Auld Lang Syne: Farewell to another decade of “liberal media bias”
Written by Eric Boehlert
It might seem futile to try to select just two quotes from the previous decade and single them out as bookends to illustrate how the political press so often malfunctioned over the last 10 years. But if pressed, I know which duo I’d nominate in hopes of highlighting the absurdity behind the never-ending right-wing claim about supposed “liberal media bias.”
Y’know, the same “liberal media” that over the previous decade unleashed its venom on Al Gore, morphed into George Bush’s lapdog cheerleaders, and created unfair double standards for covering the new Democratic president, Barack Obama.
The first quote I’d nominate actually comes from very late 1999, but the implication was pure 2000 and the decade that followed. The passage appeared in a Time report about the unfolding Democratic primary battle and came just as the Beltway press was unveiling its unapologetic War on Gore, as The Daily Howler might put it.
The orgy of resentment that erupted toward Gore during the 2000 campaign season was likely unprecedented in American politics, as media elites did very little to hide their disdain for Gore. For years, they mocked him, bad-mouthed him, and made up nasty stories about him. (Hint: Inventing the Internet.) Acting as a conduit for the RNC, the press actively tried to delegitimize the Democratic Party nominee for president. And the chronically caustic and unfair press coverage cost Gore the election in the historically close 2000 campaign.
Which brings me to Quote of the Decade No. 1, courtesy Time’s Eric Pooley and his New Hampshire primary dispatch: [emphasis added]:
[T]he 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by it. Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd.
If readers needed confirmation regarding the open contempt for Gore, blogger Mickey Kaus soon traveled to New Hampshire and announced the consensus among journalists: “They hate Gore. They really do think he’s a liar. And a phony.”
My second Quote of the Decade nominee arrived 110 months later and via NBC’s Chuck Todd. It was uncorked inside the new Obama White House press room, on January 23, 2009. The topic on the table was the administration’s proposed economic stimulus package and whether the White House, which was hoping for a bipartisan effort on the legislation, would be disappointed if the bill passed with little or no Republican support. And that’s when Todd asked Robert Gibbs the following:
Would [the President] veto a bill if it didn’t have Republican support?
That’s right. Just days into the new presidency, Todd wanted to know if Obama would go ahead and take the unprecedented action of vetoing his own legislation designed to immediately jump-start the faltering economy because not enough members of the opposition party supported the stimulus bill.
If nothing else, Todd’s absurd query highlighted the unheard-of double standard the press constructed for the new Democratic president. Namely, when addressing the issue of bipartisanship (i.e. “http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bipartisan”>involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties”) the press decided to hold only one of the political parties accountable: the Democrats. Bipartisanship was now something Democrats had to bring to fruition.
My bookend quotes capture how the “liberal” Beltway press corps changed the rules to cover Gore at the beginning of the decade and Obama at the end of it. And how did the same press corps spend the years between Gore and Obama? Lying down for Bush, of course. Having developed rabbit ears for the right-wing taunt of “liberal media bias,” reporters, editors, producers, and pundits seemed determined during the Bush years to prove how un-liberal they really were. In the process, the press abandoned its traditional watchdog role and morphed instead into lapdogs.
Specifics? Almost too many to count. But who can forget the defining prime-time press conference Bush held in the East Room of the White House just weeks before the 2003 Iraq invasion began and how that press conference came to symbolize the media’s lapdog approach? (Not to mention the media’s monumental failure during the run-up to the Iraq invasion.)
Laying out the reasons for war, Bush that night mentioned Al Qaeda and the September 11 terrorist attacks 13 times, yet not a single journalist challenged that implied (and false) connection. And during the Q&A session, nobody bothered to ask Bush about the elusive Osama bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind whom Bush had vowed to capture. Follow-up questions were nonexistent, which only encouraged Bush to give answers to questions he was not asked.
And then it got really bad.
At one point while making his way through the press questioners, Bush awkwardly referred to a list of reporters whom he was instructed to call on. “This is … scripted,” he joked. The press laughed. But Bush meant it literally. Bush had been given a cheat sheet that instructed him not to call on reporters from some prominent outlets such as Time, Newsweek, USA Today, or The Washington Post. Yet even after Bush announced the event was “scripted,” reporters, either embarrassed for Bush or embarrassed for themselves, continued to play the part of eager participants at a spontaneous news conference, shooting their hands up in the air in hopes of getting Bush’s attention. For TV viewers it certainly looked like an actual press event.
More? Prior to the start of the news conference, White House handlers, in a highly unusual move, marched veteran reporters to their seats in the East Room, two by two, like schoolchildren being led onto the stage for the annual holiday pageant.
Bonus: Following the White House performance, MSNBC host Chris Matthews, in order to get a wide array of opinion, invited on a pro-war Republican senator (Saxby Chambliss, from Georgia), a pro-war former secretary of state (Lawrence Eagleburger), a pro-war retired Army general (Montgomery Meigs), a pro-war retired Air Force general (Buster Glosson), a pro-war Republican pollster (Frank Luntz), as well as, for the sake of balance, somebody who, 25 years earlier, once worked in Jimmy Carter’s White House and who today often sides with Republicans (Pat Caddell).
Meanwhile, how did that ferociously liberal newspaper from heart of Manhattan deal with the run-up to war? “[A]ccording to half a dozen sources within the Times, [editor Howell] Raines wanted to prove once and for all that he wasn’t editing the paper in a way that betrayed his liberal beliefs,” wrote Seth Mnookin in his 2004 book Hard News. Mnookin quoted Doug Frantz, the former investigative editor of the Times, who recalled how “Howell Raines was eager to have articles that supported the war-mongering out of Washington. He discouraged pieces that were at odds with the administration’s position on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged links of Al Qaeda.”
And that other supposedly ferociously liberal daily, The Washington Post, how did it cover the crucial months prior to the Iraq war? Basically, the paper couldn’t stop publishing pro-war editorials — 26 in all between September 2002 and February 2003. As for its columnists and contributors, it was like a neoconservative open casting call as the Post flooded its readers with an avalanche of war cheerleaders.
The pro-war march at times seemed to fog the paper’s news judgment. In September 2002, Sen. Ted Kennedy made a passionate, provocative, and newsworthy speech raising all sorts of doubts about the war. It was a speech in which the liberal senator warned against virtually every major shortfall that eventually plagued the post-invasion operation. Yet the prophetic speech garnered just one sentence — 36 words total — of coverage from the Post, which in 2002 printed more than a thousand articles and columns, totaling perhaps 1 million words about Iraq. But the daily only set aside 36 words for Kennedy’s antiwar cry. The Post was not alone. NBC’s Nightly News devoted just 32 words to Kennedy’s speech, compared to 31 words on ABC’s World News Tonight, and 40 words on the CBS Evening News. And on the Sunday talk shows on the weekend immediately following Kennedy’s timely address, the senator’s name never came up on NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’
Face the Nation, or ABC’s This Week.
Not surprising. A survey conducted by the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which focused on the first two weeks of February 2003, found that of 393 people interviewed on-camera for network news reports about the war, just 17 percent of them expressed skepticism about the looming invasion. This at a time when polling showed that approximately 50 percent of Americans had doubts about the planned war. And according to figures from media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department. Just 8 percent of the television news reports were of independent origin.
Of course, GE-owned MSNBC was so spooked about employing an on-air liberal host who opposed Bush’s ordered invasion that it reportedly fired the highly rated Phil Donahue in early 2003 after an internal memo pointed out the legendary talk show host presented “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”
Oh, and remember the Downing Street Memo, the secret top-level British government memorandum consisting of minutes from a July 23, 2002, meeting attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his closest advisers? The memo revealed their impression that the Bush administration, eight months before the start of the Iraq war in 2003, had already decided to invade and that Washington seemed more concerned with justifying a war than preventing one. The implications were obvious: that President Bush lied to the American people and Congress during the run-up to the war with Iraq when he insisted over and over again that war was his administration’s last option. That Bush had decided to invade Iraq in July 2002. That Bush would justify the war with a WMD argument. That the intelligence to make that case was being “fixed around the policy.” That the administration didn’t much care what the United Nations thought. And that few war planners were concerned with the aftermath of the war.
But boy, the “liberal” media sure ran away from that messy story.
According to TVEyes, between early May 2005 and early June of that year, the story received approximately 20 mentions on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS combined. By contrast, during the same five-week period, the same outlets found time to mention more than 250 times the oddball controversy that erupted when a photograph showing Saddam Hussein in his underwear was leaked to the British press.
In the weeks after the Times of London published the Downing Street memo on May 1, 2005, White House spokesman Scott McClellan held 19 daily briefings and fielded approximately 940 questions from reporters. Exactly two of those queries were about the Downing Street memo and the White House’s reported effort to fix prewar intelligence.
But wouldn’t you know that the White House press corps’ collective somnambulant streak was magically cured with the arrival of Democrat Barack Obama, as reporters and pundits magically awoke from their Rip Van Winkle-like slumber? In fact, even before Obama was sworn in, portions of the press corps were busy spreading the lie that Obama’s extravagant inauguration cost $100 million more than George Bush’s swearing-in.
False. The costs were nearly identical.
That same inauguration week, the White House press corps greeted the new Democratic team with catcalls. “Game On! Obama’s Clash With The White House Press Corps,” reported The Daily Beast. And under the headline “Obama press aide gets bashed in debut,” The Washington Times’ Joseph Curl reported:
Although President Obama swept into office pledging transparency and a new air of openness, the press hammered spokesman Robert Gibbs for nearly an hour over a slate of perceived secretive slights that have piled up quickly for the new administration. It wasn’t pretty.
Curl reported there was much yelling and shouting from journalists inside the briefing room that day. One even “spat” a question at Gibbs. And yes, this is the same White House press corps that treated the early Bush administration with kid gloves eight years earlier. Washington Post reporter John Harris observed in 2001, “The truth is, this new president [Bush] has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton.”
Yet in the same Bush-era piece, Harris went on to cheer, “[G]ood for Washington in giving a new president a break at the start.”
Behold your liberal media. And what a decade in left-wing bias it was.
P.S. If I’ve got to squeeze in two more decade-defining “liberal media” quotes, I’d pick a Mark Halperin beauty from June 2006. Just five months before the Democrats’ historic congressional victories, Halperin issued this CW warning to Democrats: “If I were them, I’d be scared to death about November’s elections.”
I’d also nominate this one from CBS’ Dan Rather, from September 17, 2001:
George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. And, you know, it’s just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call.
A senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert’s first book, “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush,” was published in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org