cooper noted: "But those forces never showed up." No mention was made of Suskind's report that Bush was personally advised that troops were necessary; no effort was made to explain why they "never showed up." In fact, that phrasing -- "never showed up" -- suggests the troops themselves were to blame.
That kind of omission is typical: America's largest and most respected news organization simply refuses to explore how the decision not to send troops to capture bin Laden was made. Suskind's revelation that Bush was personally warned that additional troops were needed has been utterly ignored. CNN even managed to air a two-hour special on bin Laden without mentioning the warning Bush received.
The September 10 edition of ABC's Nightline was typical, reporting simply that bin Laden "was able to slip away." The program featured a 1,400-word segment on the "Hunt for Osama" -- a segment that devoted only 32 words to bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora: "[I]n 2001, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden was thought to have been cornered in a mountainous area called Tora Bora, but he was able to slip away into Pakistan."
That's it. No mention of Suskind's report that Bush was warned that bin Laden would escape if he didn't send more troops. Not even a mention of the request the forces on the ground made for help.
Nightline's whitewash -- and that's the only word for it -- of Bush's Tora Bora failure is all the more appalling given that the show examined in far greater detail unsuccessful Clinton administration efforts to capture or kill bin Laden.
So ABC News' political director, Mark Halperin, tells us that national security and "fighting terror" is what the "national debate" is about -- but his network refuses to report even the most basic facts about Bush's failure to bring bin Laden to justice.
Bin Laden's escape at Tora Bora isn't the only aspect of Bush's failure to capture or kill the man responsible for 3,000 American deaths that the media consistently ignore.
Bush's long history of conflicting statements about bin Laden somehow manage to escape the attention of the news media, as well.
As Media Matters has noted, Bush has vowed to get bin Laden "dead or alive." But he also announced at a March 13, 2002, press conference, "I am truly not that concerned about him." He tells us that "the enemy wants to attack us again," but, he says, capturing bin Laden is "not a top priority."
You would think this feckless pattern of presidential flip-flopping on the basic issue of whether the United States thinks it is important to capture or kill the man responsible for the 9-11 terrorist attacks would receive extensive media coverage. But it doesn't. Bush can't even make up his mind on whether it is important to get bin Laden, or whether he prefers to simply turn the other cheek. And the media obligingly look away -- and rush to accuse Democrats of lacking a coherent plan. Incredible.
Even more incredible is the media's utter refusal to note Bush's apparent insincerity of his "clear doctrine" that there is no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them. As recently as September 5, Bush explained his "clear doctrine":
BUSH: After September the 11th, I laid out a clear doctrine: America makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror, and those that harbor and support them, because they're equally guilty of murder. ... And we have made clear that any government that chooses to be an ally of terror has also chosen to be an enemy of civilization.
But when Bush was asked during a September 15 press conference why he refused to send U.S. Special Forces to Pakistan "to hunt down bin Laden," he explained that he needs that country's permission to do so:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Earlier this week, you told a group of journalists that you thought the idea of sending Special Forces to Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden was a strategy that would not work.
Q Now, recently, you've also --
BUSH: Because, first of all, Pakistan is a sovereign nation.
Q Well, recently, you've also described bin Laden as a sort of modern day Hitler or Mussolini. And I'm wondering why, if you can explain why you think it's a bad idea to send more resources to hunt down bin Laden, wherever he is?
BUSH: We are, Richard. Thank you. Thanks for asking the question. They were asking me about somebody's report, well, Special Forces here -- Pakistan -- if he is in Pakistan, as this person thought he might be, who is asking the question -- Pakistan is a sovereign nation. In order for us to send thousands of troops into a sovereign nation, we've got to be invited by the government of Pakistan.
The tough-talking Bush -- the one who vowed to get bin Laden "dead or alive," who declared that other nations would not provide sanctuary to terrorists on his watch -- says he won't send troops to get the man responsible for 9-11 unless he can get permission from the president of Pakistan.
And -- as they have been doing for years -- the media simply ignored it.
Immediately after Bush's press conference, CNN anchors, reporters, and pundits rushed to tell viewers how "tough" Bush was; how he "came out swinging"; how he was "hard-hitting."
Bush stood before the American people and told them that he needs the permission of foreign leaders in order to hunt down the man responsible for 9-11 -- and CNN wants you to know how "tough" he was.
We don't know if, as Halperin and Duffy suggest, Bush and the GOP will continue to benefit politically from national security issues dominating the public debate. But if they do, we won't have much doubt about why they were able to do so despite failing to bring bin Laden to justice and bungling their way through a disastrous war against a nation that didn't attack us.
Speaking of which, Bush continues to try to con the country into thinking Iraq did have something to do with 9-11 -- and continues to benefit from the way the media cover those efforts.
Writing for the American Prospect's "The Horse's Mouth" weblog, Brendan Nyhan claimed that the criticism of Bush by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) for trying "to justify the invasion of Iraq by drawing nonexistent links to the 9/11 attacks" was misleading. Nyhan wrote: "I've written extensively about how administration officials have linked Iraq to 9/11. But last night was one of the very rare instances in which Bush disavowed a direct connection. Pelosi's statement is misleading at best, and [New York Times reporter David] Stout should have called her on it."
Unfortunately, Nyhan missed the forest for the trees. Bush may have "disavowed a direct connection" between Iraq and 9-11, but in talking extensively about Iraq during what was billed as a solemn commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, Bush clearly gave viewers the impression that Iraq had something to do with the attacks.
This is, to anybody who has been paying attention, easily recognizable as a tactic frequently used by Bush and his backers: They don't explicitly say "Iraq was behind 9-11" -- in fact, they take great pains to note that they aren't saying it. But in repeatedly discussing one in the context of the other, Bush and his backers create an impression that Iraq and the 9-11 attacks are linked, even as they insist that they are not doing so. And reporters let them get away with it; they even (unwittingly, we presume) help out.
Whenever we hear Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their supporters insist that they never linked Iraq with 9-11 -- even while insisting even more strenuously that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda -- we are reminded of one of the ugliest political campaigns in recent memory, the 1994 race for Attorney General of the state of New York. That campaign was noteworthy for Republican candidate (and eventual winner) Dennis Vacco's repeated insistence that he would not make an issue of his opponent's sexuality.
The September 26, 1994, edition of The Buffalo News, for example, quoted Vacco as saying, "The fact that my opponent is a lesbian, and has used that as an advantage, has no import to me whatsoever. This campaign is not raising that as an issue." Of course, by insisting that he was "not raising" the issue, Vacco was doing just that.
To their credit, some news organizations told their readers what Vacco was doing -- or at least hinted at it.
The Times-Union in Albany, New York, reported on October 12, 1994:
For the past month, Dennis Vacco, the Republican candidate for attorney general, has been insisting that he would not mention or discuss the fact that his opponent, Democrat Karen Burstein, is a lesbian.
Yet from the first day after Burstein won the Democratic primary [on] Sept. 13, Vacco supporters have been raising her sexual orientation as an issue. And he has thus far refused to condemn any of them for doing so.
Five days later, the Associated Press reported a statement by Guy Molinari, Vacco supporter and Staten Island borough president, in which he said, "The next attorney general shouldn't be an admitted lesbian." The AP added:
The Democratic candidate for the post, former Family Court Judge Karen Burstein, has never made a secret of her sexual orientation. And her Republican opponent, former U.S. Attorney Dennis Vacco, never made it an issue. But Vacco, who has been trailing in polls that also show a large number of undecided voters, did not denounce Molinari's statement. Instead, he said, "My opponent's sexual orientation -- the fact that she has stated openly that she is a lesbian -- is not an issue for me in this race."
That's the kind of statement that drives gay political operatives crazy because, they say, it does exactly what the speaker says he will not do: Make an issue of his opponent's sexuality.
That's what Bush, Cheney, et al are doing now -- cleverly reinforcing the notion of a connection between Iraq and 9-11, even while insisting that they aren't. And reporters inexplicably fall for it again and again.
In this week's Rhode Island primary, incumbent Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee defeated his more conservative challenger, setting up a general-election race against Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Chafee won only after an influx of cash from the national Republican Party, including $1.2 million worth of ads attacking Chafee's challenger.
Chafee's victory was widely seen as a positive for Republicans, who considered Chafee a more viable general-election candidate against Whitehouse. The New York Times ran an article the next day headlined "In Setback for Democrats, Incumbent Wins Republican Senate Primary." The Washington Post likewise portrayed Chafee's win as unquestioningly good news for the GOP: "Chafee's performance ... suggest[s] that the Republican advantage on turnout may remain intact even as many other trends are favoring the opposition."
All that may be true. But curiously absent from many national media reports about Chafee's victory was any indication that maybe -- just maybe -- the fact that a senator who voted against the Iraq war was able to win a Republican primary is yet another indication of the public's unhappiness with the war. Maybe, just maybe, the success of an anti-Iraq-war candidate in a Republican primary is something other than entirely good news for the GOP.
As part of Media Matters' ongoing efforts to diversify our critique of conservative misinformation in the media, we've added two new senior fellows. Eric Alterman and Eric Boehlert, two leading progressive media critics whose work we have frequently quoted in this space, have joined the Media Matters team and will be featured on a new portion of our website devoted to columns by Media Matters fellows, staff, and others.
Boehlert worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote about the media and politics; he has also worked as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and writes for The Huffington Post. Most recently, Boehlert wrote Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, May 2006). With apologies to Victor Kiam: We liked Lapdogs so much, we hired the author.
Boehlert's first column, "Katie and Rush and the face of corporate news," was posted this week. Boehlert's columns will appear each Tuesday.
Alterman is the author of several books, including What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic Books, March 2004), Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (Cornell University Press, January 2000, rev. ed.), and It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (Back Bay Press, August 2001, new ed.). Alterman is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, a columnist for The Nation, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
After writing for MSNBC.com for the past 10 years, Alterman brings his widely read daily weblog, Altercation, to Media Matters beginning on Monday, September 18.
Media Matters' daily items -- containing thorough corrections of conservative misinformation in the media based on rigorous and timely research -- remain the heart and soul of our operation.
But we're excited to expand our efforts to include Alterman and Boehlert, two writers whose work is both important and eloquent.