The national news media can’t make up its mind if
George W. Bush is Gary Cooper, John Wayne or a
reincarnation of John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis.
With the end of the standoff with China -- over U.S. military
personnel whose plane collided with a Chinese military jet
and made an emergency landing on a Chinese island --
Bush has been getting rave reviews.
Typical of the oohing and aahing, The Washington Post ran
a page-one headline calling Bush’s role in the crisis “vigorous.”
The story reported that Bush “peppered” an
Army general with questions about the condition of the crew.
Bush then lectured Secretary of State Colin Powell that
“we don’t need to be pointing fingers.”
Not finished, Bush “grilled” national security adviser
Condoleeza Rice about the precise wording of a letter
expressing regret, while making “sure it didn’t go outside
the ‘red lines’ he set for negotiators.” [WP, April 12, 2001]
Two days later, the Post marveled again in a front-page
headline about how “leading actor Bush avoids center stage.”
“If public emoting and volubility were signatures of the last
president, a certain taciturnity in the face of major news
stories is becoming a signature of this one,” the Post
reported on April 14. “The more reserved approach, White
House officials say, is … an expression of this president’s
personal values” -- not apparently his inability to string
together a coherent sentence on his own.
So Bush, whose rash initial comments against China
arguably worsened an already tense situation, turns out to
be both an energetic leader – giving pointers to the likes of
Colin Powell – and a humble fellow whose “values” prevent
him from grandstanding, the way President Clinton would have.
After resolving this China crisis with what Bush might call his
“mis-underestimated” diplomatic touch, Bush headed off into the
Western sunset to spend Easter weekend at his ranch in Texas.
For some of us in the Washington news media who lived
through the Reagan-Bush era, it was déjà vu all over again.
The Reagan-Bush rules were back, with patriotic journalists
credulously extolling the skills, the acumen and high-moral
character of national leaders, whatever the reality.
In the apt description by author Mark Hertsgaard,
Washington journalists were “on bended knee” before
Ronald Reagan -- and pretty much stayed there under
George H.W. Bush. Now, the journalists are back on their
knees before Bush's son.
During the eight years of Bill Clinton, of course, opposite
rules applied. It was the media’s duty to expose every
conceivable flaw in that president’s Arkansas business
dealings and in his personal life.
The same relentless negativity applied to Al Gore, who was
labeled “delusional” and suffering from other psychiatric
illnesses after the media sifted through his public
statements and claimed to find slight exaggerations, many
of which actually resulted from shoddy reporting about what
Gore actually said.
In its renewed gullibility, the Washington press corps now
promotes an image of Bush as a leader who is forceful yet
humble, principled yet compassionate.
But what the press didn’t want to advertise was that these
so-called “tick tocks” – the minute-by-minute,
behind-the-scenes accounts of the China standoff – were
manufactured by Bush’s image-handlers who controlled all
access to this supposed inside-story.
At major newsmagazines, such as Time and Newsweek,
tick-tocks have long been vital for the novelistic style of
writing. But today, that taste for the inside scoop is
important to pundits and other reporters as well, allowing
clever press spokesmen to spoon feed favored journalists
with these precious details – often exaggerations or
borderline fiction – to manipulate the media’s presentation
of the stories to the public.
Bored About Florida
How uncritically the national news media is doing its job is
highlighted, too, by its disinterest in new disclosures about
wrongdoing in the Florida election.
Eager to accept the legitimacy of the Bush White House,
the national press corps either has turned a blind eye to
growing evidence of a rigged election or has manipulated
the results of unofficial statewide recounts to bolster the
impression of Bush as the rightful winner.
The Miami Herald and USA Today conducted a review of
the state’s undervotes and found that by applying a
clear-intent-of-the-voter standard – partially
punched-through ballots and others where indentations
occurred in multiple races, indicating a malfunctioning
voting machine – Al Gore won the state by 299 votes. Only if
all indentations are ignored could Bush have prevailed.
But instead of highlighting these facts, the two newspapers
chose to delete Gore’s gains in three-plus counties and thus
assert that Bush was the real winner.
The newspapers’ rationale for subtracting Gore’s gains was
an interpretation of the last-minute Florida Supreme Court
ruling on Dec. 8 that had tried to achieve a common
statewide solution to the recount. The newspapers read that
ruling as not requiring a review of disputed ballots in the
three-plus counties where recounts had already occurred.
Whether those disputed ballots might or might not have
undergone judicial examination along with the state’s other
disputed ballots remains unclear because the process was
never completed. The statewide recount was aborted the
next day at Bush’s request by five Republican justices on
the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet, instead of blaming Bush for first delaying and then
blocking a full and fair recount -- urged by Gore as early as
Nov. 15 -- the newspapers rewarded the Republican by
deducting the additional undervotes that would have shown
Gore to be the winner.
The Bush-as-winner lead was picked up uncritically by every
major national news organization.
The Black Purge
The national media also has displayed virtually no interest in
the growing evidence that Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration
conducted so-called “ballot security” which systematically
reduced the black vote and likely took thousands of other
votes away from Gore who was favored by
African-Americans by 9-to-1.
Following on the groundbreaking work of BBC reporter
Greg Palast, investigative reporter John Lantigua dissected
how Jeb Bush’s administration “gamed the system in
Florida,” according to an article in The Nation [April 30, 2001]
A key to holding down the black vote was an extraordinary
effort to remove thousands of black voters from the rolls
under the guise of purging felons who had completed their
jail time and returned to society. Florida is one of 14 states
that doesn’t automatically restore people’s civil rights when
they complete their sentences.
The Jeb Bush administration, however, went further,
applying loose standards that swept up non-felons who
simply had a name, birth date or Social Security number
similar to a felon’s. Working with a private contractor,
Database Technologies (DBT) of Boca Raton, Fla., state
officials ordered that approximate matches, known as “false
positives,” be put on the lists that were then sent to local
canvassing boards to remove the voters from the rolls.
As this process advanced in 1999, Jeb Bush’s point man
on the project, Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV, told local voting
supervisors not to double-check the lists by phone, only by
mail, Lantigua reported. Many would-be voters later
complained that they received no notification and learned of
their purged status only when they showed up to vote and
were turned away .
In an interview for The Nation article, Mitchell justified the
loose standards for purging voters by arguing that the errors
balanced out in the long run. “Just as some people might
have been removed from the list who shouldn’t have been,
some voted who shouldn’t have,” Mitchell said.
Such a comment with its racist undertone – it's okay that
some innocent black citizens were barred from voting
because some black felons might have slipped through the
process – would have made for big headlines with a
different sort of national press corps.
But these days, the press corps seems too caught up in its
discovery of the near-mythical powers of the new president
to notice some of the realities behind his ascension to
power, as the first popular vote loser in more than a century
to claim the White House and the only one to effectively be
appointed by five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also receiving little attention was the disclosure that other
secondary figures in the Florida recount might have had
hidden partisan agendas that the national news media had missed.
Florida Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who delayed
prompt action on Gore’s recount appeal in early December
and then sided with the Bush team on all counts, reportedly
has agreed to accept an award from FreeRepublic.com, an
ultra-right Clinton-hating group.
The so-called Freepers are to politics what rabid XFL fans
are to sports. FreeRepublic distributed the
"Sore-Loserman” T-shirts ridiculing Gore and his running
mate, Joe Lieberman, for challenging the Florida vote.
FreeRepublic announced that it will give Sauls its “Jurist of
the Year” award at the group’s conference on June 23 at
South Carolina’s Seabrook Island resort. FreeRepublic
official Julie Nicholson said Sauls has confirmed that he will
accept the award.
The news that a judge who played a key role in the Florida
recount battle was accepting an award from a fringe group
of Clinton-haters did not make it into the front section of The
Washington Post, however. The story was relegated to a
brief mention in the newspaper’s gossip column. [WP, April 13, 2001]
The national news media has given little attention, too, to
disclosures that Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch was
swapping mailing lists with the National Republican
Congressional Committee in 1999 while Judicial Watch
was posing as an independent ethics watchdog seeking
criminal investigations of President Clinton and Vice President Gore.
The Hill newspaper reported that business documents from
National Response List Marketing Inc., a direct-mail
services company, revealed that it brokered list exchanges
between Judicial Watch and NRCC beginning in fall of
1999. The documents showed that Judicial Watch owed the
NRCC the names of 10,000 potential supporters as of
October 1999, a debt that grew to 100,000 names by
summer 2000, The Hill said. [April 11, 2001]
The dispute surfaced when Judicial Watch accused House
Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, of offering to trade
access to the Bush administration for campaign cash. The
House Republicans responded by suggesting that Judicial
Watch was retaliating for the business dispute that,
according to The Hill, led the NRCC to terminate the name
swaps as of last August.
Despite the documents, Klayman insisted that “we have no
knowledge of owing them anything, we haven’t authorized
any list going to the NRCC,” The Hill reported.
Again, an allegation that an organization, which made a
name for itself by waging lawsuit warfare against the
president of the United States, was secretly in league with
the other party might be expected to be big news. But in
today’s Washington, it barely registered a passing notice.
Other lingering issues from the Florida election include an
allegation from Salon.com reporter Jake Tapper that the
Bush presidential campaign discussed a plan for a
post-election get-out-the-vote drive with overseas soldiers
who had registered but had not sent in their absentee ballots.
Tapper, author of the new book, Down and Dirty: The Plot
to Steal the Presidency, cited “a knowledgeable
Republican operative” as his source about the alleged plot
to pad Bush’s lead with these illegal votes.
If this plan were carried out -- and at this point there is no
evidence that it was -- the Bush campaign would have
violated both state and federal laws. “To conspire with
another person to vote illegally” is a violation of the federal
Voting Rights Act. Similarly, “fraud in connection with
casting [a] vote” is a felony under Florida state law.
As improbable as Tapper’s report might seem – that
American soldiers would be encouraged to vote after
Election Day – the allegation easily could be checked.
Soldiers whose ballots didn’t arrive in Florida until after
Election Day could be questioned about whether they were
encouraged to vote after the election was over -- and if so,
With the national press largely disinterested in the possible
theft of the White House, however, no official investigation
has been conducted into this alleged plot to stuff the Florida
ballot boxes after Election Day. The other irregularities,
including the purging of legal black voters from the rolls, also
have drawn little press coverage and no official
investigations, except for oversight hearings by the U.S.
Civil Rights Commission.
Rather than take up these tough stories, the national press
corps seems to have decided that the appearance of
normalcy and Bush’s fragile “legitimacy” must be protected
at all cost. As in the Reagan-Bush era, a wave of patriotism
is sweeping the Washington news media, which seems
determined to do what’s "good for the country."
After all, if the American people were given the full story, it
might shake their confidence in democracy.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many
of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated
Press and Newsweek.