With the public still many months away from choosing presidential candidates from either major party, the media have fallen into a familiar pattern of trying to "weed out" candidates that do not meet the press corps' ideological standards (Extra!, 9-10/03). This tendency usually applies more to Democrats than Republicans—but Rep. Ron Paul (R. Texas) has demonstrated that conservative libertarians as well can be deemed too far out for the establishment media.
As FAIR pointed out recently (Media Advisory, 5/8/07), media reactions to early candidates' debates often provided a vivid contrast. The more progressive Democrats—especially former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Oh.)—were treated as a diversion from the "real" debate between media-favored candidates. As CNN host Howard Kurtz said of Gravel (4/29/07), "Why should a network allow somebody with, say, zero chance of becoming president into these debates?"
By contrast, the inclusion of Republican candidates polling near the bottom in the debates was mostly cheered; a Los Angeles Times editorial (5/4/07) called the presence of such candidates "a sign of intellectual ferment." When three of the GOP contenders signaled their doubts about evolution, the Washington Post helpfully noted (5/6/07) that "a look at public polling on the issue reveals that the three men aren't far from the mainstream in that belief."
But the second Republican debate (5/15/07) flipped this media script, when Republican candidate Ron Paul dared to raise a taboo subject: Al-Qaeda's statements about the September 11 attacks. "They attack us because we've been over there, we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years," Paul said. "We've been in the Middle East.... Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?"
GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani responded by saying he'd never heard such an "absurd explanation" for the September 11 attacks, "that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq"—a response that got sustained applause from the audience, and much the same from the press corps.
Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball (5/16/07), Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart called it "a big moment, a home run for Rudy.... I knew that what Rudy was saying was heartfelt, and he meant it, because, when you look at his eyes, you have never seen him more serious, more focused." Capehart added that Giuliani "was upset. He was angry. And I think he tapped into not only the mood of the crowd, but also the mood of the country, in a sense."
The media reacted strongly in support of Giuliani. Fox News Channel's John Gibson scored a twofer (5/17/07) by mangling Paul's words ("Paul suggested that the U.S. actually had a hand in the terrorist attacks") and then linking him to the Democratic Party, citing a poll that claims many Democrats "think President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks beforehand.... It wouldn't have stunned me had it come up in the Democratic debate, but it's a jaw-dropper to see it in the Republican debate." Time magazine's Joe Klein declared it to be Paul's "singular moment of weirdness," and that Giuliani "reduced Paul to history."
Lost amidst the media excitement over Giuliani's response was whether or not Paul was correct. The Nation's John Nichols wrote a column (5/16/07) pointing out that Paul's argument more or less echoed the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which noted that Osama bin Laden had called in 1996 for Muslims to drive U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia—whose mission there was largely to support air patrols over Iraq—and that subsequent statements rallied followers to oppose U.S. policy in Israel-Palestine and Iraq. Such discussions are common in academic and policy circles, but not so in the mainstream media.
Such evidence was rarely even considered. MSNBC host Chris Matthews declared (5/16/07), "Ron Paul has a big problem, by the way." While Matthews granted that it was important for Americans to "understand the simmering hatred and the hostility, the sea of hostility, over there," Paul's comments were unacceptable on factual grounds: "You can't say it's because we put troops in Iraq, over the no-fly zone, because they tried to blow up that same building back in '93, before all these skirmishes over the no-fly zone. You can't say that particular argument."
Paul actually made no reference to the no-fly zones in his debate remarks. But if that's what Matthews thought Paul was referring to, the cable news host should be aware that the no-fly policy was first declared in 1991, and that there was an extensive series of air raids in support of the no-fly zones in January 1993—a month before the 1993 attack.
When Paul convened a press conference on May 24 at the National Press Club featuring former CIA terrorism expert Michael Scheurer, the press ignored the event, although reporters have interviewed Scheurer regularly for several years. The fact that Scheurer essentially agrees with Paul's premise, as he explained to AntiWar radio (5/18/07), might explain the media's ambivalence.
CNN host Howard Kurtz (5/20/07) slammed Paul's "unorthodox theory" about the 9/11 attacks, declaring that "news organizations are allowing ego-driven fringe candidates to muck up debates among those with an actual shot at the White House." The real problem isn't that Ron Paul can't win the White House, or that he might "muck up" a debate; if anything, he started a debate the media don't want to have.