May 20, 2004
Recent media coverage of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry has often focused on alleged gaffes or misstatements, ranging from convoluted explanations of his Senate voting record to whether or not he owns a sports utility vehicle. But while these relatively trivial aspects of John Kerry’s record have come under intense and prolonged media scrutiny, journalists have shown a reluctance to highlight much more significant falsehoods or “gaffes” by Kerry’s main rival, George W. Bush .
Time magazine’s May 10 story, “What Kerry Meant to Say,” is a typical example of recent Kerry coverage. After noting Kerry’s opportunities to score points against a White House besieged by questions about Iraq, the September 11 commission and the Supreme Court, reporter Karen Tumulty asks, “‘But what did the challenger find himself talking about for three days?’ The answer is whether or not Kerry threw away his medals or his ribbons in the early 1970s.”
Tumulty attributes this story line to a personal flaw in Kerry: The campaign has been largely about the “traps that the Bush campaign is adept at setting for Kerry, and the personality trait that makes Kerry walk right into them.” In fact, of course, it’s up to the media to decide what questions to ask candidates and which issues to run stories about. And again and again, the press corps has latched onto stories of dubious importance in order to portray Kerry as faltering or changing course.
After Kerry pledged on NBC ‘s Meet the Press to release medical records from his service in Vietnam, ABC World News Tonight (4/21/04) reported that Kerry’s service “has become the subject of controversy” because some of his critics were raising doubts about his first Purple Heart. When the medical records did little to bolster their case, the press corps switched to another GOP spin point: Kerry didn’t get the records out fast enough. ABC ‘s report included a soundbite from Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie: “When President Bush committed to release all his military records on the same program, he kept his word. John Kerry should do the same.” The fact that Bush took five days after his Meet the Press appearance to get his full records out while Kerry took three did not deter media outlets from doing stories on this nonexistent issue.
While the press corps applies microscopic scrutiny to Kerry’s statements, looking for evidence of misstatements or “flip-flops,” Bush gets little criticism for making blatantly false assertions. Last July (7/14/03), Bush revised the history of the run-up to the Iraq war, claiming that Saddam Hussein refused to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq in late 2002: “Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.” Of course, Iraq did allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country in November 2002; they were withdrawn when war was imminent in March 2003.
Few reporters ever mentioned this substantive falsehood. NPR reporter Mara Liasson (7/17/03) called it “revisionist history,” while the Washington Post (7/15/03) timidly noted: “The president’s assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring.” But most major news sources chose not to bring up Bush’s false statement– the New York Times was silent on the issue, as were the nightly newscasts of ABC , CBS , NBC and PBS .
Bush’s record is full of similar untrue statements: His claim that Enron’s Ken Lay supported Bush’s opponent in his 1994 gubernatorial race, when Lay actually contributed three times as much to Bush (ABC World News Tonight , 1/10/02); his insistence that the White House was not responsible for the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the U.S.S. Lincoln (New York Times , 10/29/03); his statement that in 2002 the economy “was pulling out of a recession that began before I took office” (when it actually started in March 2001– Slate , 12/30/02); his assertion in a 2000 debate that in his tax cut plan, “by far the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder,” when the bottom 50 percent really got roughly 10 percent of the benefits (Extra! , 1-2/01); his boast that “I’ve been to war” (Associated Press , 1/27/02)– to list just a few.
In 2000, journalists seemed to be tailoring their coverage to a well-defined theme: “The story line is Bush isn’t smart enough and Gore isn’t straight enough,” explained pundit Cokie Roberts (Washington Post , 10/15/00). The coverage so far in 2004 suggests that Kerry is now getting the Gore treatment (Daily Howler , 5/4/04).
But for Bush, the story line has changed; now reporters consider resolution to be Bush’s defining trait. A day after a Bush press conference, New York Times reporter David Sanger (4/14/04) wrote that Bush’s “singlemindedness” is the “hallmark of his presidency,” seen by admirers as “his greatest strength” and by his critics as “a dangerous, never-change-course stubbornness.” Washington Post columnist David Broder agreed, writing (4/15/04) that while Bush “will not be deflected from his chosen course by criticism or evidence of public doubts about the wisdom of his policies,” that could be a good thing, since “this idealism forms an image of resolute leadership.”
The idea of a leader who friends and foes alike say never changes his mind bears little resemblance to the actual George W. Bush , who has taken diametrically opposed stands on the need for a Homeland Security Department (Time, 4/26/04), an independent September 11 commission (Baltimore Sun , 3/31/04) and a patients’ bill of rights (Political Animal , 3/21/04; Washington Post , 4/5/04). His flip-flop on “nation-building” was so pronounced that Comedy Central ‘s Daily Show (4/30/03) once staged a debate on the subject with taped statements from Bush taking both sides. But if it doesn’t match reality, the media image of a resolute Bush does conform remarkably well to Karl Rove’s 2004 campaign slogan: “Steady Leadership in a Time of Change.”