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During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government’s rosy forecasts of progress created what was called a “credibility gap.” Today, just four-plus months into office, George W. Bush and his allies are running a similar risk of relying so heavily on propaganda and imagery that the public might stop believing them.
Yet, Bush and his team seem determined to push the edges, apparently in the belief that the national news media will continue to print whatever they say without skepticism or challenge. It's less clear how the American people will respond.
In recent days, Bush tried to counter heavy criticism of his environmental policies by posing before giant sequoia trees; Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott complained about a "coup" against democracy; and Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted that the public trust him when he says departing Clinton officials left "pornographic" messages on White House telephones and committed other vandalism.
Lott's complaint came in a memo to GOP activists on Friday when the Mississippi Republican framed his call for a political "war" against Democrats in terms of Republicans defending the principles of democracy.
In particular, Lott lashed out at Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont for defecting from the Republicans to become an independent and thus tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats.
“We must ensure that the decision by Senator Jeffords is accurately portrayed, now and for history,” Lott wrote. “It was a ‘coup of one’ that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority.” [NYT, June 3, 2001]
Yet, anyone who has followed politics over the past six months would know that Lott's premise is wrong and his facts are inaccurate.
The American people did not elect a Republican majority to the Senate. In 2000, the voters erased a 55-45 Republican majority, leaving the Senate divided 50-50 with the GOP control determined by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney.
But Cheney was in that position only because the popular will of the American people to elect Al Gore as president and Joe Lieberman as vice president was itself thwarted -- by the vagaries of the Electoral College, a botched election in Florida, and an unprecedented decision by five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to halt Florida's recount.
The Gore-Lieberman ticket carried the national popular vote by more than a half million votes. Gore and Lieberman also were clearly the choice of the voters of Florida, though thousands of ballots apparently cast for the Democrats were thrown out – USA Today estimated the net loss for Gore and Lieberman at from 15,000 to 25,000, with many of those lost votes cast by African-Americans and elderly Jews.
Bush and Cheney hung on to their 537-vote margin in Florida – out of the state's nearly six million votes cast – by having five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court stop a statewide recount.
To many observers, the actions of the Bush-Cheney campaign looked like a coup d’etat against the democratic judgment of the American people. With Bush and Cheney claiming the White House, the GOP also got control of the Senate.
In Lott’s revised history, however, it is Jeffords who has engaged in a coup by tipping the majority in the Senate to the Democrats. Lott wrote that GOP activists faced “a moral obligation to restore the integrity of our democracy.”
A Compliant Press
Still, Republicans may have good reason to be confident that the national press corps will present the history as the Bush administration wishes. Through George W. Bush’s first four months in the White House, media commentators have lavished praise on his performance, especially in contrast to his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
In reporting on Lott's memo, the major news outlets offered no context about whether Lott was right to portray the Republicans as the victims of an anti-democratic power play. His charge against Jeffords simply was published with no evaluation of how the Republicans gained power and therefore whether Jeffords' move might have been justified.
This media favoritism also was underscored on Sunday when The Washington Post devoted another front-page article to the allegations of Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, condemning Clinton aides for vandalizing the White House before Inauguration Day.
The Post, which initially promoted these charges in January, reported that Fleischer gave the newspaper a list of more detailed charges constructed from "recollections" of officials now working for the Bush administration. The Post treated these allegations as if they were credible although they were accompanied by no hard evidence. [WP, June 3, 2001]
By contrast, when two independent reviews – by the General Services Administration and the General Accounting Office – found no evidence to support the allegations, the Post stuck a wire story on page A13.
The most dramatic charges leveled by Fleischer were Republican claims that the Democrats had written “obscene graffiti in six offices” and had left “pornographic or obscene greetings” on 15 telephone lines. No where in the article, however, does the Post explain what these “obscene” messages were.
Nor does the newspaper offer a clue as to what a “pornographic” telephone greeting might say. A dictionary defines pornography as a "communication intended to excite lascivious feelings," but it's unclear how that would be achieved in a telephone greeting.
The article said nearly all the alleged vandalism on Fleischer's list occurred in the Old Executive Office Building -- next to the White House. “The only incident Fleischer described in the White House itself was a photocopier in the West Wing that had pictures of naked people interspersed with blank photocopy paper so deep in the tray that they were still popping out weeks after the inauguration,” the Post said.
The newspaper offered no further description of the alleged photo, nor did the Post indicate that its reporters had seen the picture for themselves or even asked to see it. It also was unclear how the Bush administration would know that the pictures, allegedly appearing weeks later, were left behind by officials from the previous administration.
According to most principles of journalism, it is normal to require evidence before serious allegations are leveled against a group or an individual. In the absence of evidence, journalists are supposed to state clearly that the accusing party failed to back up the charges. When there are obvious holes in the allegations, it is the duty of news organizations to point them out.
Yet, there was only the vaguest impression from the two-page Post article that the Post made any effort to obtain independent evidence.
There was no mention of possible tape recordings of the allegedly offensive messages. The Post apparently did not even require Fleischer to supply meaningful details about his charges, such as exactly which phones carried the offensive messages and what language was used in the graffiti.
The Post did report that Bush officials released two snapshots of a White House counsel’s office strewn with trash, but the photos showed no discernible damage. Presumably, that meant the Bush team had supplied no other corroborating evidence, though the Post didn't exactly say so.
The GSA – the government’s housekeeping agency – and the GAO – the congressional investigative arm – both reported finding no evidence to support allegations of vandalism.
The GSA said “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 GAO said there was “no record of damage that may have been deliberately caused by the Clinton administration.”
Nevertheless, the Bush administration apparently decided it would take one more whack at its predecessors with the Post offering little skepticism and again fronting the story on page one.
While the Post's handling of these new charges might give Bush officials encouragement, the longer-term impact of simply demanding that the public take their word could prove risky.
More and more, Americans seem to be looking skeptically at the claims coming out of the new administration – on the environment, defense, economics and ethics. If that continues, George W. Bush and his allies could be digging a “credibility chasm” – one that might not be bridged even with the help of friendly or credulous journalists.
In the 1980s, Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek.