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The national news media can’t make up its mind if George W. Bush is Gary Cooper, John Wayne or a reincarnation of John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis.
With the end of the standoff with China -- over U.S. military personnel whose plane collided with a Chinese military jet and made an emergency landing on a Chinese island -- Bush has been getting rave reviews.
Typical of the oohing and aahing, The Washington Post ran a page-one headline calling Bush’s role in the crisis “vigorous.” The story reported that Bush “peppered” an Army general with questions about the condition of the crew. Bush then lectured Secretary of State Colin Powell that “we don’t need to be pointing fingers.”
Not finished, Bush “grilled” national security adviser Condoleeza Rice about the precise wording of a letter expressing regret, while making “sure it didn’t go outside the ‘red lines’ he set for negotiators.” [WP, April 12, 2001]
Two days later, the Post marveled again in a front-page headline about how “leading actor Bush avoids center stage.”
“If public emoting and volubility were signatures of the last president, a certain taciturnity in the face of major news stories is becoming a signature of this one,” the Post reported on April 14. “The more reserved approach, White House officials say, is … an expression of this president’s personal values” -- not apparently his inability to string together a coherent sentence on his own.
So Bush, whose rash initial comments against China arguably worsened an already tense situation, turns out to be both an energetic leader – giving pointers to the likes of Colin Powell – and a humble fellow whose “values” prevent him from grandstanding, the way President Clinton would have.
After resolving this China crisis with what Bush might call his “mis-underestimated” diplomatic touch, Bush headed off into the Western sunset to spend Easter weekend at his ranch in Texas.
For some of us in the Washington news media who lived through the Reagan-Bush era, it was déjà vu all over again. The Reagan-Bush rules were back, with patriotic journalists credulously extolling the skills, the acumen and high-moral character of national leaders, whatever the reality.
In the apt description by author Mark Hertsgaard, Washington journalists were “on bended knee” before Ronald Reagan -- and pretty much stayed there under George H.W. Bush. Now, the journalists are back on their knees before Bush's son.
During the eight years of Bill Clinton, of course, opposite rules applied. It was the media’s duty to expose every conceivable flaw in that president’s Arkansas business dealings and in his personal life.
The same relentless negativity applied to Al Gore, who was labeled “delusional” and suffering from other psychiatric illnesses after the media sifted through his public statements and claimed to find slight exaggerations, many of which actually resulted from shoddy reporting about what Gore actually said.
In its renewed gullibility, the Washington press corps now promotes an image of Bush as a leader who is forceful yet humble, principled yet compassionate.
But what the press didn’t want to advertise was that these so-called “tick tocks” – the minute-by-minute, behind-the-scenes accounts of the China standoff – were manufactured by Bush’s image-handlers who controlled all access to this supposed inside-story.
At major newsmagazines, such as Time and Newsweek, tick-tocks have long been vital for the novelistic style of writing. But today, that taste for the inside scoop is important to pundits and other reporters as well, allowing clever press spokesmen to spoon feed favored journalists with these precious details – often exaggerations or borderline fiction – to manipulate the media’s presentation of the stories to the public.
Bored About Florida
How uncritically the national news media is doing its job is highlighted, too, by its disinterest in new disclosures about wrongdoing in the Florida election.
Eager to accept the legitimacy of the Bush White House, the national press corps either has turned a blind eye to growing evidence of a rigged election or has manipulated the results of unofficial statewide recounts to bolster the impression of Bush as the rightful winner.
The Miami Herald and USA Today conducted a review of the state’s undervotes and found that by applying a clear-intent-of-the-voter standard – partially punched-through ballots and others where indentations occurred in multiple races, indicating a malfunctioning voting machine – Al Gore won the state by 299 votes. Only if all indentations are ignored could Bush have prevailed.
But instead of highlighting these facts, the two newspapers chose to delete Gore’s gains in three-plus counties and thus assert that Bush was the real winner.
The newspapers’ rationale for subtracting Gore’s gains was an interpretation of the last-minute Florida Supreme Court ruling on Dec. 8 that had tried to achieve a common statewide solution to the recount. The newspapers read that ruling as not requiring a review of disputed ballots in the three-plus counties where recounts had already occurred.
Whether those disputed ballots might or might not have undergone judicial examination along with the state’s other disputed ballots remains unclear because the process was never completed. The statewide recount was aborted the next day at Bush’s request by five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet, instead of blaming Bush for first delaying and then blocking a full and fair recount -- urged by Gore as early as Nov. 15 -- the newspapers rewarded the Republican by deducting the additional undervotes that would have shown Gore to be the winner.
The Bush-as-winner lead was picked up uncritically by every major national news organization.
The Black Purge
The national media also has displayed virtually no interest in the growing evidence that Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration conducted so-called “ballot security” which systematically reduced the black vote and likely took thousands of other votes away from Gore who was favored by African-Americans by 9-to-1.
Following on the groundbreaking work of BBC reporter Greg Palast, investigative reporter John Lantigua dissected how Jeb Bush’s administration “gamed the system in Florida,” according to an article in The Nation [April 30, 2001]
A key to holding down the black vote was an extraordinary effort to remove thousands of black voters from the rolls under the guise of purging felons who had completed their jail time and returned to society. Florida is one of 14 states that doesn’t automatically restore people’s civil rights when they complete their sentences.
The Jeb Bush administration, however, went further, applying loose standards that swept up non-felons who simply had a name, birth date or Social Security number similar to a felon’s. Working with a private contractor, Database Technologies (DBT) of Boca Raton, Fla., state officials ordered that approximate matches, known as “false positives,” be put on the lists that were then sent to local canvassing boards to remove the voters from the rolls.
As this process advanced in 1999, Jeb Bush’s point man on the project, Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV, told local voting supervisors not to double-check the lists by phone, only by mail, Lantigua reported. Many would-be voters later complained that they received no notification and learned of their purged status only when they showed up to vote and were turned away .
In an interview for The Nation article, Mitchell justified the loose standards for purging voters by arguing that the errors balanced out in the long run. “Just as some people might have been removed from the list who shouldn’t have been, some voted who shouldn’t have,” Mitchell said.
Such a comment with its racist undertone – it's okay that some innocent black citizens were barred from voting because some black felons might have slipped through the process – would have made for big headlines with a different sort of national press corps.
But these days, the press corps seems too caught up in its discovery of the near-mythical powers of the new president to notice some of the realities behind his ascension to power, as the first popular vote loser in more than a century to claim the White House and the only one to effectively be appointed by five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also receiving little attention was the disclosure that other secondary figures in the Florida recount might have had hidden partisan agendas that the national news media had missed.
Florida Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who delayed prompt action on Gore’s recount appeal in early December and then sided with the Bush team on all counts, reportedly has agreed to accept an award from FreeRepublic.com, an ultra-right Clinton-hating group.
The so-called Freepers are to politics what rabid XFL fans are to sports. FreeRepublic distributed the "Sore-Loserman” T-shirts ridiculing Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, for challenging the Florida vote.
FreeRepublic announced that it will give Sauls its “Jurist of the Year” award at the group’s conference on June 23 at South Carolina’s Seabrook Island resort. FreeRepublic official Julie Nicholson said Sauls has confirmed that he will accept the award.
The news that a judge who played a key role in the Florida recount battle was accepting an award from a fringe group of Clinton-haters did not make it into the front section of The Washington Post, however. The story was relegated to a brief mention in the newspaper’s gossip column. [WP, April 13, 2001]
The national news media has given little attention, too, to disclosures that Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch was swapping mailing lists with the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1999 while Judicial Watch was posing as an independent ethics watchdog seeking criminal investigations of President Clinton and Vice President Gore.
The Hill newspaper reported that business documents from National Response List Marketing Inc., a direct-mail services company, revealed that it brokered list exchanges between Judicial Watch and NRCC beginning in fall of 1999. The documents showed that Judicial Watch owed the NRCC the names of 10,000 potential supporters as of October 1999, a debt that grew to 100,000 names by summer 2000, The Hill said. [April 11, 2001]
The dispute surfaced when Judicial Watch accused House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, of offering to trade access to the Bush administration for campaign cash. The House Republicans responded by suggesting that Judicial Watch was retaliating for the business dispute that, according to The Hill, led the NRCC to terminate the name swaps as of last August.
Despite the documents, Klayman insisted that “we have no knowledge of owing them anything, we haven’t authorized any list going to the NRCC,” The Hill reported.
Again, an allegation that an organization, which made a name for itself by waging lawsuit warfare against the president of the United States, was secretly in league with the other party might be expected to be big news. But in today’s Washington, it barely registered a passing notice.
Other lingering issues from the Florida election include an allegation from Salon.com reporter Jake Tapper that the Bush presidential campaign discussed a plan for a post-election get-out-the-vote drive with overseas soldiers who had registered but had not sent in their absentee ballots.
Tapper, author of the new book, Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency, cited “a knowledgeable Republican operative” as his source about the alleged plot to pad Bush’s lead with these illegal votes.
If this plan were carried out -- and at this point there is no evidence that it was -- the Bush campaign would have violated both state and federal laws. “To conspire with another person to vote illegally” is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. Similarly, “fraud in connection with casting [a] vote” is a felony under Florida state law.
As improbable as Tapper’s report might seem – that American soldiers would be encouraged to vote after Election Day – the allegation easily could be checked. Soldiers whose ballots didn’t arrive in Florida until after Election Day could be questioned about whether they were encouraged to vote after the election was over -- and if so, by whom.
With the national press largely disinterested in the possible theft of the White House, however, no official investigation has been conducted into this alleged plot to stuff the Florida ballot boxes after Election Day. The other irregularities, including the purging of legal black voters from the rolls, also have drawn little press coverage and no official investigations, except for oversight hearings by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Rather than take up these tough stories, the national press corps seems to have decided that the appearance of normalcy and Bush’s fragile “legitimacy” must be protected at all cost. As in the Reagan-Bush era, a wave of patriotism is sweeping the Washington news media, which seems determined to do what’s "good for the country."
After all, if the American people were given the full story, it might shake their confidence in democracy.
Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.