Bush's press slaves

It's time for the Washington press corps to probe candidate Bush just as enthusiastically as they have John Kerry.

Published March 29, 2004 7:22PM (EST)

The disclosures by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, weapons inspector David Kay, counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke and other Bush administration insiders have altered the dynamics of the 2004 presidential contest. Whether George W. Bush has competently and honestly managed the nation's foreign and military affairs has become the central issue in the campaign.

The question now is whether political writers covering the race will choose to continue to frame the election as the Bush-Cheney campaign has -- as a battle between the "war president" and an "unsteady" senator -- or whether they will shift their focus to what has finally emerged as the actual crux of the election.

This is not to say that the economy, taxes, medical care, education and the environment are unimportant issues. Of course they're important. But in the light of 9/11, with U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with a president who has defined his status as commander in chief as his overriding quality, it's time for political writers to place accountability of him on that measure at the center of their reporting.

Sen. John Kerry must continue to be pressed for his views on all of the crucial issues and especially for his proposals for doing things differently on international and military matters. But a reelection campaign is foremost a referendum on the incumbent. And it's time for the political writers to break free of the strategic framework imposed on this election by the president's partisans.

That the press corps has not is due, in part, to the fact that most U.S. newspapers were complicit in gathering support for the war in Iraq and, in part, to a natural impulse, in the wake of 9/11, not to be disloyal to the nation.

But what sometimes appears to be an act of disloyalty at the moment can, in retrospect, prove to be an act of conscience and integrity, even patriotism. Exhibit A is the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In early April 1961, New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc filed a story reporting that the CIA had been recruiting fighters from among refugees in Florida and that a landing in Cuba was imminent. The story was scheduled to run April 7, across several columns on Page 1, as recounted in James Aronson's seminal work "The Press and the Cold War."

Publisher Orvil Dryfoos told managing editor Turner Catledge he was worried about the security implications of the story. Catledge called Washington bureau chief James Reston for guidance. Don't include the information about the invasion, Reston advised. Over protests from news editor Lewis Jordan and assistant managing editor Theodore Bernstein, the story was altered and placed below the fold over one column on Page 1.

In the aftermath of the disastrous, aborted invasion, President John F. Kennedy later told Catledge, "If you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake." And, he told Dryfoos, "I wish you had run everything on Cuba ... I am just sorry you didn't tell it at the time."

Even Reston, who had argued to gut Szulc's story, would later write: "If the press had used its freedom during this period to protest, it might have been influential even in the White House, where instead it was being encouraged to put out false information and was actually putting it out."

On the same day Reston wrote this, the Times ran its famous "The Right Not to Be Lied To" editorial declaring, in part, "A democracy -- our democracy -- cannot be lied to ... The basic principle involved is that of confidence. A dictatorship can get along without an informed public opinion. A democracy cannot."

Contrast that with the description of her mission from Times reporter Judith Miller, who not only who put out column after column of false information about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but who -- incredibly -- was allowed to write about former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke's critique of President Bush's handling of terrorism after 9/11. Said Miller:

"My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency; my job was to tell readers of the New York Times as best as I could figure out, what people inside the government who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction."

That the news media was complicit in building the case for war against Iraq based on false, misleading and controverted information is beyond dispute. Scot J. Paltrow in the Wall Street Journal, Chris Mooney in the Columbia Journalism Review, and especially Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books have contributed just a few of the compelling reports on the manner in which the Bush administration has consistently violated what the Times once considered a "basic principle" of democratic governance.

That complicity -- whether willing or unintended -- may have emanated from a genuine desire to do what was best for the country. But as Clarke has charged, "By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism." And if that is true, then would it not have been more patriotic "if the press had used its freedom during this period to protest"? Or if it had exercised a healthy skepticism about the claims of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon and the likes of Ahmed Chalabi?

And though the White House may intimidate its daily press corps -- as Ken Auletta has sharply documented in the New Yorker -- the president's reelection campaign has little leverage on the political reporters. To them, George Bush is the Republican candidate for the presidency. Sure, they address him as "Mr. President." But when they frame the world, he's another career politician seeking high office.

It's time for the political writers to push, probe and prod candidate Bush just as enthusiastically as they have John Kerry and the merry band of roadkill Democratic contenders. They should be screaming for a full-blown, hour-long press conference. They cannot be satisfied with two-question opportunities from the White House press pool or Tim Russert's one-on-one on "Meet the Press."

Given how they have peppered Kerry with questions about name-calling, claims of foreign support, Botox, and other minor "issues," isn't it time to bore in on Bush regarding 9/11 and the war in Iraq?

Mr. President: Condoleezza Rice (on "Meet the Press") and Richard Clarke (in his new book) have said that the war in Iraq was part of your response to 9/11. How do you justify going to war against a country that, according to your own intelligence agencies, had nothing to do with the attacks on New York and Washington?

Mr. President: Your own former counter-terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, and others say you used the war in Iraq as a political tool to demonstrate that you were responding to international terrorism and the attack on the United States. Is that true?

Did you, as Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke have charged, come into office with the intention of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, whether or not he posed a strategic threat to the United States?

If there were no weapons of mass destruction and no connection with al-Qaida, in what way -- specifically -- did Iraq pose a threat to the United States?

When did you decide that nation building was a good idea?

Those are just a few ideas. The esteemed national political press corps can surely come up with even better questions. But it's time to reframe the election, to take off the kid gloves, and put some crucial questions to the Republican candidate for president.

And here's the question they ought to be asking right now of the White House: The president hasn't held a press conference in more than three months. When will he have one?

By Philip J. Trounstine

Philip J. Trounstine is the director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. He is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and served as communications director to Gov. Gray Davis of California from 1999 to 2001.

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2004 Elections 9/11 John F. Kerry D-mass.