Imagine that while Bill Clinton was president, Secret Service agents had gone to fetch Chelsea Clinton's boyfriend from jail, where he'd been arrested for public drunkenness. One could imagine days of righteous indignation on talk radio and pundit television about misuse of the Secret Service and the lack of dignity surrounding the Clinton family.
In fact, the Secret Service did go to the aid of a drunken friend of the first family, but it wasn't big news-- perhaps because it involved not the Clintons, but the family of George W. Bush.
The incident occurred in Fort Worth a few weeks ago when a "very intoxicated" college student was arrested at a rowdy fraternity party and was, according to the county sheriff, "very vocal" that his girlfriend was George W. Bush's teenaged daughter, who'd also attended the party. After the student used his cellular phone to make a call from his cell, Secret Service agents quickly arrived to get him out. Bush's daughter reportedly waited outside the jail in a Secret Service vehicle.
The White House wouldn't comment on the matter, and the story disappeared from the news in a day. (On Fox News, Brit Hume made it appear that the First Daughter, not Secret Service agents, freed the youth from jail.)
Now imagine that in support of President Clinton's top policy initiative, the Democrats had staged an elaborate photo-opportunity timed for the evening news-- with an embarrassing memo surfacing to expose a Democratic plan to deceive the media and the public. One could imagine the national press and pundit corps howling like wolves about the deviousness of the administration and its supporters.
Indeed, a deceptive memo recently leaked to the Washington Post, but it wasn't the work of the Clintonites. The memo was circulated by the National Association of Manufacturers in response to a call from the office of Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. It urged corporate lobbyists to camouflage themselves as working class folks for a GOP rally on Capitol Hill in support of Bush's tax cut plan.
"The theme involves working Americans," said the memo. "The Speaker's office was very clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to participate-- AND WE DO NEED BODIES-- they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc. We plan to have hard hats for people to wear." The political director of the manufacturers' association, who normally wears a suit and tie, attended the Republican rally in a faded farmers' hat, rugby shirt and green pants.
The Capitol Hill photo-op, with its sea of hard hats, looked good on TV for the Bush team and their tax cut. Media outrage over the deception was rare.
The flip side of the press corps' often-justified obsession with Clinton administration spin and flimflam seems to be an overly gullible view of the Bush camp.
Soft coverage of the new administration extends to policy matters. Case in point: a recent Washington Post article headlined "Richest 1 Percent Will Get 22 Percent of Cut, Bush Says," which served up White House propaganda as news. Only a close reader of the story would notice that Bush's claim was based on ignoring two key components of his tax plan: estate tax repeal and income tax rate cuts that kick in big-time in 2006.
Consideration of the full Bush plan shows the richest 1 percent getting roughly 40 percent of the cut. "There's little dispute among economists on the distributional impact of the proposed tax cut," said economist Dean Baker of the weekly Economics Reporting Review. "Journalists create confusion by uncritically reporting the artful claims of the administration."
Media critic Bob Somerby, in a lengthy analysis of the Post article on his DailyHowler.com website, was even more critical. If a newspaper blandly repeats what it knows to be misleading propaganda, Somerby wrote, "then the paper is prepared to be lied to about anything."
Despite the frequent complaints of "liberal bias," studies of presidential news coverage -- including Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and Robert Entman's Democracy Without Citizens-- suggest that the last two Democratic presidents received tougher media scrutiny that the last two Republicans.
Have Washington reporters perhaps been intimidated by the GOP's incessant charges of liberal bias? In 1992, Republican National Chair Rich Bond acknowledged that intimidation is indeed a goal of media-bashing from the right: "There is some strategy to it," Bond told journalists at the Republic national convention in Houston. "I'm a coach of kid's basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs' [meaning the media]. Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack next time."
It's probably less intimidation than an instinct toward propping up the ship of state that has prompted news media to legitimize George W. Bush's ascent to power. At the end of February, broadcast networks and newspapers nationwide proclaimed that Bush did win Florida's election after all. "Bush Really Won," bannered the New York Daily News. "Florida Vote Review Confirms Bush Win," headlined the Houston Chronicle. "Recounts in Miami-Dade Find Bush a Fair Winner," claimed the Los Angeles Times.
It was exciting news -- and false. Or at best, premature.
The overheated stories were based on a Miami Herald/USA Today recount of certain contested ballots in a single county, Miami-Dade. That tally found additional votes for Al Gore, but it found insufficient new votes to surpass Bush when added to official, disputed tallies in three other counties that Gore had sought a recount.
The analysis did not pretend to settle the question of who received more total votes in Florida. In late February, two journalistic teams were still at work on statewide ballot reviews, with the more exhaustive review not due until mid-April, at the earliest. But many news outlets, in their rush to erase the question mark next to the Bush presidency, ended up misleading the public.
The fact that Bush entered the White House through a disputed election may not mean he should get tougher news coverage. But he and his administration certainly are not entitled to softer coverage.
A version of this appeared in the San Jose Mercury News (3/25/01).