Candidate George W. campaigned against what he termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” With regard to his relations with the media as president, such bigotry has proven to be his best friend.
The kid gloves with which so much of the mainstream media have chosen to treat this president and his party were particularly in evidence during the 2004 Republican convention. Speaker after speaker came to the podium prepared to mislead the nation as to the policies of the past and the prospects for the future, and aside from the invaluable Jon Stewart and his fake news crew on Comedy Central, rarely, if ever, did anyone think to offer a reality check.
As the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Campaign Desk” reported, many local newspapers “fell prey to [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s stalest and most discredited distortion of John Kerry’s words.” Specifically, it found that newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Dispatch simply aped Cheney’s contention that “[Kerry] talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side,” without mentioning the fact that, as we know, Kerry actually said, “I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side.” But for all their mocking, “sensitivity” has not always been such a sissy word to top administration figures. In March 2001, the president himself claimed, “Precisely because America is powerful, we must be sensitive about expressing our power and influence.” Even the vice president himself, last April, declared that “We recognize that the presence of U.S. forces can in some cases present a burden on the local community. We’re not insensitive to that.”
When Democrat Zell Miller took the stage to deliver the convention’s keynote address, he took a swift boat to the land of McCarthyite lies and paranoid fantasy. A conservative pundit – who not only feels no compunction about revealing the names of U.S. intelligence agents, but also feels no compunction to inform his viewers and readers that his own family members are working in conjunction with the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” to publicize their false and slanderous claims while praising their work—was quick to support Miller’s right to lie. Novak explained that “To quibble over whether Zell was right on this or that point…is to miss the point,” because old Zell is simply a man who “relishes his heritage.” In fact, Miller’s speech was indefensible, as was evident in the bizarre exchange he had with Chris Matthews when asked to defend it. (Miller said he would like to challenge Matthews to a duel and wished he could “get up in his face.”) The White House may have the same concerns, as after Miller’s speech, it seems that he and his wife were disappeared by the party when they were removed from the list of dignitaries who would be sitting in the first family’s box during the president’s acceptance speech. While refutations of Miller’s falsehoods concerning John Kerry’s congressional defense spending votes were reported here and there, they were nowhere near as vociferously denounced as the near-treasonous charges warranted.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan looked into them in some detail and discovered, lo and behold, that on Jan. 31, 1990, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney proudly boasted before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Overall, since I’ve been Secretary, we will have taken the five-year defense program down by well over $300 billion.” Still, Cheney wanted more. If only, he claimed, Congress, controlled by Democrats, had “let me cancel a few programs. But you’ve squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don’t fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements. You’ve directed me to buy more M1s, F14s, and F16s—all great systems but we have enough of them.” By coincidence, these were among the very weapons systems Miller falsely accused John Kerry of having opposed.
Much of the misinformation was reinforced by sympathetic pundits who either did not know or care enough to correct the record. While Matthews took on Miller, he played the patsy for Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Here’s a guy who lived firsthand through the Cold War. He was under Soviet rule. That’s pretty personal. And then, of course, he went through socialism. He didn’t quite like that. And now of course he is making the case for the war against Saddam Hussein, of the occupation of Iraq. It struck me, this guy has street cred,” Matthews gushed. Too bad the bodybuilder never did live under a socialist government – Austria was governed by conservative governments during his lifetime – and it is highly unlikely that he ever saw a Soviet tank in Austria, as the Soviets left his home town two years before he was even born. What’s more, he appeared to invent a 1968 debate between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey that never took place as well, in his fulsome praise for the man who disgraced both his country and his office, but turned Arnold into a Republican. (The pundits were too polite to ask about that apparent incongruity as well.)
Even given all of the above, the underreported whopper of the week came when the president told NBC’s Matt Lauer that the United States could never expect to “win” the war on terror. Bush is actually right. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy, and no civilization in history has ever or can ever hope to eliminate it. But it is also verboten to recognize such uncomfortable facts in an administration which treats reality as something about which only wimps worry. Bush quickly flip-flopped and explained that all he meant to say was that terror is simply a “different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table.” True enough, but compare this reversal of all Bush pronouncements with the media’s treatment of Teresa Heinz Kerry’s request to a Richard Melon Scaife reporter to “shove it.” According to Mediamatters.org, the former flip-flop was reported for a total of four days, with a total of 397 mentions in news databases, while Mrs. Kerry’s inconsequential remark—she is not after all running for president and was addressing an obnoxious newspaper, not the central tenet of U.S. foreign policy—was reported for 12 days with a total of 998 mentions.
Fair and balanced, indeed.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.