Pundits Strike Out on bin Laden

Both print reporters and TV talking heads predicted an Osama bounce for Bush. They were very, very wrong.
On the morning after a new video from Osama bin Laden emerged, ABC's influential "The Note," the political/media online tip sheet, observed: "In the absence of any data to grab onto, it is a near certainty that the vast majority of weekend TV chatterers will assume that the tape is good for the President and bad for Kerry."

One expects the worst from TV new pundits, but one hoped that newspaper reporters and commentators would not lose their heads in a similar manner. For, as "The Note" noted, the outcome of the election may be determined "partly from how the candidates handle this and partly from how the press does."

Apparently the notion that the arrival of the new tape was good for Bush was based on the belief that he is "strong on terrorism," and the reappearance of Osama played into this. This quickly became the conventional wisdom and, possibly, a self-fulfiling prophecy.

Hardly getting equal weight was the idea that the tape reminds us that: (1) 9/11 happened on Bush's watch, (2) Bush has not yet caught bin Laden, perhaps because he (3) switched his attention to Iraq where (4) we have contributed to the terrorist threat against us in numerous tragic ways, not to mention suffering more U.S. casualties (dead and injured) than we absorbed in 9/11, with eight more U.S. Marines added to the tally on Saturday.

Would the press go along with other media, predicting a Bush surge, possibly allowing the bin Laden tape to sway the election (and then express regrets that they allowed this to happen in the weeks ahead)?

The early returns were not good. But the evidence, as of Sunday, apparently proves the pundits wrong.

Here was the early word from Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times: "Most analysts thought it would aid Bush, at the least, by changing the subject from stolen Iraqi weapons, doctored campaign ads and other developments that had thrown the president on the defensive for the last few days."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank noted that the tape could cut both ways, but added: "Weighing in Bush's favor is that Americans have typically rallied around the president when they have felt threatened, and bin Laden's tape is menacing. Also, the fact that bin Laden was making his presence known through a videotape rather than through a Madrid-style attack could be seen as evidence that Bush had done his job of protecting the public."

Then there was David Brooks in his New York Times column: "One of the crucial issues of this election is, 'Which candidate fundamentally gets the evil represented by this man? Which of these two guys understands it deep in his gut – not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but who feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him?'" Guess who Brooks favors?

On the other hand, The Washington Post's Dana Priest and Walter Pincus pointed out: "Although he directed statements to the American public, many intelligence and other counterterrorism experts concluded bin Laden's primary goal was to use the U.S. campaign season to enhance his public profile rather than to sway the election.

"'The tape is more about his own audience, about getting himself reelected as the head of the movement, than anything else,' said Winston P. Wiley, former CIA deputy director of intelligence.

"Inside the CIA, one senior U.S. counterterrorism official said, 'I've heard it argued either way ... but listen to what he's saying. It doesn't matter who's president.'"

The Boston Globe, after a balanced assessment, closed by quoting Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard Holbrooke: "The important thing, unfortunately, is that Osama bin Laden is alive and looks pretty well. [The tape] raises a much deeper question: How can this grotesque mass murderer be out there on international television more than three years after 9/11?"

Or as Maureen Dowd put it in her Sunday column: "The Bushies' campaign pitch follows their usual backward logic: Because we have failed to make you safe, you should re-elect us to make you safer. Because we haven't caught Osama in three years, you need us to catch Osama in the next four years. ... You'd think that seeing Osama looking fit as a fiddle and ready for hate would spark anger at the Bush administration's cynical diversion of the war on al Qaeda to the war on Saddam."

Her home paper, The New York Times, on Sunday showed the divide between pundits who rely on unnamed insiders and reporters out on the road.

Adam Nagourney weighed in today with a "news analysis" that repeatedly emphasized the "somewhat welcome news for President Bush." Nagourney repeated himself, stating that the tape "reinforced what has been the defining rationale of Mr. Bush's re-election candidacy" and later affirming that the campaign had come full circle "to the moment that has defined Mr. Bush's presidency and shaped his re-election campaign."

But in the same paper today, on the front page, came a report from Kirk Johnson in Colorado, headlined: "Voters, Their Minds Made Up, Say bin Laden Changes Nothing."

Even more telling: numerous daily tracking polls (even the one from Fox News) released Saturday and Sunday showed absolutely no boost for Bush since Friday and, if anything, a slight hike for Kerry. So much for the Bush bounce.
Greg Mitchell is the editor of E&P and author of seven books on history and political campaigns.
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