On CNN's Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz asserted that CBS News' "Jim Axelrod, and some of the other White House correspondents, sounded almost offended that Bush delivered what they considered to be a partisan speech on the 9-11 anniversary." But there was a reason reporters might have reacted as they did to Bush's speech: Before the address, the White House had repeatedly pledged that Bush's September 11 address to the nation would not be "political," but rather a "reflection" of what the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks meant to him and to America.
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On the September 17 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, discussing President Bush's September 11 primetime address to the nation and White House press secretary Tony Snow's September 12 press briefing, Washington Post columnist and Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz asserted that CBS News chief White House correspondent "Jim Axelrod, and some of the other White House correspondents, sounded almost offended that Bush delivered what they considered to be a partisan speech on the 9-11 anniversary." But there was a reason reporters might have reacted as Kurtz claimed they did to Bush's speech: Before the address, the White House had repeatedly pledged that Bush's September 11 address to the nation would not be "political," but rather a "reflection" of what the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks meant to him and to America.
Responding to CBS News contributor and U.S. News and World Report contributing editor Gloria Borger's dubious assertion that the reporters were merely "voicing the concerns of some really senior senators in Congress," Kurtz asked, "Isn't it also our job to voice the concerns of politicians who might support the president?"
In the days leading to Bush's 9-11 address, White House officials repeatedly stressed that the speech would not be "political," but rather a "reflection of what September 11th has meant to the President, and to the country." On September 8, Snow announced the address, telling the White House press corps:
SNOW: This is not a political speech; there are not going to be any calls to action for Congress. It will be a reflection of what September 11th has meant to the President, and to the country; the realities that it has brought to all of our attention and how we can move forward together to try to win the war on terror.
Yet, as Media Matters has previously noted, Bush's primetime address prominently featured a political message, often echoing remarks he made during numerous recent appearances in support of Republican candidates and in campaign speeches during the 2004 presidential election. For instance, Bush repeatedly tied the war in Iraq to the larger struggle against terrorism; as the Associated Press reported: "[M]ost of his 17-minute speech was devoted to justifying his foreign policy since that day. With his party's control of Congress at stake in elections less than two months away, Bush suggested that political opponents who are calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be giving victory to the terrorists." Additionally, in his 9-11 address, Bush touted his administration's purported success in giving "those who toil day and night to keep our homeland safe ... the tools they need to protect our people," specifically referring to the passage of the USA Patriot Act and later citing the controversial warrantless domestic surveillance and bank-tracking programs.
According to the Los Angeles Times, at least one "network news executive said ... that the speech would prompt greater scrutiny of future White House requests for air time" because it was not purely a "speech of national significance" but contained "partisan" elements. During Snow's September 12 press briefing, Axelrod challenged Snow to explain how Bush's 9-11 address was not "political," when the speech "la[id] out his [Bush's] case" for executing the "war on terror," which is "the central point that will be debated in the next eight weeks between Democrats and Republicans." On Reliable Sources, Borger also stated that "there's no doubt, despite what Tony Snow said, that this speech was partisan." Kurtz responded to Borger by asking, "And it's the job of journalists to repeatedly and forcefully point that out?" Kurtz later stated that, in addition to questioning the White House about the positions contrary to theirs, "it's also our job to voice the concerns of politicians who might support the president."
But according to Kurtz, Axelrod and "some" other unnamed reporters, who followed up on the discrepancies between the White House's promotion of Bush's primetime address and the address itself "sounded almost offended" about "what they considered to be a partisan speech." Kurtz was presumably referring to an exchange between Snow and Axelrod during the September 12 White House press briefing, in which Axelrod challenged Snow on his continued assertions that Bush's speech was not "political." Axelrod asked Snow how he could "say that" Bush's speech was not political when "[i]t was a crystallized greatest hits of" four recent "speeches where he laid out his philosophical underpinnings about the war on terror heading into the election." Axelrod asserted that Bush's address "was in direct contrast to what you came in here and told us Friday." Snow denied that the speech "dr[ew] partisan lines."
From the September 17 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources:
KURTZ: So, are journalists holding the president accountable or taking sides? Joining us in now in New York, John Fund, columnist for The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com. In Washington, Gloria Borger -- national political correspondent for CBS News and a columnist for U.S. News and World Report -- and David Corn -- Washington editor of The Nation and a Fox News contributor, also the co-author with Michael Isikoff of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War.
KURTZ: Gloria Borger, your [CBS News] colleague, Jim Axelrod, and some of the other White House correspondents, sounded almost offended that Bush delivered what they considered to be a partisan speech on the 9-11 anniversary.
BORGER: I'm shocked that the president delivered a partisan speech. I mean, we are in the midterm elections right now, and I think there's no doubt, despite what Tony Snow said, that this speech was partisan because the president obviously feels on the defensive because he cannot link Saddam Hussein to 9-11, the war in Iraq to 9-11.
KURTZ: And it's the job of journalists to repeatedly and forcefully point that out?
BORGER: Yeah, I think so. And, in fact, he said in an interview with Katie Couric, during her first week as [CBS Evening News] anchor, "That's the hardest thing that I have to do." And again, that is exactly what he was trying to do that evening.
KURTZ: Gloria Borger, on torture of detainees, on terror, on Iraq, have journalists become skeptical, if not hostile, toward President Bush?
BORGER: Well, I think you're seeing from the press conference that, clearly, the journalists are becoming more skeptical, but what they're doing is they're really voicing the concerns of some really senior senators in Congress who have voiced those concerns. And so, you know, we live down at the bottom of the food chain, Howie, in case you didn't know, and so, we are voicing the concerns that we're hearing on Capitol Hill and asking those questions directly to the president because his fight right now is a fight he didn't want to have with his own party.
CORN: But let me --
KURTZ: Go ahead.
CORN: But let me make a suggestion here, too. The president and the vice president had a chance to prove to the public and the world that when they tell us things, they basically get it right. But everything they said about the war in Iraq, the connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and Saddam's WMDs proved out to be wrong. Everything that [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld has said about the war in Iraq in terms of how it would go has proven to be wrong. So, I think any time they tell us anything, the media is right to say, "Given your record, prove it. What do you mean?"
KURTZ: But Gloria, you say that the journalists are just voicing the concerns of senators who are opposition. But isn't it also our job to voice the concerns of politicians who might support the president?
BORGER: Well, I think it is. And some might say that journalists have been doing that for the last couple of years. But I think, honestly, that now there is a huge controversy, and what we're doing is reflecting that, and I think you see that in the press room at the White House.
KURTZ: But I just want to pick up this point with you, Gloria Borger. You seem to be suggesting that it's part of journalists' responsibility to voice the criticism of opponents, even whether it's within the Republican Party or Democratic side.
KURTZ: But doesn't that run the risk of making journalists look like they're part of the opposition?
BORGER: Yeah, I think it -- I think it does. And I think (inaudible), Howie. I think what we're doing is, honestly, trying to get a second-day story. And if you have [Sens.] John McCain [R-AZ] and John Warner [R-VA] and Lindsey Graham [R-SC], three very well-respected senators on Capitol Hill, complaining about something, you're going to voice their concerns because, you know, Howie, you don't get that many chances to ask those questions directly to the president of the United States. And I think when you have that opportunity to do that, you just take it.
CORN: Isn't it the role of the media to provide somewhere of a check and balance? And the only way you do that is by being somewhat oppositional, by saying, "What do you mean by this? Can you prove that?" And, you know, the press' oppositional nature waxes and wanes depending on how they read the tealeaves on Capitol Hill and in the public at large --
KURTZ: More oppositional now because Bush is down in the polls?
CORN: Oh, certainly.
KURTZ: Because people in his own party are challenging him? That makes it -- the journalists freer?
CORN: It makes it much easier -- much easier. They --
BORGER: Or because there's an election. You know?
CORN: They can point to McCain and Powell and feel better because of that.