Media promote mutually inconsistent themes on terrorism and the election, both of which benefit GOP
If you believe what you hear from prominent conservatives and political reporters, the following things are true:
1) Anytime terrorism is in the news, it plays to the political and electoral benefit of the Republicans.
2) Terrorists who are trying to destroy America are trying to help elect Democrats because they think Democrats are weak. The terrorists are doing so by increasing violence in Iraq and otherwise drawing attention to their existence, as the Osama bin Laden videotape released shortly before the 2004 election.
Those two things are obviously incompatible. The latter is based on the premise that increased news of terrorism benefits Democrats; the former is an explicit statement of the opposite. The two are fundamentally inconsistent. (OK, there is a way the two sentiments could rationally coexist -- but it requires us to believe that The Enemy has reached depths of incompetence previously explored by only Wile E. Coyote. And, in that case, why haven't we been able to defeat them yet? This possibility can be safely dismissed.)
The fact that the U.S. political media routinely tell us both of those mutually inconsistent things reveals almost everything we need to know about the state of the profession and the quality of the political information we receive. Almost everything.
But there's something else worth keeping in mind. Both of those sentiments just happen to be favorable to Republicans: The first because it suggests that the American people know Republicans are better able to fight terrorists, and the second because it suggests that the terrorists know it, too. As Thomas B. Edsall, author of Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power (Basic Books, August 2006) and long one of the nation's most influential political journalists, says: conservatives' decades-long campaign against the media "has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right."
Some, of course, are more willing than others. Fox News propagandist Bill O'Reilly, for example, tells viewers that "that's what the Republicans have, the security issue." But he also tells us that increased violence in Iraq is an example of Iran "ramping up the violence so Americans will turn against the Bush administration," that North Korea is "causing trouble" for the same reason, that "the insurgents" in Iraq "are trying to influence our election by raising the violence." Why, O'Reilly wonders, "does Al Qaeda want [President] Bush weakened, why does Iran want Democrats to win in November? Why does North Korea?" But, he adds, "Democrats know Republicans are still perceived to be the stronger terror fighters" and "if the terror thing stays in the news, the Republicans have a better chance in November."
Got all that? Bill O'Reilly tells us that Republicans have a political advantage on security issues and that they benefit if "the terror thing stays in the news." AND he tells us that Al Qaeda and Iran and North Korea are drawing attention to themselves because ... they "want Democrats to win in November."
Well, which is it?
O'Reilly, of course, isn't the only media figure to mindlessly repeat this GOP spin; he's just the most ridiculous -- though MSNBC's Chris Matthews gives him a run for his money from time to time. Matthews has an uncanny knack for asserting a Republican strength that is directly undermined by publicly available polling.
Last year, Matthews routinely asserted that, despite President Bush's low job-approval ratings, people liked him personally. Matthews even declared at one point that "[e]verybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left -- I mean -- like him personally." Media Matters for America repeatedly corrected Matthews, pointing out that, in fact, people don't much like Bush. (In addition to polling showing that people have a low personal opinion of Bush, a Pew survey earlier this year asked people to describe their impressions of Bush. The most frequently used word was "incompetent," with "idiot" and "liar" not far behind. As many people described him as an "ass" as described him as a "leader"; "jerk" wasn't far behind.) Finally, Matthews acknowledged that he was wrong, said he was "amazed" that people don't like Bush personally, and said "I always thought Bush was more popular than his policies. ... I keep saying it, and I keep being wrong on this."
That's something of a specialty for Matthews, as he has shown lately. "Terror and taxes are the Republican strong points," Matthews keeps telling us, and damn the facts. Think that's an exaggeration? Here's what Chris Matthews said on Hardball last night:
MATTHEWS: Republicans know from the polls they got two strengths right now. One is terrorism. Anything that reminds us of 9-11 reminds us of Bush's leadership back them -- and since then. Taxes -- Republicans are good at cutting taxes -- Democrats are notorious for not cutting them, whether the current polls back that up or not.
Got that? Republicans know from the polls that taxes are a political strength for them, whether the current polls back that up or not. Incidentally, they don't.
Over the next three weeks, journalists like Matthews owe the public the facts, not the GOP spin they've been regurgitating for far too long. One such fact is that the public now has more confidence in Democrats when it comes to handling Iraq -- and thinks they'd do a better job of dealing with terrorism, too. But recitation of public polling isn't enough.
If reporters are going to tell us The Enemy is trying to influence our elections, maybe they should tell us who the terrorists really want to win, and why.
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, CIA analysts believed that bin Laden's 2004 videotape was an attempt to swing the election in President Bush's favor.
How often have you heard that on television? How often have you read that in your newspaper? Somewhere in the neighborhood of "never," right? Excuse us, but why the hell not?
News organizations are, once again, flooding us with speculation that the terrorists are trying to influence elections. And it isn't just Fox News, in case you're wondering -- not even close. CBS' David Martin told viewers on October 19 that "the fact that the insurgency can take losses like that and still step up its attacks against American troops in what is believed to be an attempt to influence the November elections in this country is also a measure of its strength and resilience."
As they're doing so, shouldn't they tell us that CIA analysts think bin Laden wanted Bush to win in 2004? And shouldn't we insist that they do so?
After all, the notion that The Enemy wants Republicans to win isn't merely consistent with the CIA analysts' take on the bin Laden tape, it's also quite logical. More than five years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration still hasn't managed to capture or kill bin Laden, the Taliban is making a comeback in Afghanistan, and it is increasingly clear to everyone except George Bush and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (CT) that things aren't exactly going well for the good guys in Iraq. The recently released National Intelligence Estimate indicates that Bush's Iraq war is creating more terrorists and making us less safe. Why would the terrorists want to change horses in midstream?
Yet rather than pointing any of this out, the media tell us things like "no one questions whether this president has been tough on terror," as NBC's David Gregory recently said. Bull. Many people question whether Bush has been tough on terror. Many people -- those who aren't employed by news organizations, at least -- increasingly understand that oversimplifying complex issues and speaking as though your audience consists entirely of third-graders and morons doesn't constitute "toughness." If the CIA analysts are correct, even Osama bin Laden apparently thinks Bush hasn't been tough on terror.
Yet we continually hear from political reporters that terrorism is "a winning issue for Republicans" and that the White House believes that national security "going to be a strong issue for the Republicans."
Meanwhile, Jeff Stein, Congressional Quarterly's national security editor wrote in an op-ed published in The New York Times this week saying that an alarming number of Bush administration and congressional officials who are deeply involved in making decisions about the Iraq war and fighting terrorism "don't have a clue" about a rather basic question -- what the differences are between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Stein wrote that, among others, Gary Bald, the former head of the FBI's National Security Branch; Rep. Terry Everett (R-AL), the vice chairman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence; and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA), chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis and Counterintelligence were stumped by his question about the differences between Sunnis and Shiites. As Media Matters wrote:
Given that Al Qaeda is predominantly Sunni, and that two of Iraq's most powerful neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are predominantly Shiite and Sunni, respectively, Stein asked: "How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?"
While Stein raises an important question, the fact that this information first appeared in the Times on its op-ed page raises another question: How is it that the Times has let this simple, yet critical, piece of information regarding the basic competencies of the Bush administration officials and Republican legislators managing U.S. national security go unreported in its news pages?
These are the things our media should be focusing on -- not baseless assertions of the Republicans' purported political advantage. The Bush administration and its congressional enablers have been shockingly inept, criminally incompetent, and, in many cases, simply criminal in their handling of everything from Iraq and national security and the hunt for bin Laden to Hurricane Katrina to the budget. They have auctioned off legislation to the highest bidder, and shunned any vestige of oversight and accountability.
And they've gotten away with it in no small part due to a political media that can be counted on to repeat -- perhaps, as Edsall says, unwillingly and unknowingly -- bogus GOP storylines almost without fail.
One glaring example of this is the way news organizations seem to bend over backward to pretend that both parties are equally guilty of corruption. With every week bringing new examples of prominent Republicans pleading guilty, being indicted, having their associates' homes raided by the FBI, and generally behaving more like an organized crime syndicate than a political party, it's been a struggle, but reporters -- seemingly under the mistaken impression that "balanced reporting" means making the news equally bad for both parties, no matter what the facts -- are giving it an impressive try.
CNN, for example, covered news that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) may have made a minor technical error in disclosing a real-estate transaction as though it were the news of the century. Again and again, CNN breathlessly reported that Reid bought real estate (which he disclosed) and sold it years later (which he disclosed) for a profit of $700,000 (which he disclosed) -- but that he had neglected to disclose a technical transfer of the property to a limited liability company in which he was a partner. CNN had devoted more than 3,300 on-air words to the story by October 17, mentioning it nearly every day for a week. By the end of the next day, the total neared 5,000. Why did such a seemingly insignificant story merit such coverage?
By comparison, CNN has broadcast only 65 words about a land deal in which Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL) made nearly $2 million. The Hastert story should have gotten much more coverage on the merits -- Hastert's land appreciated after he personally earmarked federal funds for a highway nearby, while Reid is not alleged to have taken any official action that increased the value of his property. Yet the Hastert land deal got only a tiny fraction of the attention CNN gave to the Reid deal. Perhaps because CNN is desperately trying to appease Republican critics by portraying congressional corruption as something Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of?
If that's the case, CNN certainly isn't alone. The October 19 broadcast of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson featured a report about "The Money Trail" by chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross. Gibson introduced Ross by noting that "Congress has suffered a black eye this year, after revelations that a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, bought influence with campaign contributions and trips." During his report, Ross described a Democratic fundraiser in Nantucket as "[t]he kind of cozy relationship [between lobbyists and members of Congress] that Senate Democrats have criticized as part of the Republican program."
Sure sounds like Democrats are guilty of the same things Republicans did, right? But there is, of course, a crucial difference. The Democratic fundraiser Ross described involved Democrats legally raising money. Republicans like Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) have gone to jail for breaking the law. Cunningham, for example, prepared a bribe menu -- a sheet of paper indicating how much money he would charge lobbyists in exchange for various official actions. That's illegal, and that's why he's in jail. That's a little different from munching on a lobster roll with a donor who has just written you a check. One is illegal, one isn't -- not a subtle distinction. But one that ABC didn't bother to make; had it done so, it would have had to acknowledge that the corruption scoreboard currently shows Republicans with an overwhelming lead.
Further suggesting a complete lack of appreciation for proportionality, World News ran a report on the Reid land deal and his use of $3,000 in campaign funds for Christmas bonuses for employees of the building in which he lives on October 17. But the program still hasn't gotten around to telling viewers that the FBI has raided the homes of Rep. Curt Weldon's (R-PA) daughter and her business partner, as well as four other locations, as part of an "intensifying corruption inquiry" into whether Weldon illegally used his office to enrich his daughter. To ABC, Harry Reid's Christmas bonuses, which are not under investigation as far as anyone knows, are news -- but the FBI's raids on houses as part of an "intensifying corruption inquiry" into Curt Weldon's possible misuse of his official position to enrich his daughter is not. (After Media Matters drew attention to this disparate treatment, ABC mentioned the Weldon raid on the October 19 edition of Nightline -- but it still hasn't found its way onto World News.)
Can journalists at ABC and CNN possibly believe that Harry Reid's reporting snafu is more newsworthy that Denny Hastert fighting for federal funding for a highway that increased the value of his property? Or that Reid's Christmas bonuses are more newsworthy than FBI agents raiding the home of a congressman's daughter as part of an "intensifying corruption inquiry" into that congressman?
Or are they "overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right," as Thomas Edsall says?