Media provides false “context” for Bush quote on bin Laden

During the October 13 presidential debate, President George W. Bush denied he'd ever said he wasn't worried about Osama bin Laden, as Senator John Kerry stated. In fact, Bush did say it, as a March 13, 2002, video clip, which was played repeatedly by cables and networks after the debate, demonstrates. But even with a video clip that starkly contradicted Bush's assertion, several pundits and reporters rushed in the hours after the debate to claim, falsely, that Bush's 2002 comments about bin Laden were being taken out of context.

From the October 13 debate:

KERRY: Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, “Where is Osama bin Laden?” He said, “I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned.”


BUSH: Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations.

But Bush wasn't telling the truth. From a March 13, 2002, press conference:

Q: But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?

BUSH: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.

But several news organizations gave Bush credit for nonexistent “context” around the remark. Knight Ridder reported after the debate:

“Kerry accused Bush of saying 'I'm not that concerned' about the al Qaida leader when asked where bin Laden was. The context, though, was misstated. Bush was saying bin Laden could not elude U.S. forces forever and also said of bin Laden at the time: 'He's the one who needs to be worried.'” [Knight Ridder, 10/13/04]

That isn't true. At no point during his March 2002 press conference did Bush say bin Laden is “the one who needs to be worried,” or anything like it.

Knight Ridder was apparently referring to comments Bush made nearly two months earlier, on January 22, 2002:

BUSH: A fellow came the other day to the office, and said, well, are you worried about Mr. bin Laden? I said, no, I'm not too worried about him. He's the guy that needs to be worried. But I want to assure you, the objective is not bin Laden. Oh, we'll get bin Laden. There's only so many caves he can hide in, if he's still hiding in caves. My attitude was, once we get him running, it's just a matter of time before we bring him to justice.

So, by “at the time,” Knight Ridder apparently meant “nearly two months earlier.”

On October 14, MSNBC anchor Randy Meier twice claimed that the “context” around Bush's 2002 quote showed that he meant that bin Laden should be more concerned about us:

  • All right, so, Craig, here's what happened. The president, when we looked at it later, said it in the context of 'I think of Osama bin Laden should be more concerned about us. I'm not necessarily so concerned about him,' but was it enough of an error that it should not have been said? [MSNBC News Live, 10/14/04, 10:45 a.m. ET]
  • There was a moment last night where George Bush was caught flubbing a little bit about Osama bin Laden, saying after Kerry had made reference that he wasn't concerned about Osama bin Laden. President Bush made that comment in context that he thought Osama bin Laden should be more concerned about us. [MSNBC News Live, 10/14/04, 11:04 a.m. ET]

It's unclear what Meier meant when he said “we looked at it later,” since looking at the transcript of Bush's March 2002 remarks doesn't show any such “context.”

On FOX News Channel, anchor Brit Hume and “FOX All-Star” panelist and Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes likewise spun for Bush on October 13:

HUME: The Kerry camp has been quick to point out that the president said -- when Senator Kerry had said that the president -- quoted the president saying he wasn't concerned about Osama bin Laden, the president responded to that in tonight's debate, “I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course, we're worried about Osama bin Laden.”

In fact, they have pointed out -- the president did on a couple of occasions -- said that they -- he wasn't that concerned about bin Laden; in another case, that he wasn't worried about him, but Osama bin Laden could be the one that was worried. Does anybody think that's the kind of gaffe that might change anybody's judgment of this debate?

BARNES: No, but the Kerry people -- you know, they nailed him on it. I mean, he did say I'm not too worried about him. Now he was meaning that he's the guy then -- and he went on to say Osama bin Laden's the guy that should be worried. But it wasn't harmful, but the president did say that. [Post-debate coverage, 10/13/04]

Hume seemed to recognize that in the Bush statement Kerry was quoting, there was no “context” about bin Laden being worried. But Barnes ignored that inconvenient truth, pretending that in the March 2002 statement, Bush “went on to say Osama bin Laden's the guy that should be worried.”