All Bush, all the time

Democrats are complaining that cable networks are covering the president's every move as breaking news. The problem is even worse than they think.

By Eric Boehlert
Published April 18, 2002 10:11PM (EDT)

On Monday afternoon, President Bush visited the General Mills Cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Speaking in front of a few hundred invited guests, flanked onstage by boxes of Wheaties and Cheerios, the president urged Congress to make permanent the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cuts enacted last spring.

Bush also took time to extol the virtues of local Republican Rep. Greg Ganske, who is favored to win the GOP nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin in November.

As the Los Angeles Times noted the next day, "Bush's dual purpose appearance in Iowa is part of his escalating effort to draw distinctions with Democrats on domestic issues and help GOP candidates around the country as the November elections approach."

In other words, politics pure and simple.

So why was Bush's 33-minute speech carried live on CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, interrupting regularly scheduled news shows? The event was hardly an isolated one. Bush's afternoon stump speeches, from cereal factories, elementary schools, chambers of commerce and union gatherings, have become a staple on the cable news networks. And it's driving Democrats crazy.

Last Friday Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., sent a joint letter to the heads of the three news outlets, complaining about the lack of Democratic coverage on Capitol Hill, as well as the endless stream of live feeds coming from the White House, or wherever the president is appearing that day.

The two Democrats wrote, "Beginning January 1, 2002, according to one of the enclosed studies, CNN carried a total of 157 events live featuring Administration officials. Over the same time, the network carried a total of only seven events featuring elected leaders of the Democratic Party. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Fox News and MSNBC coverage follows the same pattern."

The conventional wisdom suggests that, exposure-wise, Bush is simply benefiting from America's extraordinary war on terrorism, when of course cable TV is going to document his pronouncements live. Not to mention White House, Pentagon, and State Department briefings.

As a CNN spokesperson, Ali Weisberg, noted in response to the Daschle/Gephardt letter, "CNN, like all news organizations, makes decisions about its coverage based on the stories of the day. In covering a war at home and military action overseas, it is necessary to cover the administration making the decisions, regardless of political party."

Offering his opinion on Fox News, on-air host John Gibson told viewers that "a yawning coverage gap has opened up since the president has taken up the cudgel against terrorism."

The high-minded protestations of the news channels notwithstanding, the fact is that the majority of the Bush events they've rushed to cover have nothing whatsoever to do with the war on terrorism. Moreover, a Salon analysis of CNN coverage since Bush's inauguration reveals that Bush was being given an unprecedented amount of live coverage on cable TV even before Sept. 11. And it's the best kind of coverage for him -- often of events where he's speaking before a friendly, partisan crowd, working from a prepared script and not taking any questions.

According to an electronic search of the Nexis database, since his inauguration 15 months ago CNN has cut into regular programming approximately 150 times to feature Bush speaking live. In comparison, during President Clinton's final 15 months in office, CNN carried just 18 live remarks, or 132 fewer than Bush.

Even if Clinton's last two full years in office are included (since 2000 was an election year and he remained in the background politically), CNN aired just 50 live speeches, compared to Bush's 150. (Fox News and MSNBC tend to carry live Bush events as often as CNN. But for the purposes of this article, CNN's programming logs are the easiest to track via Nexis.)

What's most telling is that in the eight months of the Bush presidency before the attacks of Sept. 11, CNN had already broadcast 65 Bush addresses live. And unlike the live Clinton coverage, which almost always surrounded official duties (i.e. announcing revised budget projections, dedicating national monuments, delivering a Memorial Day address), CNN has tended to feature Bush addressing partisan crowds, giving him an extraordinary platform to simply push his domestic agenda.

"There's a double standard," complains Ranit Schmelzer, Daschle's spokeswoman. When asked about the allegation, CNN's spokesperson declined to elaborate beyond the network's prepared statement on the Daschle/Gephardt letter.

Early last year, for instance, viewers who regularly watched CNN saw it break away from programming to show the new president deliver prepared, extended remarks about faith-based charities, defense modernization, education reform and tax cuts, and addressing the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the New Jersey state Legislature, a group of small business owners, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party retreat and on and on.

And as Monday's address on tax reform illustrated, many of Bush's post-Sept. 11 addresses are essentially stump speeches as well. Yet they're dutifully picked up by CNN.

"They've gotten into the practice of covering Republican events and now they're on automatic pilot," says Schmelzer.

In fact, an analysis indicates that of the 150 Bush "live events" CNN has broadcast, approximately 106 were not war related. Of course, since Sept. 11, the president almost always includes in his public remarks an almost boilerplate section about the war on terrorism.

But when Bush gives addresses broadcast nationally on cable television about tax reform (April 15), strengthening Social Security (April 9), education (April 2), simplifying tax codes for small businesses (March 19), protecting the rights of investors (March 7) and welfare reform (Feb. 27), just to cite a handful of recent examples carried live on CNN, it's hard to see what the connection with the war on terrorism is.

It's true Bush sometimes touches on issues of the day within his speeches, giving them some news value. Then again, sometimes he doesn't. On Monday in Iowa, as tensions in the Middle East continued to escalate, Bush was mum on the newsworthy Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Instead, CNN carried the president's half-hour address about tax reform and, to a lesser degree, rooting out al-Qaida.

Democrats note the CNN irony in all this. During May of 1999, the network's high-profile business anchor, Lou Dobbs, got into an on-air tiff with then CNN chief Rick Kaplan. A noted friend of the Clintons, Kaplan demanded that producers cut away from Dobbs' "Moneyline" in order to show Clinton addressing a ceremony honoring the victims of the shooting at Columbine High School. Dobbs, a lifelong Republican, was incensed.

As the New York Post reported, "Dobbs, who didn't consider the staged event breaking news, was absolutely livid."

But no one at CNN seems mildly concerned -- let alone absolutely livid -- about the 100-plus staged events the channel has aired for Bush.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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