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Propaganda's Triumph

By Robert Parry
May 30, 2001

The defection of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party brought into sharp relief the contrast between George W. Bush’s mantra about changing the negative tone of Washington and the reality.

The conservative Washington Times may have expressed the schizophrenia best on its May 24 editorial page. The newspaper, which is financed by South Korean theocrat Rev. Sun Myung Moon, highlighted what it called the “outrage of the week” in an editorial that accused Senate Democrats of delivering “a major hit” to “the political civility that President George W. Bush committed himself to restore in Washington.”

The editorial complained that Democratic leaders had balked at a plan to let 98-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., skip some late-night votes by “pairing” him with a Democratic senator who would agree not to vote. Though this decision seems to have come from the Democratic leadership, the Times tossed in freshman Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for blame, with a gratuitous slap at profits she made from commodities trading in the 1970s.

Then, in its own strange “pairing” – given the concern for civility – the Times published a crude editorial cartoon depicting Jeffords with donkey ears. “If he talks like a jackass, walks like a jackass, looks like a jackass, and calls himself an elephant, then he’s probably a dumb jackass,” the Washington Times cartoonist wrote.

This unblushing juxtaposition of high-minded language about civility and the politics of insult has become typical of this new political landscape in which language grows ever more distant from reality. Bush’s supporters, in particular, wax eloquent about their commitment to political gentility while continuing the opposite behavior, without a wince for the hypocrisy.

The Jeffords defection, which cost Republicans control of the Senate, ripped off the genteel masks big time. The Wall Street Journal dubbed Jeffords “a big baby” in one online editorial. “Benedict Jeffords,” howled the headline of the New York Post.

The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg observed ruefully, “I know that it’s illegal to sew a half-starved weasel into his small intestine, but there are other options.” [For a compilation of these and other conservative comments about Jeffords, see The Washington Post, May 25, 2001]

Judicial Restraint?

Beyond language, the events of the past decade have made clear that even the application of law is now just a political weapon.

On the same days as the civility editorial and the Jeffords-jackass cartoon, The Washington Times carried advertisements for a “tribute to Honorable N. Sanders Sauls,” the Florida judge who rejected Vice President Al Gore’s motion for a Florida recount after Sauls had eaten up precious time last fall and then refused to examine the ballots that had been introduced as evidence. [WT, May 24, 2001]

This latest Sanders Sauls tribute – scheduled for June 7 – is sponsored by the right-wing Judicial Watch, which filed an endless string of lawsuits against Democrats during the Clinton administration and intervened on Bush’s behalf in the recount battle. Sauls, who apparently sees nothing wrong in siding openly with partisan factions, also is being honored in June by the group, another far-right collection of Clinton-haters.

But the Right’s media and attack groups are not alone in their campaign to consolidate public opinion around the legitimacy of Bush’s ascension to the presidency. Elements of the mainstream news media, which increasingly moves in synch with the conservative media, are serving that effort as well.

In a May 16 column, Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly torched those who still object to Bush’s victory or see a pro-Bush tilt in the media. To make his point, Kelly blended three old and new myths about the national press corps.

A 'Liberal' Media

Kelly’s argument opens with the old canard about a “liberal” news media.

The core of this argument – dating back about a quarter century – is that surveys have found Washington journalists more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, though some more refined studies, such as one sponsored by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, judged working journalists generally more liberal than the average Americans on social issues while more conservative on economic ones.

Nevertheless, the fundamental illogic of the “liberal” media argument is the supposition that working reporters control the news coverage, rather than the people who own the newspapers and television networks.

The key -- and obvious -- point is that the owners set the editorial policies and hire editors who enforce these policies. Reporters are essentially hired help whose careers rise or fall depending on how well they please the news executives.

Hypothetically, for instance, a poll of the news staff at the New York Post might show that rank-and-file editorial workers favored Gore over Bush, say, 2-to-1, a not-unreasonable supposition given the newspaper’s base in New York City. Using the “liberal media” logic then, one would conclude that the New York Post was an overwhelmingly liberal newspaper.

What that “logic” would miss, however, is that the owner, Rupert Murdoch, is a conservative who hires senior editors who reflect his point of view. These editors decide how stories are assigned, edited and placed within the newspaper. They also write the editorials, pick the columnists – and fire or demote reporters who don’t get with the program. 

Therefore, it matters little that the lady writing obits might have voted for Gore or that the fellow putting headlines on wire copy might have voted for Bush. What matters is the political perspective of the people in charge.

Kelly, who is editor of The Atlantic, writes as if he’s oblivious to this basic fact of journalistic life.

A Second Myth

Kelly’s second myth was his insistence that “independent news organizations have reported that, under almost any conceivable scenario of recounting the Florida vote, George W. Bush beat Al Gore.” Kelly wrote that because of this supposed fact, “the cry that Bush is a robber-president has lost a bit of oomph.”

Again, Kelly either was not aware of the latest news from Florida or chose to ignore it. The most recent findings of the unofficial newspaper studies of the Florida vote indicate that Gore – not only was the winner nationally by more than half a million votes – but was the choice of Florida voters.

USA Today estimated that Gore lost a net of 15,000 to 25,000 votes from confusion over poorly designed ballots – far more than Bush’s 537-vote official margin.

Yet, even ignoring those spoiled ballots, the Miami Herald and USA Today found that Gore would have won under reasonable standards for judging the clear intent of voters.

Gore would have defeated Bush by 242 votes if a statewide recount had counted so-called “overvotes” – those mistakenly kicked out by machine counters as having more than one presidential choice – and “undervotes” with perforated chads or multiple indentations, indicating that a malfunctioning voting machine had prevented voters from punching through their choice for president and other races.

Gore’s margin would have been larger if ballots with indentations only for president were counted, too. Bush would have prevailed only if all ballots with indentations were thrown out, the newspapers found. [USA Today, Miami Herald, May 11, 2001]

So, Kelly’s assertion that Gore lost under “almost any conceivable scenario” is wrong.

A Flawed Study

The third myth in Kelly’s column was his reliance on a new study by a group calling itself the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an organization funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

This group put out a report that purported to find that “contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in the first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start. … Despite a very good first month, Bush’s coverage overall was actually less positive than Bill Clinton’s eight years ago.”

Rather than show any skepticism about these findings, which clash with any clear recollection of the harsh treatment of Clinton versus the rave reviews for Bush, Kelly embraces the report as if it were holy writ.

Kelly even cites as support for his position an article by The Washington Post’s John Harris. But Harris’ article actually had concluded the opposite, that Bush’s coverage indeed was softer than Clinton’s. “The truth is, this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton,” Harris wrote, [WP, May 6, 2001]

In his May 16 column, Kelly also forgets that he was one of the commentators who earlier had perceived a friendly media attitude toward Bush. In a March 7 column listing several factors in Bush’s early success, Kelly wrote that Bush “benefits from an easy and shallow charm, which is useful in winning over an easy and shallow press corps.” [Washington Post, March 7, 2001]

Yet, this one Pew-funded study swept away all the observations of Bush getting an easy ride. In a different journalistic time, a study that sharply conflicted with what was apparent to nearly any observer would draw its own scrutiny. What methodology was employed? Were the judgments slanted for some reason?

Any careful examination of the report would have shown it not to be worth the money that Pew ponied up for it. As Bob Somerby of has noted, the Pew-funded report covered not the first 100 days as advertised, but only the first 60. (Actually, the study examined about 30 days of the first 60 days, according to the study’s methodology.)

Limited Sample

More importantly, the study based its conclusions on a very narrow – and to a great extent, outdated – selection of news outlets.

The study looked at only two newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times. No examination was given of the increasingly influential conservative news media or even major regional newspapers. There was no counting of articles from The Washington Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, or the Los Angeles Times.

It’s also not clear why the Pew-funded study did not look at the two biggest-circulation newspapers, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Since The Washington Post and The New York Times both endorsed Clinton and Gore, their editorial pages could be expected to be more supportive of Clinton and more critical of Bush, the key fact that skewed the findings.

By contrast, if the Wall Street Journal had been used, its relentlessly anti-Clinton, pro-Bush opinion articles would have tipped the survey in a different direction.

As for magazines, the study checked out only one -- Newsweek. There was no tabulation of the coverage in Murdoch’s Weekly Standard or other influential right-wing journals, such as the American Spectator, National Review and Moon’s Insight magazine.

For television, the survey was slightly broader but still missed the point about how today’s media influences the public.

The study looked at the evening news programs from CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. It ignored coverage from the cable networks and the pundit programs, major shapers of political opinion. The study ignored MSNBC and its roster of loudmouth commentators, as well as Murdoch’s conservative-leaning Fox News and AOL Time Warner’s CNN.

Other important media outlets, such as talk radio, were missed altogether, although the impact of the conservative voices of Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy were central to tearing down Clinton at the start of his administration and building up Bush at the start of his.

The Pew-funded study had other major shortcomings, endemic to such efforts to categorize coverage as "positive" or "negative" and equate that with fairness. The simple fact is that some actions are more deserving of critical coverage than others.

To say, for instance, that most coverage of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, has been negative would not necessarily mean the coverage was unfair. Similarly, politicians deserve negative coverage sometimes and other times they don’t.

One might hope that the Project for Excellence in Journalism would have exhibited a more sophisticated understanding of the workings of journalism. But this Pew-financed operation seems to be living in the 1950s when a couple of mainstream newspapers could dominate the media agenda and the major TV networks had a lock on what the public would hear from broadcast news.

Trashing the White House

This approach to quantifying coverage also misses the journalistic twists of individual stories. The first weeks of the new Bush administration, for instance, were dominated as much by critical coverage of former President Clinton as they were by positive coverage of Bush.

One of the principal tales was the story of Clinton aides allegedly trashing the White House and stripping Air Force One before departing. The story received front-page coverage in The Washington Post and was trumpeted on the pundit shows and across much of the national news media.

In this case, the Bush White House played a clever game. Officially, Bush's surrogates acted magnanimous in urging the press not to make too big a deal of the vandalism. On background, Bush's operatives fed the press juicy tidbits about slashed wiring, pornographic graffiti and looted government property.

Typical of the media’s lack of journalistic rigor when dealing with negative Clinton stories, the Washington press corps did not demand proof of the vandalism, such as photographs or other hard evidence. Instead, the press corps simply published unattributed accounts of vengeful Democrats ransacking government property, a theme that meshed well with Bush’s public call for a restoration of dignity in the White House.

Nearly four months later, the General Services Administration issued a report finding no evidence that Clinton’s aides had trashed the White House. “The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy,” the federal landlord agency said.

Unlike the front-page treatment of the allegations, the GSA report was either buried deep in newspapers or ignored altogether. The Washington Post ran a wire story on page A13 on May 18, 2001.

Nine days later, Jake Siewart, Clinton’s last press secretary, wrote an opinion column published in the Post’s Outlook section. “After years of watching the Washington press corps at work, I know it’s pointless to ask for apologies,” Siewart wrote. “Apparently, most of the commentators and reporters who reported this story four months ago have ‘moved on.’ Being a journalist today means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Siewart contrasted the apocryphal damage to the White House to the real damage to the reputation of Clinton aides. “The Clinton staff, who offered the new Bush team detailed briefing books, one-on-one meetings and personal tours to make the transition seamless, got to go home and have their reputations trashed by the people they had helped. All in the name of ‘changing the tone’ in Washington. And the press corps did not just sit back and watch the vandals at work; it lent a hand.” [WP, May 27, 2001]

A New Era

What all this indicates is that the nation has entered a new era -- not one of political civility but one in which the words of day-to-day political discourse have grown almost fully estranged from any real meaning or attachment to fact. Propaganda – not journalism – is ascendant.

Yet, rather than climbing the ramparts to battle for the traditional values of journalism – reason, fairness and truth – many Washington media figures have chosen to spare themselves and their careers.

In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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