Jamison Foser

Lying Your Way Into War? Apparently Not a Scandal

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wants to know what people think is "the best (or worst) Republican political scandal of the decade?"  Ambinder offers four choices:

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Why Is the New York Times Helping Joe Lieberman Lie About Health Care?

The New York Times  reports that Senator Joe Lieberman will vote against health care reform in its current form -- and, in doing so, uncritically reports Lieberman's false claims about that legislation.  Here's the article, by Times reporters Robert Pear and David Herszenhorn:

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Rabid Right-Wing Media Mogul Building a News Empire

If you like what Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing billionaire behind Fox News and the New York Post, has done for the national discourse, you'll love what Philip Anschutz is trying to do in your hometown.

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Swiftboating Hillary

Why is Ann Coulter on the cover of Time magazine this week, the subject of an oft-favorable 5,800 word profile? Coulter is the author of a series of shrill, error-laden partisan screeds that likely line the shelves of your local bookstore. But how does Coulter, and the legion of hyper-partisan, venom-spewing right-wing authors she leads, sell so many books when her books are so full of errors, omissions, and outright lies? How did Unfit for Command come to dominate last year's presidential campaign for a month?

Conservative publishing houses and authors have come to play a huge role in our political discourse, with the rest of the media bestowing great attention -- and the influence that attention brings -- upon them; attention and influence that few progressive authors can match. It certainly isn't because Coulter, Dick Morris, David Bossie, Laura Ingraham and the rest are more factual than David Corn, Eric Alterman, and Molly Ivins -- quite the opposite. And it can't be because they are better writers, as anyone who has opened a Dick Morris book can attest.

The recent flurry of publicity surrounding the forthcoming attack book The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President provides a valuable lesson in how conservative publishers gain attention (and influence) for their books and authors -- and how those books are little more than partisan political tools.

A full five months before Edward Klein's book about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to appear in bookstores, media outlets from Fox News to the Kansas City Star brought readers and viewers speculation that the "damaging" book could "torpedo" Clinton's potential 2008 presidential campaign.

The stories began with a Drudge Report posting that touted the book as "the ultimate Hillary-attack" and quoted a "source close to" Klein saying "The revelations in it should sink her candidacy."

That was enough to set the conservative media machine in motion; the Washington Times, New York Post, MSNBC's "Scarborough Country," and Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" amplified Drudge's posting.

The Washington Times claimed a "new book could prove a roadblock to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible run for the White House in 2008."

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told viewers the book's "contents are top-secret, but the sources say the revelations inside could torpedo Hillary Clinton's chances at a run at the White House," later adding, "A lot of people believe a new book, which promises to be a tell-all about Hillary Clinton, will stop her in 2008."

The Fox News shoutfest "Hannity & Colmes" hosted professional Clinton-basher Dick Morris, who announced that he was a source for The Truth About Hillary, and proudly answered "Yes" when host Alan Colmes asked if his goal is to "do anything you can to derail a possible Hillary candidacy?" Morris' own 2004 book attacking Sen. Clinton, Rewriting History, threatened to set a new world record for lies-per-page, as Media Matters showed at the time; immediately calling into question the credibility of any book that relies on him as a source.

Discussion of The Truth About Hillary and speculation about its possible impact on Clinton's possible presidential campaign wasn't limited to the explicitly conservative media; the Associated Press, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among others, got in on the act. The Inquirer explained:

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Flip-flopper in Chief

“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.