Bush's helping hands: Media scrubs president from Ken Lay coverage

Published July 8, 2004 6:33PM (EDT)

Discussing the indictment of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and how it might play out in the presidential election, a poly-sci professor told the San Francisco Chronicle the news "gives Bush more negative press and again brings up his ties to big oil and big business." The Chron agreed, reporting, "It won't be easy for the president to ignore his ties to Lay, who has been a friend and supporter of the Bush family for years."

Well, turns out it with a little help from the press it might be easier than first thought. That's because a review of mainstream press coverage since news of the Lay indictment first broke Wednesday afternoon indicates most news outlets, minus the San Francisco Chronicle and a handful of others, have completely downplayed the Bush connection, or simply ignored it all together. That, of course, is good news for the White House, which now wants nothing to do with the disgraced energy executive, once on the short list to be in Bush's cabinet. Reuters reported when asked about the indictment at a campaign stop, Bush walked away without answering. And the missing Bush context is not just a question of how the story plays politically; it's central to the entire indictment story. Because as the Chicago Tribune reports today, Lay insists the reason he's being indicted at all is because he enjoyed such a close relationship with Bush.

Nonetheless, a 790-word report posted on CNN.com on Thursday morning made no reference whatsoever to Bush. Neither did a lengthy story at TheStreet.com about Lay's legal troubles, or a column at Forbes.com. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found no room for Bush in its Lay-gets-indicted article. Neither did Fox News' "The Big Show with John Gibson" while covering the breaking news on Wednesday. Even the "CBS Evening News" overlooked Bush's supporting role in the Enron saga.

Those outlets that did point out Lay's close relationship with Bush often put it in the most vague terms. A Reuters dispatch mentioned in passing that Lay was "a friend to President Bush -- who called him "Kenny Boy." The Washington Post left out any mention of Lay's massive Republican campaign contributions or Enron's role in forming the administration's energy policy, instead informing readers that Lay had "cultivated close ties to the Bush administration." The New York Times was equally demure, reporting Lay had simply forged "strong links with the current administration in Washington, including ties to President Bush personally." Enron's hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, reported in passing that Lay "was especially cozy with the Bush family, earning the nickname "Kenny Boy" from the sitting president." And the Dallas Morning News was also fuzzy, calling Lay a "friend and contributor to President Bush."

How should the press have played the story? Simple, with a single paragraph to give readers some actual context. Here's two that got it right.

Los Angeles Times: "Lay lent Enron's corporate jet to the younger Bush eight times during the 2000 campaign, was co-chair of a gala tribute to him and was one of his top campaign contributors. Enron was also a major patron of Bush and the Republican Party."

San Francisco Chronicle: "Lay was co-chairman of President George H.W. Bush's 1992 re-election campaign and was a leading fund-raiser for the current president's 2000 campaign. Enron and its executives contributed more than $3 million to GOP causes between 1998 and 2002."

By 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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