For the American press, there appears to be no
bigger taboo than against questioning Bush’s sincerity when he presents
himself as the grand promoter of democracy around the world.
Lost to history, apparently, is the moment in
December 2000 when Bush joked that “if this were a dictatorship, it
would be a heck of a lot easier – so long as I’m the dictator.” More
substantively, that same month, Bush got five political allies on the
U.S. Supreme Court to shut down vote counting in the key state of
Florida and hand him the White House.
Bush seized that victory despite the fact that Al
Gore got more votes nationally and apparently would have carried Florida
– and thus the Electoral College – if all legal votes in the state were
counted. [For details on the Election 2000 results, see
Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
In Election 2004, Bush’s supporters took a number
of actions designed to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other
groups likely to favor Democratic challenger John Kerry. For instance,
Democratic precincts in the pivotal state of Ohio were shorted on voting
machines, creating long lines and preventing many voters from casting
Even now, Ohio Republican officials continue to
battle appeals by citizen groups to investigate Nov. 2’s election
irregularities. A thorough investigation also could look at why so many
ballots in Democratic precincts either didn’t record votes for president
or awarded them to obscure third-party candidates. [For a surprisingly
skeptical view of Bush’s Ohio victory, see Christopher Hitchens’s
Odd Numbers,” Vanity Fair, March 2005.]
Before the election, Bush could have ordered
Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere to desist from any voter suppression,
but he didn’t. Now, he could demand full cooperation with citizens
trying to investigate what happened on Nov. 2.
But George W. Bush has never stood up for
democratic principles when his personal power – or his legitimacy –
could be put in doubt. The same could be said of his father. The Bushes
seem to love democracy only when they are assured of winning. [See
Robert Parry's Secrecy &
Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Even at times between presidential elections,
George W. Bush has shown no interest in playing fair with Democrats.
Most notably, he doesn’t restrain his aggressive aides and ambitious
supporters – such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist – when they try to
tilt the playing field permanently to the advantage of conservatives and
Republicans. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush
& the Rise of Managed Democracy.”]
Bush was silent, too, when House Majority Leader
Tom DeLay took extraordinary actions in Texas to gerrymander
congressional districts with the goal of assuring continued Republican
control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
This hostility toward meaningful democracy carries
over to policy debates. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March
2003, instead of encouraging a full and vigorous debate, Bush mocked
anti-war demonstrators as a “focus group” and signaled his backers that
it was okay to intimidate Americans who questioned his case for war.
So conservative pundits saw no problem in painting
former weapons inspector Scott Ritter as a traitor when he objected to
Bush’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush backers
organized a boycott of the Dixie Chicks because one of the group’s
singers criticized the president. Some Bush backers symbolically drove
trucks over the group’s CDs.
When actor Sean Penn lost work because of his Iraq
War opposition, pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough chortled,
“Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring
about consequences. Whoa, dude!”
As justification for depriving Penn of work,
Scarborough cited a comment that Penn made while on a pre-war trip to
Iraq. Penn said, “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American
people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that
they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]
With Bush’s quiet backing, the president’s
supporters also denigrated skeptical U.S. allies, such as France by
pouring French wine into gutters, and U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix for
failing to find WMD in Iraq in the weeks before the U.S. invasion.
CNBC’s right-wing comic Dennis Miller likened Blix’s U.N. inspectors to
the cartoon character Scooby Doo, racing fruitlessly around Iraq in
At no time publicly did Bush urge his followers to
show reasonable respect for Iraq War critics. It was
all-hardball-all-the-time, a message not lost on news executives as they
fell in line behind the administration’s WMD rationale for war.
MSNBC made an example of war critic Phil Donahue by
booting him off the network as it competed with Fox News to see which
cable news channel could wave the flag more enthusiastically. The
Washington Post editorial page dropped all sense of professionalism when
it referred to Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD stockpiles as fact, not
As it turned out, of course, the Iraq War critics
were right. Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD turned out to be bogus, as
even Bush’s arms inspectors David Kay and Charles Duelfer concluded in
reports written after the invasion.
Notably, however, none of the pundits and
journalists who got the Iraq War rationale wrong paid with their jobs.
Indeed, some top journalists who fell for Bush’s false claims, such as
Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, not only continue to thrive but
still lambaste those who don’t show sufficient enthusiasm for Bush’s
Iraq policies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington’s
Ricky Proehl Syndrome.”]
Virtually the entire Washington press corps seems
to recognize that it's not allowed to suggest that Bush is a hypocrite
when he wraps himself in the cloak of democracy.
That was true again during Bush’s Second Inaugural
Address, which used the words “freedom” and “liberty” over and over
again. The sincerity behind the speech drew little or no skepticism from
the mainstream press despite Bush’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, assertion of
nearly unlimited executive power.
In the so-called “war on terror,” Bush has asserted
the right to detain U.S. citizens without trial once he labels them
“enemy combatants.” Administration lawyers also have argued that Bush
can waive legal restrictions on torture. Meanwhile, Muslims in the
United States have complained about discriminatory prosecutions based on
flimsy evidence and extraordinary secrecy.
Still, the Washington press corps never challenges Bush when he
lectures other countries about democracy as he did in Russia on
Thursday, Feb. 24. The only doubt – expressed gently by the White House
press corps – was that perhaps Bush didn’t confront his friend Vladimir
Putin very strenuously over Russia’s democratic shortcomings.
At a joint Bush-Putin press conference, Bush was taken at face value
when he described the unalterable principles of democracy as the “rule
of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political
opposition” – even though his record arguably shows that he doesn’t
accept any of the four.
Bush also portrayed himself as a good example of a political leader
who can’t get away with hiding his mistakes.
“I live in a transparent country,” Bush said. “I live in a country
where decisions made by government are wide open and people are able to
call people [like] me to account, which many out here do on a regular
basis. … I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one
that safeguards human rights and human dignity.”
One Russian questioner challenged Bush on the issue of press freedom,
apparently referring to pressure that Bush’s conservative supporters
have brought to bear on U.S. news organizations to oust journalists who
have criticized Bush.
“Why don’t you talk a lot about violation of rights of journalists in
the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been
fired?” the questioner asked.
Bush responded with a joke, which played to the U.S. journalists in
“Do any of you all still have your jobs?” Bush joshed, adding:
“People do get fired in American press. They don’t get fired by
government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired
by their producers or they get fired by the owners of a particular
outlet or network. …
“Obviously there's got to be constraints. I mean, there's got to be
truth. People've got to tell the truth. And if somebody violates the
truth – and those who own a particular newspaper or those who are in
charge of a particular electronic station need to hold people to
What neither Bush nor Putin addressed, however, is the common reality
of how their two systems work, using pressure from their political
allies to influence the decision about whether a journalist is fired for
making a mistake or gets a free pass.
So, on one hand, an accomplished journalist like former CBS producer
Mary Mapes is shown the door for not adequately checking out a purported
memo about Bush shirking his National Guard duty. On the other hand, a
Bush ally like the Washington Post’s Hiatt keeps his prestigious job
despite buying into Bush’s false Iraq WMD claims.
The key difference was that powerful voices in the conservative media
demanded the head of Mapes, who months earlier had broken the Abu Ghraib
sexual abuse scandal. There was no comparable pressure for punishing
journalists, such as Hiatt, who had violated journalistic rules by
treating a disputed claim – Iraq’s WMD – as a settled fact.
The double standard was even more glaring since the facts contained
in the questionable Bush-Guard memo were true, while the assertions
about Iraq’s WMD were not only false but have contributed to the deaths
of nearly 1,500 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis. [For
more on these media double standards, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Bush Rule of Journalism.”]
Still, Bush was clearly right at Thursday’s press conference when he
declared that a free press “is an important part of any democracy” and
that “the sign of a healthy and vibrant society is one where there’s an
active press corps.”
But the opposite would seem to hold equally true: that the timidity
of the U.S. press corps in holding Bush accountable is a sign that
American democratic institutions are neither vibrant nor healthy.