March 7, 2003
Is the Media biased? Is Pat Kadell a ticking human bomb?

This is what I mean by media bias. After the President's press conference, the media fawned over him with the same degree of repressed pride that a parent might exude after a successful performance by a child as a shepherd in a school nativity play. Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" repeatedly called the President's speech "dramatic," and other stations reported the event with all the journalistic integrity of a puff piece in Vanity Fair. Howard Fineman seemed to go out of his way to paint the President in a light that just wasn't there. He called him "a reluctant warrior," and likened him to Shane, strapping on the guns because he has to:

FINEMAN: If he's a cowboy, he's the reluctant warrior, the Shane (ph) in the movie, strapping on the guns as the...
MATTHEWS: Because he has to.
FINEMAN: ... last resort because he has to, to protect his family, drawing on the emotions of 9/11, tying them to Saddam Hussein, using the possible or likely rejection vote from the U.N. as a badge of honor.
That may be what the White House wants us to think, and how they wanted Bush to appear, but it is astonishing to see someone who purports to be an objective journalist spinning the speech for the White House in this way. There was certainly no attempt to explore this pose, and no attempt to contrast that image with the facts: that the White House agenda has been all-Iraq all-the-time since Bush's 2001 State of the Union address, painstakingly and methodically built up into an international crisis -- and a diplomatic disaster -- by Bush. Bush has crammed a war with Iraq down our throats -- speaking for Americans and the world at large. There was no comment about the fact that the White House carefully chose Bush's pose last night -- some found Bush's tone almost somnambulant -- to be deliberately calm, not aggressive. The Republicans want and need to paint Bush this way so they can turn the facts on their head. The "reluctant warrior"?! Bush is more like war's peppiest cheerleader. He has so doggedly and determinedly sought this war that it makes his push for tax cuts seem half-hearted and unenthusiastic. The only thing he was reluctant about was going to the U.N.; I understand he was practically dragged kicking and screaming to them. It is understandable that he plans to ignore the U.N. now, since he never honestly sought U.N. intervention, oversight, opinion, or investigation. It was his intention to go to war a year ago and nothing will dissuade him from that path. Reluctant indeed.

In this context -- the factual context -- the treatment Bush received from Matthews and Fineman was astounding. The tone of their "analysis" and discussion was as of those who had learned a great deal from an accomplished elder statesman, and whom they were lucky to see in action.

Nor did they comment upon Bush's failure to meaningfully answer questions put to him about the war. (Instead, they praised him for his "Viet Nam" answer, where he said we knew what we were going to do, had a "clear goal," in , and praised his saying we were planning to win this war. Were we ever planning to lose Viet Nam? Were our goals that vague -- or any less strongly articulated than our "goals" and "reasons" for the war are today?) And the failure of the media here, regardless of the personal belief of any journalist, is the failure tp examine the manner in which Bush presents himself in light of his chosen actions and the perceptions of the millions upon millions of people who see his actions toward differently. The media should not be just channeling the President's message to viewers and repackaging it for them to digest. The story is that the message has been packaged -- and why and how much?

Aaron Brown of CNN, interestingly enough, asked his correspondent-on-the-scene about his impression that the President did not seem to be answering the questions asked of him, and even pointed out that one or two of the answers seemed to have nothing to do with the questions asked. However, the correspondent sidestepped any consideration of Aaron's actual question, instead muttering something about the briefing and rehearsal the President had received for the conference but concluding that the President "sought to reassure the nation that" blah-blah-blah -- essentially shrugging off the fact that the President did not answer any question that demanded a substantive answer about the rationale for going to war in the face of worldwide anti-war sentiment, about the economy, about the cost of the war, or about the need for it. (Yes, Bush did reasssure the public that he believes we need to do it, and that it is in the interest of our national security, but he avoided elaborating meaningfully on those conclusions.)

Pat Caddell, a democratic pollster who appeared on MSNBC, did nobody a favor by pointing out that the vast majority of Americans do not support the war, because he seemed actually to foam at the mouth as he did so. He was so angry (who can really blame him?) that he appeared to be free associating about how the American people were not going to take this or something to that effect, while his Republican counterpart ably and calmly spun the press conference into another bang-up performance for this "very effective" President that the country loves and wants to support:

(Caddel said) I'm not representing any party, but the audience needs to know. When I looked at The New York Times pieces, when I talk about - - there are all kinds of different lies. This New York Times piece about this-your memo about the Republican Party about obfuscating, about global warming and the environment...
the problem I'm having is how the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) did we get from 9/12 when the entire world was standing with us, when we were going after the people who killed those 3,000 people to a war with Iraq, which is on the agenda of these Jacobins as I call them, the cabala Jacobins for the last five years or 10 years.
See? The substance may be correct, but he seems to be gibbering.

Which is a shame, because Pat Caddell is a smart pollster and a skillful advocate. He was, like many of us, so angered by the treatment of Bush and the Republicans in the press that he was, frankly, almost incoherently sputtering. i think the point he meant to make was that, for the most part, the media is now in the position of republishing, without analysis or question, fact-checking or investigation, anything the White House says. One of the reasons for this is that the news cycle -- the time between the event and the reporting of it -- has diminished to such a degree that reporters really don't have time to do much more than relay the information received directly to their viewers and readers. It doesn't really help people much to throw in "commentary" from one Republican pundit and one Democratic pundit and say that's the story.

There are still some great investigative reporters out there. Seymour Hirsch comes to mind. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of journalistic integrity. (Unless you're Aaaron Brown. Kudos to Jon Stewart too.)

Posted by Tom Burka at 1:50 PM in Commentary