Tearing down the press

The Bush administration has been at war with the media from Day One. Is its real goal to undermine the press itself -- and thereby eliminate inconvenient truths?

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 2, 2005 8:44PM (EST)

For the last four years the persistent story line about the White House's relationship with the press has focused on the administration's discipline, denial of access, and ability to stay on message. The Bush administration, according to this account, is expert at managing information, using secrecy, carrots and sticks, and carefully crafted talking points to control the news.

But in the wake of revelations about the aggressive and unprecedented tactics employed by the White House to manipulate the news, that relatively benign interpretation is being reexamined. Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts, and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing pseudo-journalist working under a phony name, have led some to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news, but is out to sabotage the press corps from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself.

The White House and its media allies, echoing a deep-rooted conservative antagonism toward the so-called liberal media, say they are simply countering its bias. But critics charge that the White House, along with partners like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, organizations whose allegiance to the Republican Party outweighs their commitment to journalism, is actually trying to permanently weaken the press. Its motivation, they say, is twofold. Weakening the press weakens an institution that's structurally an adversary of the White House. And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts -- the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.

"Republicans have a clear, agreed-upon plan how to diminish the mainstream press," says Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was granted unique access inside the White House in 2002 to report on the administration's communication strategy. "For them, essentially the way to handle the press is the same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast. When it's in a weakened and undernourished condition, then you're able to effect a variety of subtle partisan and political attacks. Armstrong Williams and others are examples of that."

Williams, the radio talk show host and conservative columnist who was paid by the administration to write allegedly independent, legitimate pieces supporting Bush policies, was among several pundits who accepted contracts from the administration while at the same time hyping White House initiatives. News in January of Williams' contract was the first of many headlines this year to raise questions about the Bush administration's attempt to undermine the independent press. "It's basically gaming journalism," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It shows withering contempt for journalism. What's frightening is that it's been done with total disregard, or lack of concern, about being exposed."

According to David Brock, author of "The Right Wing Noise Machine" and CEO of Media Matters for America, a progressive, not-for-profit advocacy group, the White House's ultimate aim is to raise doubts about the information independent journalists produce. "Their explicit goal is to get us to the point where there are blue [state] facts and red [state] facts," Brock says. Eliminating agreed-upon facts has obvious political advantages for the White House. The most glaring example is Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD, the rationale for the war. No WMD were found in Iraq, a fact that was widely reported in all the mainstream media, but scarcely mentioned in Bush-friendly media organizations like Fox News. Polls consistently showed that remarkably high percentages of Americans, and extraordinarily high percentages of Bush supporters, believed that WMD were found in Iraq. Another example is the alleged connection between Saddam and al-Qaida; although the connection has been found to be nonexistent, many Americans -- and particularly Fox viewers -- have said they believe the two were connected. In similar fashion, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last December, coming on the heels of the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, found that 75 percent of Bush supporters thought the war in Iraq was going "very well."

Of course, the public's erroneous beliefs could be the result of simple ignorance or its increasing reliance on partisan media outlets, not a conscious plan by the White House. But the two are not mutually exclusive. And the Bush administration's well-documented mastery of cold-blooded political hardball, its record of contempt for journalism, its cavalier willingness to cross ethical lines in dealing with the press, and its arrogant assertion that it alone creates and controls reality, make it difficult to dismiss outright the idea that its approach to the press is strategic, not just tactical.

The most egregious example of this almost metaphysical chutzpah appears in an October 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine, in which Suskind quotes a senior Bush advisor who dismissed reporters for living in the "the reality-based community." The advisor said, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Separately, discussing the role of journalists, White House chief of staff Andy Card famously told the New Yorker in a Jan. 20, 2004, article, "They don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." At the time, Card's blunt assessment was seen as a justification of the Bush administration's policy of keeping the press at arm's length. (Bush held the fewest first-term press conferences in modern presidential history.) It's now clear that while most mainstream reporters were getting stiffed, members of the administration were simultaneously setting up propaganda projects by lavishing the Ketchum public relations firm with nearly $100 million in contracts to "communicate" White House initiatives -- by hiring Williams, shipping out bogus video news releases, and other sleazy schemes -- and waving into the White House an amateur journalist using an alias and working for a fake news outlet. (The bogus video news releases were subsequently slapped down as an illegal use of public funds by the General Accounting Office.)

Those revelations have led many observers to take a far darker view of the White House's attitude to the press. "This is qualitatively beyond staying on message and controlling leaks," says Larry Gross, director of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California. "This is cynical manipulation and 'What can we get away with?'"

The systematic effort to undercut journalists, to strip them of their traditional influence in national affairs, represents the Bush administration taking steps to "decertify" the professional press corps by "trying to unseat the idea that these people, professional journalists assigned to cover politics, have a legitimate role to play in our politics," according to Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University. He views that effort, along with James Guckert's (aka Jeff Gannon's) ascension at White House press briefings, as being closely linked: "Creating 'Jeff Gannon' as a credible White House correspondent and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to decertify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort."

One way to diminish the press is simply to refuse to deal with it at all. The Bush administration's record of ignoring the media stands in stark contrast to previous administrations. "Of course people in the White House, no matter what administration, are always angry at the press," says New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, who detailed the White House's relationship with the press last year. "Nixon would actually call up owners of media companies and try to get reporters he didn't like fired. But even Nixon and then Reagan and Bush and Clinton, they all felt the obligation to hold press conferences. The difference with the Bush people is they made the determination they didn't have to talk to the press except in an election year. And that's worrisome."

The choice has been a conscious one, according to Suskind. "When I was at the White House in 2002, I had a variety of discussions with them about their newfangled message control machine, and their prized discipline. They made a clear decision: We will ignore as best we can the mainstream press and let's see if there's any penalty for doing that," he says. He notes that the position of Karen Hughes, Bush's former chief communications advisor, was, "'We're not concerned; we don't see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press.' And there's been none to date. "

There's certainly been no penalty imposed by the press corps itself. While the revelations about Guckert, a former male escort who spent his days cutting and pasting White House press releases and posting them as "news" stories, may have been embarrassing to the White House, officials were not castigated by the D.C. press, which generally turned away from the unpleasant story. ABC and CBS never even bothered to mention the three-week-running scandal. After three weeks of ignoring the story, both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal on Friday finally introduced readers to Gannongate, coming to the benign conclusion that there have always been eccentric reporters inside the White House briefing room, and that Gannon was simply part of that tradition. (Those who think the Times and the Journal were justified in ignoring Gannongate for so long because it didn't qualify as news should note that for the week of Feb. 21, "Jeff Gannon" was among the "Top Ten Gaining Queries," according to Google's weekly tabulations.)

The Bush administration's contempt for journalism, and its routine willingness to cross ethical lines, has shown itself in specific ways that predate the recent headlines about Williams, Guckert and company. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings recalled to the New Yorker that he "did a story on a senior figure in the Bush White House and was told in advance, 'It better be good.'" Last year Pentagon managers repeatedly ordered the department's widely read clipping service to omit articles critical of the military and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to the Washington Post. This year the Pentagon announced it was adding more Defense Department-run Web sites aimed at people in the Balkan region in Europe, as well as an audience in North Africa. Disguised as independent news outlets, the Web sites are written by freelancers hired by the DoD, but overseen by U.S. military troops trained in "information warfare." During the election, Vice President Dick Cheney banned New York Times reporters from his campaign plane.

"Presidents like spin and secrets, journalists don't, so this is a relationship fraught with potential discomfort," Times executive editor Bill Keller told Salon last year. "But I admit we're puzzled over what seems to be a more intense antipathy at this White House, especially since the campaign heated up."

And when touring the country to promote the controversial PATRIOT Act, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to meet with print reporters; he only granted brief interviews to local television reporters, who generally ask less probing questions. Ashcroft's spokeswoman justified the information clampdown by saying it was a matter of "explaining key facts directly to the American people and not having as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it." This extraordinary statement not only made it clear that Ashcroft felt no obligation to answer pointed questions when he was discussing public policy, it essentially charged mainstream reporters -- all of them -- with bias.

Ron Suskind argues that the Bush administration has rejected the fundamental idea of debate and intellectual exchange. "Other administrations ceded to fact, and saw the benefit -- the value -- to meaningful public dialogue based on fact," he says. "They understood that was one of their obligations, to engage with people who were there to ask pointed and pertinent questions and demand answers to them. They understood that's how it worked and that that was the precedent. This administration has said, 'What does that have to do with me?'"

The administration's been blessed with good timing. With journalism scandals at the New York Times and CBS creating headlines, conservatives relentlessly charging that newsrooms have a liberal bias, and a wartime culture that historically makes reporters more docile, the administration has encountered little pushback.

Still, some media organizations -- albeit outside the Beltway -- have acknowledged the disturbing trend. The Chattanooga Times Free Press undressed the White House in a recent editorial, condemning it for its "unconscionable, contemptible, and frankly anti-democratic" attempt "to distort media coverage with paid agents, lies and outright propaganda." Meanwhile, the consistently conservative Houston Chronicle chastised the White House for "setting up ringers to toss fawning questions to the president," saying that was "another indication, if any were needed, that the administration prefers the media to be propagandists rather than independent inquisitors." But as with so much that happens with the Bush administration, a dogged timidity continues to plague the press, even when the issue is the way it is being deliberately undermined by administration officials and their eager allies inside the press corps.

"If you look at the career of [Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes, his disdain for journalism is apparent," says Brock. "He's actively trying to undermine it at Fox." The work of Fox and Sinclair and others is crucial because they help muddy the facts by deliberately spinning, or ignoring, stories to suit the White House's needs -- thus helping to create those red state and blue state facts.

One small example, the type that occurs almost hourly on Fox, came during the recent controversy over comments by CNN's news president Eason Jordan about U.S. troops targeting journalists in Iraq. (The comments eventually led to his resignation.) On Feb. 14, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade interviewed Reese Schonfeld, one of CNN's founders, who years ago left the company.

Schonfeld: "But remember that a U.S. tank [in April 2003] rolled up in front of the Hotel Palestine, which is where all the journalists were, turned the turret around, pointed its gun, and fired up at the building."

Kilmeade: "That's what CNN reported."

Schonfeld: "No, that's what is reported. The guy from Reuters was killed, and a Spanish journalist was killed. Nobody knows why. The U.S. Army has never completed its investigation into that incident."

Schonfeld was correct on the facts regarding the Hotel Palestine incident, which are not in dispute. But the Fox host wanted to suggest the facts were in dispute, or subject to CNN's bias, therefore making them easier to set aside. "They have an ability to confuse an issue and neutralize the facts that aren't in their favor," says Brock. "When a reader looks at a story and does not know what to make of it, then Fox has done its job."

The consequences are enormous, says Auletta. "In a democracy, you need a common set of facts."

Suskind notes, "If you believe there is no inherent value to public dialogue based on fact, then that frees you up to try all sorts of things other people in power wouldn't have ever thought of. And we're seeing the evidence of that now."

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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