Here we are, five and a half years into the Bush Administration, and the press corps still hasn’t figured out how to handle the White House’s primary tactic of media management: lying.
During George W. Bush’s first term, reporters had a powerful confluence of motivations for their difficulty in calling the President to task. First was tradition; mere journalists lacked the authority to call a President a liar. Second, post-9/11 they were intimidated by Bush’s McCarthyite with-us-or-ag’in-us rhetoric as well as by a bloodthirsty right-wing punditocracy. (New York Times White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller admitted that she and her colleagues found it “frightening to stand up there,” and “no one wanted to get into an argument with the President at this very serious time.”)
Finally, though much of what Bush said during his first term was laughable, it was not easily disprovable in a normative sense. Would the poor and the middle class be the primary beneficiaries of tax cuts designed almost exclusively to enrich the extremely wealthy? Could right-wing church groups and ideology factories replace the services provided by traditional government health and welfare agencies? Does abstinence-only education based on disinformation reduce teen pregnancy? Were WMD-infested, bin-Laden-loving Iraqis eager to be “liberated” by a power that instructs them that our God is bigger than their God? “Well maybe,” replied most reporters. “Time will tell.”
Because the mainstream media make a fetish of a particularly brainless form of objectivity, the Bush Administration has been able to deceive the American public on a dizzying array of issues, from war to economics to science to, well, you name it. Lying has usually damaged the Presidents who do it, as I argued in my book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. But the media proved so timid in the face of this Administration’s deceptions that the reckoning was delayed long enough for Bush to squeak into a second term.
Now the results are in–and reporters, under siege from several directions, are still trapped in self-eviscerating sanctimony. Jim Lehrer explained the peculiar form of “objectivity” he and his colleagues practice to CJR Daily‘s Liz Cox Barrett not long ago: “I don’t deal in terms like ‘blatantly untrue,'” he averred. “That’s for other people to decide…. I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism.” As Todd Gitlin pointed out on TPM Cafe, Lehrer’s interview sounded an awful lot like Rob Corddry lecturing a befuddled Jon Stewart, “I don’t have ‘o-pin-i-ons.’ I’m a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called ‘objectivity’–might wanna look it up someday.”
Of course, even when they did catch Bush in the occasional bald-faced, easily demonstrable lie, most Washington journalists thought it gauche to make a big deal out of it. Dana Milbank wrote the classic 2002 Washington Post article about Bush’s tendency to mislead, deliberately–all without ever using the “L” word. When asked by CNN’s Howard “conflict of interest” Kurtz specifically about an incontrovertible lie by Bush about why we invaded Iraq–the President claimed that Saddam Hussein would not allow inspectors in–Milbank excused the liar: “This is just the President being the President.” He meant it as a compliment.
Now Bush’s lies are news again. When replacing his Treasury Secretary recently, he told another one that reporters have had trouble ignoring. Asked by Bloomberg’s Richard Keil, “Has Treasury Secretary Snow given you any indication that he intends to leave his job anytime soon?” Bush responded, “No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he’s doing a fine job.” In fact, as Washington Post.com’s Dan Froomkin reported, “Tony Snow [no relation] confirmed that Bush had offered John Snow’s job to Goldman Sachs chairman Henry Paulson several days before the press conference, and the spokesman didn’t deny that Bush and his treasury secretary had talked about it.” Quizzed about the discrepancy, Tony Snow called Bush’s response “artfully worded.” By Bush Administration standards, that’s sad but true.
Froomkin devoted a column to the incident, brazenly titled “Bush’s Lie.” In it he wondered at all the reasons reporters are reluctant to call a lie a lie. He quoted his own newspaper’s coverage by Peter Baker and Paul Blustein, which gave no indication of the President’s purposeful mendacity. “Bush, when asked about the Treasury Secretary at his news conference last night, indicated only that he had not spoken directly with Snow and quickly changed the subject to positive economic indicators.” In other words: “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” (Also writing about the incident, Slate‘s John Dickerson explained, mystifyingly, “I’m reluctant to call it a lie, but the President abused our trust.”)
Interestingly, Froomkin’s attentiveness to the issue of what’s true and what’s false in the President’s statements has earned him the reputation around the office of being an ideologue. Late last year Washington Post executive editor Len Downie spoke of his desire to “make sure people in the administration know that our news coverage by White House reporters is separate from what appears in Froomkin’s column.” National political editor John Harris admitted at the same time that he had “heard from Republicans” who thought Froomkin “unfair.” To offer readers “balance,” Post honchos demonstrated just what they consider to be the proper antidote to a twenty-year veteran reporter who submits Administration rhetoric to truth tests: In March they hired a 24-year-old former Bush/Cheney political operative named Ben Domenech, who had little (if any) experience as a journalist but plenty, it turned out, as a plagiarist.
So truth is for “liberals.” Were it not for the fact that our democracy is being undermined by the liars in office, we might be flattered. But even the collapse of the President’s popularity has not installed much backbone in the press corps. Bush can still lie about whatever he wants whenever he wants; treasury secretaries one day; war the next. It’s “just the President being the President.”