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In covering the Bush administration's controversial decision to allow a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to run terminals at six U.S. ports, many news outlets have ignored long-standing demands by leading Democrats that more be done to secure U.S. ports.
NBC's Tim Russert even suggested that Democrats are talking about the port deal in order to exploit it for political gain and ignored the other possibility: that Democrats are talking about port security because they've been talking about port security for years.
Russert told Today viewers that Democrats "say they have learned" a "lesson" from Bush: "That is, there is a post-September 11th mentality," adding "Here's the situation: Democrats believe they can look tough on national security."
In fact, leading Democrats have long argued and fought to strengthen U.S. border security, only to be thwarted by Republicans -- something it is almost impossible to believe Russert does not know. During a December 1, 2002, appearance on Russert's Meet the Press, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) pointed to port security as a way in which "there are enormous gaps and deficits in the preparedness level of our country." And on October 17, 2004, Russert hosted a Meet the Press debate between South Carolina's Democratic and Republican Senate candidates. During that debate, Democratic candidate Inez Tenenbaum, now South Carolina's state superintendent of education, accused then-Republican candidate, Sen. James DeMint of having "voted against port security for South Carolina."
Even if Russert doesn't remember these examples of Democrats talking -- on the television show he hosts -- about the importance of improving port security, he should still be aware of their focus on the issue. During the 2004 Democratic convention, several of the highest-profile Democrats in the country used the opportunity to speak directly to tens of millions of Americans about ... port security.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) talked about the need to "secure our ports." Vice presidential nominee John Edwards promised that he and Kerry would "listen to the wisdom of the September 11th commission. ... We will strengthen our homeland security and protect our ports." Kerry argued that "the frontlines of this battle are not just far away. They're right here on our shores. ... We shouldn't be letting 95 percent of our container ships come into our ports without ever being physically inspected." And former President Bill Clinton used his speech to point out that Democrats in congress fought for improved port security -- but were opposed by the Bush administration and congressional Republicans:
On homeland security, Democrats tried to double the number of containers at ports and airports checked for weapons of mass destruction. It cost $1 billion. It would have been paid for under our bill by asking the 200,000 millionaires in America to cut their tax cut by $5,000. Almost all 200,000 of us would like to have done that, to spend $5,000 to make all 300 million Americans safer.
The measure failed. Why? Because the White House and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives opposed it. They thought our $5,000 was more important than doubling the container checks at our ports and airports.
If you agree with that, by all means, re-elect them. If not, John Kerry and John Edwards are your team for the future.
During the first presidential debate between Kerry and President Bush on September 30, 2004, Kerry criticized Bush's record on port security:
The president -- 95 percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected. Civilians get onto aircraft, and their luggage is X-rayed, but the cargo hold is not X- rayed. Does that make you feel safer in America?
During the third debate on October 13, 2004, Kerry returned to the issue:
I believe that this president, regrettably, rushed us into a war, made decisions about foreign policy, pushed alliances away. And, as a result, America is now bearing this extraordinary burden where we are not as safe as we ought to be.
The measurement is not: Are we safer? The measurement is: Are we as safe as we ought to be? And there are a host of options that this president had available to him, like making sure that at all our ports in America containers are inspected. Only 95 percent of them -- 95 percent come in today uninspected. That's not good enough.
The most prominent Democrats in the country have used the most important forums they had access to, with the largest audiences, to talk about the importance of securing U.S. ports. They did so at the Democratic National Convention, during presidential debates, and have done so on Russert's own television show. Yet Russert suggested that Democrats are just now discovering the issue and cynically exploiting it for partisan gain.
Media Matters for America recently explained that not only have prominent Democrats spoken of the need for increased port security, they have worked to make it a reality:
Indeed, many of the most outspoken Democratic critics of the Bush administration's current port deal have also sponsored legislation designed to better secure the nation's ports. Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson (FL), Patty Murray (WA), with co-sponsor Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), Chuck Schumer (NY), and Rep. Jane Harman (CA) have all introduced legislation to enhance the nation's port security.
Furthermore, most Republicans in Congress have resisted Democrats' efforts to secure U.S. ports. As the Senate Democratic Policy Committee has documented, since 9-11, Senate Republicans have voted to defeat Democratic measures to increase funding for port security. For example, Schumer's amendment to the 2004 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill to provide $70 million for research and development to stop nuclear materials from entering U.S. ports was defeated by a 51-45 near-party-line vote. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) introduced an amendment to the same bill that would have provided $100 million in port and maritime security grants. The Republican Senate rejected Byrd's measure by a near party-line vote of 51-45. Republicans also defeated former Sen. Ernest Hollings's (D-SC) amendment to the 2004 Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which would have provided $300 million in maritime security grants, by a 50-48 largely party-line vote. In addition, for the 2003 War Supplemental Appropriations bill, Hollings's amendment to increase port security funding by $1 billion was defeated by a 52-47 vote largely along party lines.
And as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has noted, many of the Senate Republicans now calling for the Bush administration to revoke the DPW port deal have continually voted against Democratic attempts to strengthen port security in the United States.
If port security is not a topic that was on most Americans' minds until the current controversy, it isn't because Democrats haven't been pressing the issue. It's because Russert and his colleagues haven't been covering it. It's a pattern we see time and time again: First, the media ignore Democrats' ideas and proposals; then reporters accuse Democrats of not having any ideas -- or of discovering an issue only when they see the potential for political gain. CNN's Paula Zahn told State of the Union viewers that there is a "perception" that Democrats "have no agenda of their own ... basically the only thing they're good at is blasting the president." As we said at the time:
Which is, of course, utter nonsense. The public thinks Democrats are good at plenty of other things. Polling finds that the American people have more confidence in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party when it comes to Social Security, Medicare, reducing the deficit, Iraq, finding terrorists without violating the average American's rights, standing up to lobbyists and special interests, dealing with the issue of corruption in government, ability to manage the federal government, abortion, and end-of-life decisions.
To the extent that there are people who think the Democrats lack ideas or an agenda, Zahn and her colleagues might want to examine why they think that. It certainly isn't because Democrats actually lack ideas or an agenda. HouseDemocrats.gov offers plenty of detail about the House Democrats' ideas and agenda; as do the websites of many progressive organizations, like the Center for American Progress.
If people think Democrats lack ideas, it is largely because news organizations ignore the Democrats' ideas. It's because Paula Zahn devotes an hour every night not to assessing the political parties' policy proposals, but to urgent topics like "Breast Milk Black Market"; "Oprah Flip-Flops on Controversial Book" and "New Clues in Missing Honeymooner Case?" -- and those are all from a single edition of Paula Zahn Now. Other recent editions have focused on "A Life Changed By Cosmetic Surgery," the always-popular "Googling For Pornography," and the pressing question: "Can voodoo make a comeback?"
A common problem with coverage of the UAE port deal has been a failure to distinguish between companies that are located in a foreign country and companies that are controlled by a foreign government. Much of the controversy surrounding the port deal stems from the fact that Dubai Ports World, the company seeking to buy the British conglomerate that used to manage the ports, thus gaining control of the terminals, is not merely located in the United Arab Emirates, it is actually owned by the UAE government.
The Bush administration has sought to blur that distinction and suggested that critics of the deal are unfairly discriminating against Arabs. Bush told reporters on February 21:
BUSH: I really don't understand why it's okay for a British company to operate our ports, but not a company from the Middle East ... I want those who are questioning it to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British [sic] company. I'm trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to people of the world, we'll treat you fairly.
Presumably, news organizations pointed out Bush's dishonesty in blurring the distinction in referring to a "company from the Middle East" rather than a "company owned by a foreign government?"
NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory told viewers that Bush administration "officials suggested critics were unfairly discriminating against a Middle Eastern country given the ports were previously run by a British company." Gregory's colleague, NBC's Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, referred to Dubai Ports World as "a company from the United Arab Emirates." Neither mentioned the fact that the Bush administration officials' "suggestions" were based on a false comparison between a private "Great British" company and a company actually controlled by a foreign government.
On CNN, anchors and reporters repeatedly referred to Dubai Ports World as "Dubai-based," "a company based out of the United Arab Emirates," and "an Arab controlled company."
The Washington Post editorial board strongly defended the administration's decision to hand control of U.S. port terminals to a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates -- and, in doing so, joined Bush in offering misleading descriptions of Dubai Ports World. A February 24 Post editorial argued:
[T]he president's job description does not include taking a personal interest in decisions about whether foreign companies based in countries that are America's allies should be allowed to purchase other foreign companies that are based in countries that are America's allies. This is particularly the case when such purchases do not have any discernible impact on American security whatsoever.
In other words, the White House's "admission" that President Bush was unaware that Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, had purchased Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., a company based in Britain -- and thereby obtained management control of the business operations of six U.S. ports -- strikes us as completely unnecessary. Why should the president know? Twelve government departments and agencies, including the departments of Treasury, State, Defense and Homeland Security, had examined the deal over a three-month period and found it acceptable. Perhaps the White House should have anticipated this week's political storm and prepared for it. But because the objections are irrational, even that complaint is questionable.
As Mr. [Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon] England said yesterday, the war on terrorism demands that the United States "strengthen the bonds of friendship and security ... especially with our friends and allies in the Arab world." That means allies should be treated "equally and fairly around the world and without discrimination," he said.
The Post thus joined Bush in pretending that there is no difference between a company based in a foreign country and one owned by a foreign government -- then, having falsely equated the two different situations, used that falsehood to justify its endorsement of the administration's baseless allegation that critics of the deal are guilty of "discrimination"
If objections to the deal are as "irrational" as the Post asserted, one would think the Post could construct an argument for the deal that rests on truth and logic rather than misleading comparisons and insults.
The distinction between foreign-based companies and companies controlled by foreign governments is doubly important: not only does it debunk the baseless Bush/Washington Post claim that critics of the deal are discriminatory, it also suggests that the Bush administration may have violated a law that requires more thorough investigations of sales to companies that are owned by foreign government. As Media Matters explained:
The fact that a foreign government owns the acquiring company is crucial because U.S. law mandates additional investigation in such cases if the acquisition might affect national security. Prior to the administration's approval, the DPW transaction was examined by the Treasury Department's 12-member Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). CFIUS reportedly conducted a 23-day review before signing off on the deal. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, however, has claimed that an additional review should have been undertaken. In a February 16 letter to Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, these seven members of Congress cited a 1993 amendment known as the Exon-Florio provision, which requires an additional 45-day investigation if "the acquirer is controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government" and the acquisition "could result in control of a person engaged in interstate commerce in the U.S. that could affect the national security of the U.S." These lawmakers have requested that the administration conduct this additional 45-day review before completing the transfer. Others have specifically criticized CFIUS for not carrying out the full investigation before approving the transaction. In a February 22 letter to Snow, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) accused CFIUS of having apparently approved the sale "as expeditiously as possible, without even using the additional 45 day investigation process that was clearly warranted under the circumstances."
Further, in an October 2005 report examining the implementation of Exon-Florio, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized CFIUS' narrow interpretation of what constitutes a national security threat and warned that this standard "may be limiting the Committee's analyses of proposed and completed foreign acquisitions." According to the GAO, the CFIUS has reviewed 470 pending acquisitions since 1997, but has executed a full investigation in only eight cases.
Though the port deal has blown up in Bush's face, with reliable allies like House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) criticizing the transfer of control of port terminals to Dubai Ports World, CNN's Wolf Blitzer appears nearly ready to declare Bush the winner in the matter:
BLITZER: You say there's no way he's going to win this debate, but a lot of times, Democrats and some Republicans, they've underestimated this president. When he puts his mind to something, he usually gets his way, at least over these past five years.
But if Bush "usually gets his way," it's because Blitzer and others in the media usually give it to him. And if he "gets his way" on the port deal, it very well may be because Blitzer and others overestimate this president.
As Media Matters extensively documented, Bush has a clear history of losing high profile fights, declaring victory anyway, and continuing to benefit from media coverage that either ignores his failures or joins him in portraying them as victories. Among the examples:
Creation of cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security
After Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) proposed the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security in October 2001, the Bush administration came out against the idea, with then-press secretary Ari Fleisher telling reporters during a press briefing that Bush was advising members of Congress that there "does not need to be a cabinet-level" Office of Homeland Security.
On May 30, 2002, then-director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge stated that he would "probably recommend" that Bush veto a bill that created a cabinet-level DHS. Congress continued to press ahead with proposed legislation, and in a televised address on July 6, 2002, Bush reversed his administration's previous position, urging "Congress to join me in creating a single, permanent department with an overriding and urgent mission: securing the homeland of America and protecting the American people." Bush signed H.R.5005 into law, creating the cabinet-level office, on November 25, 2002.
McCain's anti-torture amendment, Patriot Act extension
Bush threatened to veto a 2005 military spending bill because of a provision inserted by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that banned torture and inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. [...] On December 30, 2005, Bush signed the spending bill into law; at the same time, Bush also signed into law a one-month extension to the USA Patriot Act, despite having declared earlier that anything short of a full reauthorization of the bill would be unacceptable. Some members of Congress had balked at a full reauthorization, saying the act compromised the civil liberties of innocent Americans.
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002
During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Texas Gov. Bush was asked whether he would veto the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as the McCain-Feingold bill. He answered, "Yes, I would. ... I think it does restrict free speech for individuals." Nevertheless, after the House approved the bill in February 2002 and the Senate adopted the House version in March, Bush signed it into law on March 27, saying "I believe that this legislation, although far from perfect, will improve the current financing system for federal campaigns."
Media Matters detailed several more examples; click here to read more.
Despite repeated failures and high profile losses -- defeats that are even more remarkable considering that several of them came when Bush's fellow Republicans controlled both houses of Congress -- reporters like Blitzer seem to take Bush's strength and political skills (and those of White House senior adviser Karl Rove) as a matter of faith. How else to explain the media's unshakable belief, in the face of all available evidence, that a Bush approval-ratings rebound is just around the corner? Or The New York Times' recent lipstick-on-a-pig assertion that Bush has "stabilized his political standing" -- perhaps the first time a president's consistently awful poll numbers have been portrayed as a positive.
As we recently noted:
The simple reality is that polls consistently show the following: The American people don't like President Bush. They don't approve of the way he's done his job. They don't trust him to handle key issues. They don't trust him, period. They think he deliberately misled the nation into war. They think history will judge him poorly. They think Congress should consider impeachment. They don't like his political party. They like Democrats better. They trust Democrats more on more important issues.
Any journalist or pundit who makes reference to public opinion in a way that contradicts these basic facts, without offering specific data, is simply misleading the American people.
Add that to the fact that the Iraq war is currently nearly as unpopular as Vietnam ever was, and that, as the New York Daily News has reported, even Bush allies are grumbling about his administration's "absolutely inept" political decisions.
Only two questions remain: What, exactly, will it take for Blitzer and his colleagues to finally understand that a wildly unpopular president, who lost the popular vote the first time he ran and likely would have lost it the second time had the media not so poorly covered the war he bungled and misled us into, is not the invincible political genius they imagine him to be? And how poor would Bush's standing be if he didn't benefit from the media constantly propping him up like this?
In a February 24 editorial about the port deal, The New York Times argued:
If the administration is in trouble with Congress, it's long overdue. For years now, the White House has stonewalled Congressional committees attempting to carry out their oversight duties. Administration officials appearing before Senate and House committees have given testimony that was, to put it generously, knowingly misleading. Requests for information have been simply waved away with an invocation of national security. Just recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee attempted to get information on the administration's extralegal wiretapping, but was told that it would compromise national security to tell the senators how the program works, how it is reviewed, how much information is collected and how that information is used.
Regular readers know where we're going with this: why in the world does The New York Times' editorial board continue to place its hope and faith in the ability and inclination of a Republican Congress to investigate a Republican president?
It knows the administration has "stonewalled Congressional committees" for "years." It knows Republicans in charge of carrying out congressional oversight duties are instead "willing to excuse and help to cover up" Bush's "miserable record on intelligence." Yet the Times stubbornly continues to trust Congress to investigate possible administration law-breaking in connection with Bush's warrantless domestic spying operation. Like Charlie Brown clinging to the blind faith that this time Lucy won't pull the football away, the Times continues to put its trust in people who have repeatedly made a mockery of it.