Media

Flip-flopper in Chief

George Bush's image as a strong and decisive leader is a creation of journalists too lazy to notice that the president has a long history of changing his positions to suit his political needs.
“The Bush campaign has been remarkably successful at getting the press to buy the notion that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. ... But reporters have been much less quick to look at various Bush reversals of policy through the same lens.”
– Columbia Journalism Review, July 15, 2004.

“Bush now has solid advantages over Kerry in the perceptions that he is a strong and decisive leader, stands up for what he believes in, and can manage the government effectively.”
– Gallup News Service, August 31, 2004.


The Los Angeles Times described the “central message” of the Republican National Convention as the argument that President George W. Bush “is a strong, decisive leader who, unlike Democratic opponent John F. Kerry, steers a steady course through shifting tides of public opinion.”

That image of Bush as a “strong, decisive leader” has been driven home relentlessly by the Bush-Cheney ‘04 campaign all year, and it has clearly been successful. According to a Gallup poll conducted Aug. 23-25, 54 percent of people say the phrase “strong and decisive leader” applies more to Bush than to Kerry, while only 34 percent say it applies more to Kerry. Among Independents, the margin is even wider: 54 percent say it applies more to Bush while only 25 percent say it applies more to Kerry.

While these poll results are no doubt encouraging for Bush chief political aide Karl Rove, they should be dispiriting to anyone who cares about the media’s role in democratic elections.

As Columbia Journalism Review, Media Matters for America, and countless others have noted, the media has applied an alarming double standard in covering Bush’s and Kerry’s changes in position – a double standard that has been particularly noteworthy in recent weeks.

An Aug. 30 Washington Post article demonstrated the sometimes subtle ways in which media coverage of the candidates’ position-switches tends to favor the president:
Republicans draw a sharp contrast between what they portray as Bush's directness and what they call rival John F. Kerry's tendency to worry issues to death. … He [Bush] has also not hesitated to switch positions when necessary, such as when he first opposed, then backed, the creation of a Homeland Security Department.
The Post used Bush’s own words to describe his opponent’s character trait: Kerry tends to “worry issues to death.” Meanwhile, the newspaper presented Bush’s decision-making far more charitably: "Unlike the indecisive Kerry, Bush changes positions only “when necessary.” The Post didn’t explain why Bush’s change in position about the creation of a Homeland Security Department was anything other than a classic “flip-flop”; nor did the article include an explanation of why Bush’s flip was “necessary” – though we can assume that political considerations played a sizable role.

The Associated Press has been more overt in promoting the idea of Bush-as-steady-leader. On Sept. 2, the wire service ran an article headlined, “Steadfast, disciplined, Bush sees himself as unchanged by events of presidency.”

But recent events do little to support the description of Bush as “steadfast.”

For example, the president recently flip-flopped dramatically on the subject of political advertising by 527 groups. In 2000, Bush strongly defended such advertising as "what freedom of speech is all about"; he now condemns such ads (and, apparently, "freedom of speech") as “bad for the system.” Yet while the media gave heavy play to Bush's condemnation of 527 advertising, his recent support for them went virtually unmentioned.

Just days before the AP article ran, Bush flip-flopped (and then flipped back again) on the question of whether the United States would win the war on terrorism. For years, he has made firm pronouncements such as "Let me be clear about this: We will win the war on terrorism." Time after time, Bush has said we would win the war on terror. But in an interview that was broadcast on Aug. 30, Bush abruptly changed his mind. When he was asked "can we win" the war on terror, Bush said, "I don't think you can win it." The very next day, the steady, resolute Bush went back to the position he had previously touted, declaring: "We will win" the war on terror.

But Bush’s shocking uncertainty on this question of utmost importance apparently wasn’t enough to shake the Associated Press’s opinion of Bush as “steadfast.” In fact, it was the subject of relatively little media attention.

How little attention? Less than Teresa Heinz Kerry's request that a hostile right-wing reporter "shove it." That's right: Teresa Heinz Kerry's comment shows up in 681 news reports available on Lexis-Nexis for the first four days after she said it. Bush's abrupt change in opinion – that the United States can't win the war on terror – was only mentioned in 397 news reports.

Bush’s new opinions on 527s and the war on terror are only the most recent examples of his many flip-flops on cornerstone issues. He has switched his position on gay marriage, on carbon dioxide emissions, on patients’ rights legislation, on an investigation of WMD intelligence failures, on the creation of an independent 9-11 commission, on “nation building,” and on the assault weapons ban.

He even seems to have flip-flopped on the importance of capturing Osama bin Laden. In September 2001, Bush said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive”; in March 2002, he said during a press conference, “I just don't spend that much time on him. ... I truly am not that concerned about him.” And in 2003 and 2004, according to Dan Froomkin, who writes The Washington Post’s White House Briefing column, “Bush has mentioned bin Laden's name on only 10 occasions.” Indeed, in his speech to the Republican National Convention, Bush did not mention bin Laden’s name once.

But despite the president’s countless flip-flops on issues of highest importance, the media fails to focus on his changes in position as they do on Kerry’s. The Aug. 23-25 Gallup poll results showing that more people consider Bush a strong and decisive leader than Kerry, therefore, are not surprising. The poll is just the predictable result of a media double standard that could determine the result of the 2004 presidential election.
David Brock is the President and CEO of Media Matters for America. Jamison Foser is a Senior Adviser.
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