By Robert Parry
February 26, 2005
If one accepts George W. Bush’s lecture to the Russians that democracy requires a free press unafraid to criticize national leaders, then what kind of political system exists in the United States where the news media seems so scared of Bush that it shies away from mentioning the president’s autocratic tendencies?
For the American press, there appears to be no bigger taboo than against questioning Bush’s sincerity when he presents himself as the grand promoter of democracy around the world.
Lost to history, apparently, is the moment in December 2000 when Bush joked that “if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier – so long as I’m the dictator.” More substantively, that same month, Bush got five political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down vote counting in the key state of Florida and hand him the White House.
Bush seized that victory despite the fact that Al Gore got more votes nationally and apparently would have carried Florida – and thus the Electoral College – if all legal votes in the state were counted.
In Election 2004, Bush’s supporters took a number of actions designed to suppress the votes of African-Americans and other groups likely to favor Democratic challenger John Kerry. For instance, Democratic precincts in the pivotal state of Ohio were shorted on voting machines, creating long lines and preventing many voters from casting ballots.
Even now, Ohio Republican officials continue to battle appeals by citizen groups to investigate Nov. 2’s election irregularities. A thorough investigation also could look at why so many ballots in Democratic precincts either didn’t record votes for president or awarded them to obscure third-party candidates.
Before the election, Bush could have ordered Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere to desist from any voter suppression, but he didn’t. Now, he could demand full cooperation with citizens trying to investigate what happened on Nov. 2.
But George W. Bush has never stood up for democratic principles when his personal power – or his legitimacy – could be put in doubt. The same could be said of his father. The Bushes seem to love democracy only when they are assured of winning.
Even at times between presidential elections, George W. Bush has shown no interest in playing fair with Democrats. Most notably, he doesn’t restrain his aggressive aides and ambitious supporters – such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist – when they try to tilt the playing field permanently to the advantage of conservatives and Republicans.
Bush was silent, too, when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay took extraordinary actions in Texas to gerrymander congressional districts with the goal of assuring continued Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
This hostility toward meaningful democracy carries over to policy debates. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, instead of encouraging a full and vigorous debate, Bush mocked anti-war demonstrators as a “focus group” and signaled his backers that it was okay to intimidate Americans who questioned his case for war.
So conservative pundits saw no problem in painting former weapons inspector Scott Ritter as a traitor when he objected to Bush’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush backers organized a boycott of the Dixie Chicks because one of the group’s singers criticized the president. Some Bush backers symbolically drove trucks over the group’s CDs.
When actor Sean Penn lost work because of his Iraq War opposition, pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough chortled, “Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!”
As justification for depriving Penn of work, Scarborough cited a comment that Penn made while on a pre-war trip to Iraq. Penn said, “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]
With Bush’s quiet backing, the president’s supporters also denigrated skeptical U.S. allies, such as France by pouring French wine into gutters, and U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix for failing to find WMD in Iraq in the weeks before the U.S. invasion. CNBC’s right-wing comic Dennis Miller likened Blix’s U.N. inspectors to the cartoon character Scooby Doo, racing fruitlessly around Iraq in vans.
At no time publicly did Bush urge his followers to show reasonable respect for Iraq War critics. It was all-hardball-all-the-time, a message not lost on news executives as they fell in line behind the administration’s WMD rationale for war.
MSNBC made an example of war critic Phil Donahue by booting him off the network as it competed with Fox News to see which cable news channel could wave the flag more enthusiastically. The Washington Post editorial page dropped all sense of professionalism when it referred to Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD stockpiles as fact, not allegation.
As it turned out, of course, the Iraq War critics were right. Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD turned out to be bogus, as even Bush’s arms inspectors David Kay and Charles Duelfer concluded in reports written after the invasion.
Notably, however, none of the pundits and journalists who got the Iraq War rationale wrong paid with their jobs. Indeed, some top journalists who fell for Bush’s false claims, such as Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, not only continue to thrive but still lambaste those who don’t show sufficient enthusiasm for Bush’s Iraq policies.
Virtually the entire Washington press corps seems to recognize that it's not allowed to suggest that Bush is a hypocrite when he wraps himself in the cloak of democracy.
That was true again during Bush’s Second Inaugural Address, which used the words “freedom” and “liberty” over and over again. The sincerity behind the speech drew little or no skepticism from the mainstream press despite Bush’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, assertion of nearly unlimited executive power.
In the so-called “war on terror,” Bush has asserted the right to detain U.S. citizens without trial once he labels them “enemy combatants.” Administration lawyers also have argued that Bush can waive legal restrictions on torture. Meanwhile, Muslims in the United States have complained about discriminatory prosecutions based on flimsy evidence and extraordinary secrecy.
Still, the Washington press corps never challenges Bush when he lectures other countries about democracy as he did in Russia on Thursday, Feb. 24. The only doubt – expressed gently by the White House press corps – was that perhaps Bush didn’t confront his friend Vladimir Putin very strenuously over Russia’s democratic shortcomings.
At a joint Bush-Putin press conference, Bush was taken at face value when he described the unalterable principles of democracy as the “rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition” – even though his record arguably shows that he doesn’t accept any of the four.
Bush also portrayed himself as a good example of a political leader who can’t get away with hiding his mistakes.
“I live in a transparent country,” Bush said. “I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open and people are able to call people [like] me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis. … I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you, our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity.”
One Russian questioner challenged Bush on the issue of press freedom, apparently referring to pressure that Bush’s conservative supporters have brought to bear on U.S. news organizations to oust journalists who have criticized Bush.
“Why don’t you talk a lot about violation of rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired?” the questioner asked.
Bush responded with a joke, which played to the U.S. journalists in the room.
“Do any of you all still have your jobs?” Bush joshed, adding: “People do get fired in American press. They don’t get fired by government, however. They get fired by their editors or they get fired by their producers or they get fired by the owners of a particular outlet or network. …
“Obviously there's got to be constraints. I mean, there's got to be truth. People've got to tell the truth. And if somebody violates the truth – and those who own a particular newspaper or those who are in charge of a particular electronic station need to hold people to account.”
What neither Bush nor Putin addressed, however, is the common reality of how their two systems work, using pressure from their political allies to influence the decision about whether a journalist is fired for making a mistake or gets a free pass.
So, on one hand, an accomplished journalist like former CBS producer Mary Mapes is shown the door for not adequately checking out a purported memo about Bush shirking his National Guard duty. On the other hand, a Bush ally like the Washington Post’s Hiatt keeps his prestigious job despite buying into Bush’s false Iraq WMD claims.
The key difference was that powerful voices in the conservative media demanded the head of Mapes, who months earlier had broken the Abu Ghraib sexual abuse scandal. There was no comparable pressure for punishing journalists, such as Hiatt, who had violated journalistic rules by treating a disputed claim – Iraq’s WMD – as a settled fact.
The double standard was even more glaring since the facts contained in the questionable Bush-Guard memo were true, while the assertions about Iraq’s WMD were not only false but have contributed to the deaths of nearly 1,500 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Still, Bush was clearly right at Thursday’s press conference when he declared that a free press “is an important part of any democracy” and that “the sign of a healthy and vibrant society is one where there’s an active press corps.”
But the opposite would seem to hold equally true: that the timidity of the U.S. press corps in holding Bush accountable is a sign that American democratic institutions are neither vibrant nor healthy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek.
His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
Also look for his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.