Explaining the Bush Cocoon
By Robert Parry
August 24, 2005
Under traditional news judgment, the lead paragraph in American newspapers on the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, should have read something like: If all legally cast votes in Florida were counted in Election 2000, Democrat Al Gore would have carried the state and thus won the White House, according to an unofficial tally of disputed ballots.
Indeed, the tally found that Gore would have carried Floridas key electoral votes regardless of the standard used for judging so-called undervotes, ballots kicked out by vote-counting machines which could detect no presidential choice. Gore won even ignoring Floridas other irregularities such as the badly designed butterfly ballots and the improper felon purges that cost him thousands of additional votes.
To put it more starkly, a recount conducted by a consortium of major media organizations had determined that George W. Bush, the guy in the White House, not only lost the national popular vote but should have lost the Electoral College, too. To be even blunter, a pivotal U.S. presidential election had been stolen.
But that wasnt how the major newspapers and TV networks presented their findings. Instead, they bent over backwards to concoct hypothetical situations in which George W. Bush might still have won the presidency if the recount had been limited to only a few counties or if legal overvotes, where a voter both checks and writes in the name of the candidate, were cast aside.
Though the news medias recount had started with the goal of assessing whether Florida voters favored Gore or Bush, that purpose was lost in a rush to shore up Bushs fragile legitimacy in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The key discovery of Gores victory was buried deep in the stories or relegated to charts that accompanied the articles.
Any casual reader would have come away from reading the New York Times or the Washington Post with the conclusion that Bush really had won Florida and thus was the legitimate president after all.
The Posts headline read, Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush. Referring to Bushs success in getting five U.S. Supreme Court justices to stop the vote-counting, the Times ran the headline: Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.
Some columnists, such as the Posts media analyst Howard Kurtz, even launched preemptive strikes against anyone who would read the fine print and spot the hidden lede of Gores victory. Kurtz labeled such people conspiracy theorists. [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001]
After reading these slanted Bush Won stories on the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, I wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com noting that the obvious lede should have been that the recount revealed that Gore had won. I suggested that the news judgments of senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear patriotic only two months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. [See Consortiumnews.coms Gores Victory.]
My article had been on the Internet for only an hour or two when I received an irate phone call from New York Times media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the journalistic integrity of then-Times executive editor Howell Raines. I got the impression that Barringer had been on the look-out for some deviant story that didnt accept the pro-Bush conventional wisdom.
[For more on Election 2000, see Consortiumnews.coms So Bush Did Steal the White House. For a broader historical perspective, see Robert Parrys Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Iraq War Prelude
This early example of the U.S. news media building a protective cocoon around George W. Bushs presidency is relevant again today as many Americans try to understand how Bush was able to lead the nation so deeply into a disastrous war in Iraq and why the U.S. news media has performed its watchdog duties so miserably.
The history of the mis-reported Election 2000 recount also attracted the recent attention of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. After referencing Gores apparent Florida victory in one column, Krugman said he was inundated by an outraged reaction from readers who thought they knew the history but who really had learned only a false conventional wisdom about how the recount supposedly favored Bush.
In a second column entitled Dont Prettify Our History, Krugman argues that we arent doing the country a favor when we present recent history in a way that makes our system look better than it is. Sometimes the public needs to hear unpleasant truths, even if those truths make them feel worse about their country.
Election 2000 may be receding into the past, but the Iraq war isnt. As the truth about the origins of that war comes out, there may be a temptation, once again, to prettify the story. The American people deserve better. [NYT, Aug. 22, 2005]
Whether Americans can expect better is an open question, however.
A strong argument even could be made that Krugman is wrong suggesting that the news media just wanted to prettify American history or that I was wrong in speculating that the distorted reporting on the Election 2000 recount was just a case of putting patriotism over professionalism.
A harsher interpretation is that journalists put their careers not their love of country ahead of their duty to tell the American people the truth. In other words, big media personalities may have understood that challenging Bush would put their big pay checks in harms way. [See Consortiumnews.coms The Answer Is Fear.]
At Powells Feet
That also appears to have been the pattern during the run-up to war with Iraq. It was safer for journalists to toe the line on Bushs case for war with Iraq than to contest the dubious arguments presented by the likes of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.
One only needs to look back at the op-ed pages in the days after Powells speech to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, to see the lock-step thinking of columnists across the mainstream political spectrum.
Even though Powells speech was riddled with falsehoods and questionable assertions, none of the many journalists who safely positioned themselves at Powells feet suffered professionally for their lack of professional skepticism. Many of the same columnists are still holding down lucrative jobs on the Washington Post op-ed page or as pundits on TV talks shows.
Theres also little indication that skepticism has been ramped up to the levels that would seem justified by the long list of Bushs discredited war rationales.
Last March, for instance, many commentators including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Washington Posts David Ignatius and the editorial boards of the Times and the Post were hailing Bushs new Iraq War rationale, that is was the instrument to advance democratization in the Middle East.
Just as the pundits had bought into the WMD claims in 2002-2003, they fell for Bushs argument that the invasion of Iraq would spread democracy across the Islamic world and thus destroy Islamic extremism. [See Consortiumnews.coms Neocon Amorality or Bushs Neocons Unbridled.]
Since then, as the optimism about democratization has receded from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Lebanon the Bush administration and the pundit class have shifted rationales again, this time to a modern version of the domino theory that a quick withdrawal from Iraq is unthinkable because it would undermine U.S. credibility.
Just as it was nearly impossible to find a prominent U.S. pundit who challenged Bushs original WMD claims, theres now a scarcity of commentators who dare to make the argument that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq might undercut Islamic terrorism (by driving a wedge between Iraqi Sunni insurgents and outside jihadists who have come to Iraq to kill Americans). That wedge, in turn, could help stabilize Iraq, while Washington could focus on removing other root causes of Islamic anger, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. [See Consortiumnews.coms Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal.]
Still, self-interest remains the driving force behind Washington punditry. So, some columnists seem to be repositioning themselves in the face of Bushs slipping popularity, by sniping at Bush about style while continuing to support him on substance.
For instance, a Washington Post column by New Republic editor Peter Beinart chides Bush for refusing to meet with Cindy Sheehan, a mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. But Beinart, who supported the Iraq invasion, adds that Bush is right to refuse Sheehans call for a U.S. withdrawal because it would be a disaster for national security and a betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq. [Washington Post, Aug. 18, 2005]
David Ignatius, another Post columnist and war supporter, struck a similar theme: Lets look at what the president is doing right: At a time when anguished Americans are calling for a quick withdrawal from Iraq, Bush is telling them a painful truth. Pulling the troops out [now] would send a terrible signal to the enemy, [Bush] said. [Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2005]
Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about the Iraq War is that despite all the errors and misjudgments, the Washington pundit class, which cheered the nation off to war, remains remarkably unchanged.
Though the Iraq War may be the most glaring example in decades of the U.S. government and the national news media letting down the American people and especially the troops sent off to fight, virtually no one responsible for this catastrophe has been punished.
While journalists have been fired for far-less serious errors, theres been no known case of a media personality being publicly punished for buying into the Bush administrations bogus arguments for invading Iraq. Instead, many of these same media personalities continue to lecture the American people about what needs to be done in Iraq.
But this Bush cocoon started years ago, when journalists forgot that their
first duty in a democracy was to give the people the truth as fully and fairly
as possible, even if some Americans didnt want to hear it.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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