“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

Last fall, we explained that President Bush's steadily falling approval rating elicited a strange response among many journalists: frequent -- and always wrong -- predictions that Bush had turned things around, or was just about to. As we noted at the time:

This Week:

Media quick to tout “good news” for Bush; ignore bad news

Despite Republican support for indefinitely continuing unpopular Iraq occupation, media portray issue as liability for Democrats

Media quick to tout “good news” for Bush; ignore bad news

Last fall, we explained that President Bush's steadily falling approval rating elicited a strange response among many journalists: frequent -- and always wrong -- predictions that Bush had turned things around, or was just about to. As we noted at the time:

Should Bush's poll numbers eventually “rebound,” we fully expect that Kristol, Blitzer, The Washington Times, et al, will say that they saw it coming all along -- and will pretend that their cheerleading had nothing to do with it.

Bush never did rebound. In fact, his approval ratings sank ever lower, all the way down to the low 30s. And it hasn't been a brief downturn; the highest approval rating Bush has registered in a Zogby poll since the beginning of 2004 -- two and a half years ago -- is 51 percent. Only twice during that time has as much as 50 percent of the public approved of Bush's handling of his job. In the past 12 months, he's hit 45 percent only twice. It's been a full three years since he's seen an approval rating above 53 percent. Other polls tell the same basic story: Bush is very unpopular, and has been unpopular for a long time. It's been 11 months since a Pew poll found more than 40 percent approval for Bush, a year and a half since he was over 50 percent. Fox News hasn't had him above 50 percent since the beginning of 2005 or above 53 since the beginning of 2004.

And while journalists are quick to point out that other presidents have experienced low approval ratings, Bush's are quite different. Bill Clinton, for example, was below 40 percent in a Gallup poll only three times -- once at 37 and three times at 39. The longest period when Clinton's approval was below 40? About a month. And Bush? Bush has been below 40 in every Gallup poll since the beginning of February. More than four months. He spent two straight months below 37 -- two months lower than the lowest approval Gallup ever recorded for Clinton.

Bush, in other words, is stunningly, historically, breathtakingly -- and enduringly -- unpopular.

But in recent weeks, the media have taken another stab at the “Bush rebound” storyline they tried so unsuccessfully to craft last fall. As Media Matters for America has detailed, news organizations seized on a few pieces of modestly good news for Bush to declare him “on a roll” and enjoying a “surge of momentum,” speculating that he is “setting the stage for a political recovery.” It speaks volumes about just how bad things are for Bush and the GOP -- and how eager some journalists are to report a turnaround -- that among the “good news” invoked to justify “rebound” talk was the lack of an indictment of White House senior adviser Karl Rove.

Given how quickly the media were to tout Bush's “good week” last week, you'd think they would have, for the sake of fairness, noted that things haven't gone quite so smoothly this week:

  • The former chief federal procurement officer for the Bush White House was convicted on four charges relating to his dealings with former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
  • Violence and instability continue in Iraq; a memo from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad -- which Bush read on his way to Iraq last week -- painted a dire portrait of the situation there, in stark contrast to Bush's own claims of progress. Bush's visit to Iraq garnered extensive media attention and was commonly invoked as another example of his purported turnaround. The revelation that, on his way to Iraq, he read a memo that directly contradicted the optimistic claims he subsequently made has been largely ignored.
  • The Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan is gaining strength, raising still more questions about Bush's mishandling of the so-called “global war on terror.”
  • A new book by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind paints a devastating portrait of Bush's handling of Osama bin Laden both before and after the September 11, 2001, attacks. According to Suskind, a CIA briefer personally briefed Bush at his Texas ranch in August 2001, attempting to draw Bush's attention to an August 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” Bush's dismissive reaction: “All right. You've covered your ass, now.”
  • Suskind also reports that, contrary to longtime White House claims, Bush was warned by the CIA in late 2001 that the Pakistani army and local militias, which had cornered bin Laden in Afghanistan, were “definitely not” prepared to capture bin Laden and that “we're going to lose our prey if we're not careful.” As The Washington Post's Barton Gellman noted in a review of Suskind's book: “White House accounts have long insisted that Bush had every reason to believe that Pakistan's army and pro-U.S. Afghan militias had bin Laden cornered and that there was no reason to commit large numbers of U.S. troops to get him.”

And yet the media, so quick to declare last week a political winner for Bush and a turnaround imminent -- based on little more than the lack of an indictment of a top aide and an apparently dishonest photo op in Iraq -- has refused to characterize Bush's latest string of setbacks as a political slump. Indeed, some of those setbacks have gone unmentioned: Suskind's revelation about the August 2001 briefing Bush received -- and apparently dismissed -- about bin Laden has been reported in only six news reports available on Lexis-Nexis: one story in The Washington Post, two in Slate, and three in Salon.

It was true last fall, and it remains true: If Bush does mount a political comeback, it will be due in no small part to the media's relentless insistence on acting as cheerleaders for such a turnaround, playing up every piece of good news while downplaying threats to his political fortune.

(Journalist Greg Sargent has a feature on his weblog, The Horse's Mouth, dedicated to highlighting “the most absurd examples of the media straining for whatever scrap of evidence it can find that Bush is rebounding in the polls.” Examples here, here, and here. Sargent declares the storyline over, for now. We're less optimistic.)

Despite Republican support for indefinitely continuing unpopular Iraq occupation, media portray issue as liability for Democrats

For most of this week, the leading political story has been the Senate debate of two proposals offered by Democrats, both of which called for a beginning to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. While there is disagreement among Senate Democrats over how, and how quickly, to leave Iraq, the overwhelming majority of the caucus is united on the basic point that it is time for the United States to begin to do so. That position is shared by the majority of the American people. Republicans, on the other hand, are united in their support for Bush's plan, or lack thereof, which seems to consist largely of staying in Iraq indefinitely, prolonging an occupation that is wildly unpopular both here and in Iraq by at least three more years.

Given that scenario -- Democrats in agreement with the American people on beginning to withdraw from an unpopular occupation that has cost thousands of Americans their lives; Republicans supporting three more years of Bush's unpopular leadership of an unpopular war -- it seems obvious which side should enjoy better political prospects as a result of the debate. And it was obvious to the media: the Republicans.

As political strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala explained in a post on TPM Café:

The media are hyperventilating about “Democrats in disarray” over the war in Iraq. ABC's “The Note” captures the stupidity, vapidity and gullibility of the mainstream media perfectly: “Democrats can deny it all they want (and not all do ...), but they are on the precipice of self-immolating over the issue that has most crippled the Bush presidency and of making facts on the ground virtually meaningless. In other words, they are on the precipice of making Iraq a 2006 political winner for the Republican Party.”

I'm sure I've read a dopier statement of conventional wisdom, a more perfect transcription of Karl Rove's ignorant talking points, but I really can't remember when.

(This adaptation from Eric Boehlert's Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, nicely illustrates two important points: The Note is a consistent conduit of Rovian talking points, and Boehlert's book is a must-read.)

Begala's description of The Note's portrayal of the debate is spot-on: Not only did news organizations offer pitch-perfect renditions of Rove's favorite tune -- that Iraq is a liability for out-of-touch Democrats -- they did so with striking unanimity. As Media Matters explained:

CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash's report from the Senate on the June 21 edition of CNN Live Today provided a case study in how the media are reinforcing the baseless narrative that the Republicans are winning the rhetorical battle over Iraq. In characterizing the debate, Bash emphasized that despite Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's recent efforts “to find consensus,” the two Democratic camps have arrived at “very different views” about how to move forward in Iraq. She further reported that they have decided to debate “the one thing that actually does divide Democrats, which is whether or not U.S. troops should come home.” But the disagreement between the two proposals being debated by Senate Democrats is not whether U.S. forces should be redeployed out of Iraq, as Bash reported, but rather how soon. [...] By mischaracterizing the focus of the Democratic debate in this manner, Bash exaggerated the degree to which the party is actually divided and lent support to the Republicans' repeated claim that the Democrats are in disarray over the issue.

Not only did Bash mischaracterize the Democrats' debate, she also falsely suggested that it is the Democrats -- and not the party voting to continue indefinitely a costly, unpopular war -- that stand to lose politically. In fact, the position articulated by the backers of the two proposals in favor of troop redeployment is in line with public opinion -- a fact ignored by numerous other news outlets. A poll by CNN -- Bash's network -- conducted June 14-15 showed that 53 percent of respondents favored a timetable for withdrawal, while 41 percent opposed such a measure. Similarly, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted June 9-12 found that 57 percent of respondents supported reducing troop levels now, compared with 35 percent who favored maintaining the current deployment.


Bash went on to uncritically report that Republicans “are having nothing short of a field day with what they see going on with the Democratic Party and ... they believe that this fundamentally plays into their plans for this election year.” Bash noted that some Democrats “are a little bit worried that Democrats are playing into Republicans' hands.” Further, she reported that the Republicans intend to emphasize that “the Democrats want nothing more than to cut and run from Iraq” -- a phrase repeatedly highlighted at the bottom the screen throughout her report.

Just as Bash ignored the fact that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats' position on Iraq, she failed to note that the war faithfully backed by so many congressional Republicans is deeply unpopular with the public. The CNN poll noted above showed that only 38 percent of respondents supported the war, while 54 percent opposed it. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll similarly found that only 40 percent of those surveyed believed the war was “worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost.”

This bizarre portrayal of the political ramifications of the parties' Iraq positions is nothing new.

In January, we noted that polls showed 60 percent of Americans favored the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Bush administration's apparently illegal domestic spying operation; that 64 percent were concerned about losing civil liberties as a result of Bush's policies; that more people were concerned the government will “enact new anti-terrorism laws which excessively restrict the average person's civil liberties” than that it will “fail to enact strong anti-terrorism laws”; that a majority of Americans thought Congress should consider impeachment "[i]f President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge"; and that, “basically, people don't like George Bush, Dick Cheney, Republicans in Congress, the jobs they are doing, or the policies they support.” And yet, at the time, The Washington Post declared the NSA spying issue a clear winner for Republicans, and Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein wrote a column headlined “Democrats May Argue Liberties to Their Peril.”

The nation's leading news organizations seem to automatically assume, even in the face of mounting public polling to the contrary, that any debate over Iraq, or terrorism, or security, automatically redounds to the Republicans' benefit.

Almost exactly a year ago, on June 22, 2005, Rove gave a speech in which he declared: “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9-11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9-11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”

As we noted at the time, “no news report that we have seen has challenged the most basic premise of Rove's statements -- that conservatives, led by the Bush administration, have aggressively and successfully responded to the threat of terrorism.” While Rove's comments got widespread media coverage, that coverage didn't explore whether Rove's comments opened the administration and Republicans up to criticism that they had mismanaged the response to 9-11 by, among other things, diverting attention away from the people who did attack us in order to focus on Iraq, which did not.

When Democrats criticize the administration's domestic spying operation, the media portray it as a risky maneuver that will highlight their purported weakness on security. But when Rove criticizes liberals, there is no similar speculation that his comments may backfire given the administration's unpopularity and the public's dissatisfaction with their handling of Iraq. That's not only a double-standard, it's a double-standard that seems to be directly contradicted by public polling.

Greg Sargent made a similar point this week: that media figures frequently and unjustifiably “portray the GOP as being on offense and the Democrats as being on the defensive”:

Here's something we should keep an eye out for as the political battle over Iraq unfolds: How often do reporters and commentators portray the GOP as being on offense and the Democrats as being on the defensive? Compare these two takes on yesterday's Congressional skirmishing over the war:

The New York Times: Democrats have found themselves trying to fend off accusations from the White House and other Republicans that they are “cutting and running,” and many lawmakers demonstrated flashes of exasperation and anger about the level of partisanship.

Los Angeles Times: Democrats and Republicans dueled over the Iraq war in the Senate on Wednesday, exchanging rhetorical jabs as each side sought political advantage on a debate many strategists believed could be a decisive factor in determining which party would control Congress after the November elections.

What happened yesterday was this: Both parties attacked each other. The L.A. Times piece made this very clear. The N.Y. Times piece, though it did quote a couple Dems criticizing the GOP, essentially downplayed it. It's important to understand that these were editorial choices. The L.A. Times' choice was closer to the whole truth.

Look, this is admittedly a very small example. But it's indicative of a larger media failing: The frequent depiction of Republicans on offense, and of the Dems on defense; that is, of Republicans winning and Dems on their heels. Yes, it's true that the GOP is showing newfound unity on Iraq, while the Dems are offering different approaches. But look: the Republicans are only unified in the sense that none of them is offering any plan. They're unified in their lack of any ideas about what to do. What's more, if you read The Times's other piece today dissecting GOP strategy, you can see that Republicans all but admit they're pursuing the current “embrace Iraq” game plan not because they necessarily know it's a winner, but because they really have no other choice.

The reality is this: Republicans have a massive albatross around their neck that's getting heavier every day. It's not an option to throw off the albatross -- that is, initiate a big pullout -- because doing so would be an admission of failure. So their only option is to put some phony swagger in their step, act as if they're confident that they have a winner on their hands, and hope for two things. First, that Dems blink. And second, that reporters and commentators will be taken for suckers, that members of the media will portray the GOP's political hand as the stronger one and allow the Republicans' feigned brashness to distract them from the reality that the GOP simply can't come up with a way out of the mess it's created.

The Dems haven't blinked -- yet. As for whether members of the media are willing to be snookered by the GOP's ruse, the early returns are trickling in, and they're anything but encouraging.

The media's strange insistence that Iraq and related issues are political winners for Republicans, despite all evidence to the contrary, has serious consequences. It not only has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophesy, influencing elections, but also skews the terms of the debate over Iraq. An incomplete and highly inaccurate public understanding of the threat posed by Iraq -- for which the media bear a great deal of responsibility -- is why we are in this mess in the first place. Now we risk continuing an unpopular and deadly occupation for several more years, in no small part because of the media's failure to present an accurate and complete picture of the situation in Iraq, and of the public's attitudes toward it.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.