“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

Monday, May 1, will be the third anniversary of President Bush's “Mission Accomplished” speech, in which he declared "[m]ajor combat operations in Iraq have ended." Even at the time, there were serious questions about continued violence in Iraq -- and, indeed, more than 2,000 American troops have died in Iraq since Bush's speech. But, as a Media Matters for America look back at news coverage reveals, Bush's speech was greeted with widespread media approval at the time.

This Week:

Media Matters looks back at “Mission Accomplished” coverage three years later

Media continue to find silver linings as clouds continue to form over GOP

Senate committee again plans to delay probe of Bush administration handling of prewar intelligence; media silent

Media barely notices ex-CIA official's statement that WH dismissed intelligence that contradicted WMD claims

Fox in the White House

New York Times “conservative beat” skews coverage against progressives

In case you missed it

Media Matters looks back at “Mission Accomplished” coverage three years later

Monday, May 1, will be the third anniversary of President Bush's “Mission Accomplished” speech, in which he declared "[m]ajor combat operations in Iraq have ended." Even at the time, there were serious questions about continued violence in Iraq -- and, indeed, more than 2,000 American troops have died in Iraq since Bush's speech. But, as a Media Matters for America look back at news coverage reveals, Bush's speech was greeted with widespread media approval at the time.

MSNBC's Chris Matthews led the way gushing like a love-struck teenager at Bush's “amazing display of leadership” and his appearance in a flight suit. A sample of Matthews's other comments include:

  • “What's the importance of the president's amazing display of leadership tonight?”
  • "[T]he president looking very much like a jet, you know, a high-flying jet star."
  • “He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.”
  • “He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell.”
  • “The president there -- look at this guy! We're watching him. He looks like he flew the plane.”
  • “He looks for real.”
  • "[H]e didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does."
  • “Look at this guy!”
  • “We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical ...”
  • “Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president.”

Matthews wasn't alone in letting his swooning over the image of Bush in a flight suit blind him to the fact that violence continued in Iraq and that we hadn't found the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to have been the reason we went to war.

Radio host G. Gordon Liddy commented that Bush's flight suit made “the best of his manly characteristic,” adding: “He has just won every woman's vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn't count -- they're all liars. Check that out.” (A majority of women voted against Bush in the 2004 election, suggesting that women weren't as impressed by Bush's “manly characteristic” as Liddy was.)

Like many others in the media, CNN's Wolf Blitzer touted Bush's experience flying “F-102 fighter jets in the Texas Air National Guard” -- but didn't bother to tell viewers that Bush failed to fulfill his commitment to the National Guard, or that he was grounded from flying after skipping a required physical. The New York Times even reported that “Mr. Bush was clearly reliving his days as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard” -- which certainly would have been easier than relieving his days with the Alabama National Guard, as he has said he "can't remember" what he did there. (CNN and other news outlets continued to whitewash Bush's National Guard record throughout the 2004 presidential campaign.)

Time columnist Joe Klein seemed to speak for most of his media colleagues when he described Bush in a flight suit as “probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day.”

More examples of the media's fawning coverage of Bush's “mission accomplished” speech can be found here.

Media continue to find silver linings as clouds continue to form over GOP

We've repeatedly noted the tendency by many journalists to find the silver lining in every piece of bad news for the Republicans. In January, for example, we pointed out a New York Times article that claimed Bush had “stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005” and had “dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems from the latter half of last year” -- an assessment of Bush's political standing that looks downright foolish now, but that was remarkably generous even at the time, as we explained:

The Times went on to assert that Bush has “dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems from the latter half of last year.” No indication was given of how Bush has “dealt” with, say, the fallout from his handling of Hurricane Katrina, or the indictment of a senior White House aide in connection with the Valerie Plame case, or the continued jeopardy Karl Rove is apparently in for his role in the same case, or the indictment of his head of procurement*, or the Jack Abramoff scandal. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows that large pluralities dislike Bush and disapprove of his performance as president. It shows (PDF) that 67 percent think the Bush administration lacks a plan to help find homes and jobs for Katrina victims; that 64 percent are concerned about losing civil liberties as a result of Bush's policies; that 54 percent think the war in Iraq is going “badly” for the United States; that 58 percent think Bush describes things in Iraq as better than they actually are, while only 31 percent think he describes things accurately; that 38 percent think the economy is getting worse while only 17 percent think it is improving; 70 percent think the deficit will be larger by the end of Bush's term, while only 6 percent think it will be smaller. All of this comes, remember, from the most recent New York Times poll. And yet, The New York Times reports that Bush has “dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems” he faced last year, and that he has “stabilized his political standing.”

That same week, the Los Angeles Times conducted a poll that found that a plurality of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of terrorism and did not think Bush was “honest and trustworthy.” Naturally, the newspaper reported these results by telling readers that there was “broad, though slightly eroded, confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism” and that “Bush's Ratings Sink, but Trust Remains.”

In March, NBC's Matt Lauer took this "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" approach to impressive new levels, declaring that Bush's poor approval ratings were a “blessing” for Republicans, as they provided an opportunity for them to run away from Bush in the upcoming midterm elections, leading us to ask:

Think about that for a moment: Lauer suggests that Bush's low approval rating is a good thing for Republican candidates, because now, they can run away from him. We assume Lauer would agree that it would be a positive for Republican candidates if Bush had a high approval rating. What, then, is left? Can anything be bad news for Republicans?

Lauer's NBC colleague Katie Couric answered our question this week, suggesting that the White House is “breathing a sigh of relief” over the most recent poll showing Bush's approval ratings at a record low, because it was “down just one point.”

Let's see if we have this straight: if Bush's poll numbers are good, that's good for Republicans. If they drop a little (even if they're establishing a new record low), that's cause to breathe a “sigh of relief.” And if they drop a lot? Well, that's good news, too: now Republicans can run away from Bush!

It's enough to make you wonder if Bush looked to the wrong network when conducting his search for a new press secretary.

SurveyUSA's latest roundup of state-by-state polling finds that in 28 states Bush's disapproval rating is at least 20 points higher than his approval rating -- including 10 states he won in 2004, like Ohio (34 percent approve, 63 percent disapprove) Florida (37 percent approve, 61 percent disapprove) and Kentucky (39 percent approve, 59 percent disapprove). Even Texas has turned on Bush -- his disapproval rating there is six points higher than his approval rating. Of course, there is some good news for Bush that NBC could focus on if it decides to report the state-by-state numbers: in four states, Bush's approval rating is higher than his disapproval rating.

Senate committee again plans to delay probe of Bush administration handling of prewar intelligence; media silent

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) said this week that he wants to delay -- again -- the committee's long-promised inquiry into the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence.

In 2004, Roberts -- with the agreement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's ranking Democrat -- decided to issue a report on how well intelligence agencies assessed the Iraqi threat, while delaying “phase two” of the inquiry, which was to cover the administration's handing of that intelligence, until after the election. But throughout 2005, Roberts stalled “phase two,” as Think Progress has detailed. In November 2005, with “phase two” apparently still on the back burner, Senate Democrats forced a rare closed session, threatening to delay all other legislative action until the Intelligence Committee moved forward with “phase two,” leading Roberts to claim that the inquiry was well under way and had not, in fact, been delayed.

On March 14, Roberts issued a press release promising to provide committee members a draft portion of the “phase two” investigation by April 5. He didn't, as Greg Sargent noted on The American Prospect's weblog:

One of Roberts' key promises in the release was that on April 5 -- over three weeks ago -- a preliminary draft of the probe into the “public statements” section of the investigation would be delivered to committee members. This would be a very important step. That's because the “statements” section is the most critical and controversial part of the ongoing “Phase II” of this probe -- it's supposed to investigate White House conduct, i.e., whether prewar public statements were supported by intelligence. From Roberts' release:

April 5, 2006 - Preliminary draft on “statements” section of Phase II ready for members/liaison to review during the two week recess.

You'll no doubt be surprised to hear this, but guess what: It didn't happen. Wendy Morigi, a spokesperson for Senator Jay Rockefeller, the committee's ranking Democrat, acknowledged in an interview with me that committee members hadn't yet received the draft of the “statements” section.

Now, Roberts wants to again indefinitely delay the inquiry into the administration's handling of Iraq intelligence. And the news media doesn't seem to care: neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times has published a single word about the latest delay. Nor has USA Today, the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, or the Los Angeles Times. CNN has ignored it; so have ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox News.

We have previously detailed The New York Times editorial board's inexplicable decision to continue putting its trust in Roberts rather than calling for an independent investigation, no matter how many times he makes them look foolish. The Times finally seems to be breaking their cycle of trust and disappointment -- but not in a good way. In the past, it has hopefully called for the Intelligence Committee to conduct an investigation, then denounced Roberts's predictable refusal to do so, only to repeat the pattern over and over and over again. Now, rather than drawing the obvious conclusion that the Senate Intelligence Committee isn't going to do its job as long as Roberts is chairman and that an independent investigation is therefore necessary, the Times has apparently decided not to ignore the obstruction.

While ignoring the Senate Intelligence Committee's refusal to conduct a long-promised inquiry into the Bush administration's use of prewar intelligence, the Times editorial board has found time to tackle an issue that really matters: congressional softball games. No, that isn't a metaphor; we're talking about actual softball games:

The partisan divide afflicting Capitol politics has spilled out onto the Washington Mall, where Congressional staff members' springtime frolic of softball games after work is degenerating into ideological hardball. Complaints that easygoing Democratic players prefer “softball welfare” and that hard-sliding Republicans are into “class warfare” precipitated a schism. More than 100 teams have broken away to form a league of their own led by a Republican commissioner, abandoning 80 other teams to fend for themselves on the greensward.


The partisan infection of Capitol recreation is a regrettable sign of Red League, Blue League grimness undermining elemental playfulness. Can gerrymandered foul lines be far behind? Sky boxes for lobbyists? Mercenary ringers from Slow-Pitch Veterans for Victory (tax-exempt as hit-and-run artists under I.R.S. Section 527)?

Perhaps Congress should take time out from mangling the budget to contemplate what its tooth-and-claw behavior has wrought in skewing one of the few bits of innocent fun in Washington.

That's what The New York Times thinks is important: softball. Forget about the administration's skewing of prewar intelligence; the Times is concerned with the skewing of “innocent fun.”

Media barely notices ex-CIA official's statement that WH dismissed intelligence that contradicted WMD claims

Tyler Drumheller, who served in the CIA for 26 years, most recently as head of European operations, told CBS' 60 Minutes that the White House dismissed prewar intelligence that undermined Bush's central case for war in Iraq -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. As has been the case with previous damning disclosures about the Bush administration's manipulation of intelligence, major news outlets largely ignored Drumheller's revelations, as Media Matters detailed.

It isn't simply that news organizations haven't run stories about Drumheller's revelations, or that they haven't been able to add anything to the story. They apparently haven't even been trying: White House press secretary Scott McClellan held five press briefings (including “gaggles”) between the 60 Minutes report and this writing; in those five briefings, he has faced exactly zero questions about Drumheller. None.

Fox in the White House

Media Matters president and CEO David Brock responded to Bush's decision to hire Fox News host Tony Snow to be the next White House press secretary:

“Tony Snow and the Bush White House seem like a match made in heaven: Snow and his colleagues at Fox News have been among the most effective spokespeople for the Bush administration. But given Snow's long history of making false and misleading claims, his hiring will do little to change the perception that the White House is more interested in stonewalling and deception than in getting the facts out.

”As we continue to witness the same pattern of misinformation and lack of transparency by the Bush administration, we urge the White House press corps to demand real answers from the new press secretary. The media have already given President Bush a free pass on too much."

Snow is likely to prove more capable than his predecessor, McClellan, when it comes to delivering White House spin with a straight face and in complete sentences, so we expect him to earn rave reviews from the media shortly after taking over. But while few seem to doubt that Snow will offer a significant superficial improvement over McClellan, that isn't what matters, and isn't what reporters should focus on. The important question is whether the administration -- and Bush himself -- plan to change their approach; to begin to be honest and open with the media and the American people. That -- not whether Snow does a better job of sounding sincere while speaking disingenuously -- is what journalists should focus on.

If ABC's Claire Shipman is any indication, we shouldn't count on that happening. Referring to the White House's well-known preference for Fox News, Shipman declared:

SHIPMAN: Tony Snow is used to speaking his mind. Probably one of the first things he's going to do when he gets in there is change the channels on those TV sets, because he knows that this White House needs another point of view.

Think about that for a second: Shipman says the White House “needs another point of view” other than Fox News. And she says that Fox News host Tony Snow is just the person to provide that other point of view. Hiring a Fox News host will bring new perspective to a White House that obsessively keeps televisions tuned to Fox News. Anyone who thinks that makes sense probably thinks that Bush's record low approval ratings are good news.

New York Times “conservative beat” skews coverage against progressives

New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick wrote an April 23 article about a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that detailed support for the amendment from religious conservatives -- but ignored significant support for same-sex marriage among other religious groups. Kirkpatrick wrote about a petition signed by 50 prominent religious leaders in support of the amendment, but he didn't mention that 500 -- 10 times as many -- religious leaders have signed an open letter on marriage equality that notes “strong civil liberties arguments for ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage.”

Kirkpatrick's article is just the latest in a long line of major media reports that offers a grossly distorted view of the intersection of religion and public policy. When news organizations report about faith and politics, they almost always talk about conservatives who oppose abortion and gay rights -- and rarely about opposition to the death penalty or war, or about helping the poor.

Kirkpatrick's article also illustrates something very wrong with The New York Times: The paper created a “conservative beat” in 2004 to focus on the coverage of the right. Kirkpatrick was the first reporter on that beat. Earlier this year, Times ombudsman Byron Calame praised the existence of a “conservative beat” at the Times as leading to “a greater awareness of conservative perspectives across the newsroom.” There was no need to create a “liberal beat,” Calame argued, because of “the reality that the Times' coverage of liberals had no gaps similar to those in its reporting on the conservative movement.”

Well, Kirkpatrick's April 23 article certainly contains “gaps.” Perhaps it is time for the Times to rethink the effect the “conservative beat” has had -- and whether the paper gives short shrift to progressive views.

In case you missed it

  • Ann Coulter, regressing (or maybe, in her case, progressing?) to third-grade insults, called former Vice President Al Gore “clinically insane” and said he “seemed kind of gay.” Keep that in mind the next time CNN gives her a forum for her hate speech or Time magazine puts her on its cover. And don't be surprised to see right-wing media attacks on Gore increase as his critically acclaimed film, An Inconvenient Truth, reaches movie theaters nationwide.
  • During the April 25 broadcast of his radio show, Bill O'Reilly declared that “all these dopey kids” who “can't pass the civics test” should be deported to Canada. Later in the same show, O'Reilly incorrectly identified the secretary of energy as Spencer Abraham; Abraham hasn't been energy secretary for more than a year. So, Bill, just let us know when you have your bags packed for Canada; we'll chip in for your bus ticket.
  • Speaking of O'Reilly, we discovered this week why he's wrong so often: O'Reilly explained: “I can't base my opinion” about the Iraq war “on anything” other than “what my military analysts, people paid by Fox News, say to me.” And he said that a caller who preferred to form opinions by reading “the Internet and the newspapers” was “ridiculous.” Media Matters took a look at the track record of the Fox military analysts in whom O'Reilly trusts so completely. It isn't good.
  • The American Prospect's Greg Sargent and The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby have both recently explored the media's obsession with “authenticity” and “regular-guy shtick” -- and how that has distorted the public's view of figures from Al Gore to John McCain.

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

This line originally referred to “his head of procurement's guilty plea.” David Safavian has been indicted but has not pleaded guilty. We regret the error.