White House dupes press ... again

Published October 6, 2004 5:42PM (EDT)

It looks like the White House pulled a fast one on the 24-hour news channels this morning as President Bush grabbed 50 minutes of free, uninterrupted TV airtime one month before Election Day. News outlets were told in advance Bush would give a substantive speech addressing key policy issues, which is why they agreed to carry it. (They're not in the habit of running stump speeches in their entirety.) Days ago, the speech was billed as an address on medical liability reform. Then on Monday, White House aides announced the speech would address the "war on terror" and the economy. And that's how the cable outlets dutifully hyped it this morning:

-- "President Bush heads to [Pennsylvania] for what is billed as a major speech." -- MSNBC

-- "President Bush heading to Pennsylvania for what's called a significant speech on the economy and the war on terror." -- CNN

-- "President Bush is making what's being called a significant speech on Iraq and the economy." -- Fox News

Instead, the address, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was nothing more than a raucous Bush pep rally as the president unleashed his most sustained and personal attacks on Sen. John Kerry to date, portraying him as an out of touch liberal who cannot be trusted to defend America, while Republican loyalists in the crowd booed and jeered each mention of Kerry's name. Bush charged that Kerry proposed "an artificial timetable to pull troops out of Iraqeven if the job is not done," and insisted, "Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat. I have a strategy of victory." In a sense, the speech was Bush's mulligan -- his do-over -- for last Thursday night, as he forcefully, if belatedly, defended the war in Iraq, and accused Kerry of being soft of terrorism. Of course, without Kerry being present it was easier for Bush to make his points.

The question is, why did all three news channels cover the attack speech for nearly an hour? In the past, they have occasionally cut away to both candidates' stump speeches for five or ten minutes, but certainly never for 50 minutes. When it became apparent that Bush's policy speech was not going to be as advertised, but was instead a tirade against Kerry, did that still constitute news? And the more pressing question for the cable outlets is: When are they going to give Kerry nearly an hour of uninterrupted time to ridicule and mock Bush's record? True, Kerry's past speeches criticizing Bush's handling of the war have been carried live, but they were thoughtful, albeit hard-hittingcritiques hosted by respected think tanks. And they were certainly never interrupted by whoops and hollers from a blatantly partisan crowd the way Bush's address was today.

Reached for comment, an MSNBC spokesperson said, "We look to cover events from both campaigns. We felt [the speech today] was compelling enough and interesting enough to merit" the coverage. The spokesperson noted, "Should the Kerry campaign give a speech where he rebuts what the president said today," it too, would be covered. Asked specifically whether Kerry would get 50 minutes to respond, the spokesperson answered, "We look to be fair with our campaign coverage of both candidates."

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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