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Friday, September 16, 2005

Media compliment emperor's new clothes


While President Bush's approval ratings plummet amid widespread dissatisfaction with his handling of Hurricane Katrina, many news outlets seem to be doing their best to try to rebuild his reputation -- making false claims that his poll numbers are improving; baselessly asserting that Bush has again "risen to the occasion"; giving him undeserved credit for Katrina recovery efforts; and downplaying his paralysis in the face of the disaster.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Suzanne Malveaux falsely suggested at the beginning of the week that Bush's poll numbers were improving, with Blitzer excitedly exclaiming, "Mr. Bush's approval rating is up -- up! -- to 46 percent." But in order to claim that Bush's approval rating is increasing, Blitzer compared polls conducted by different news organizations using different methodologies -- a dubious comparison, at best, particularly in light of the fact that every recent poll has shown dismal results for Bush. As the week continued, it became increasingly clear that the rosy picture painted by Blitzer and Malveaux wasn't based in reality; new polls by Fox News, CBS/New York Times, and NBC/Wall Street Journal, among others, all showed poor results for Bush.

While CNN was putting a happy face on dismal poll numbers, CBS and Rush Limbaugh gave Bush credit he didn't deserve for steps taken by state and local leaders. CBS reporter Peter Van Sant repeated already debunked claims that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was slow to declare a state of emergency. (She made such a declaration before Katrina even hit, contrary to the false claims made by the Bush administration and repeated by The Washington Post.) Van Sant also repeated a baseless claim similar to one made by Fox's Brit Hume and others that Bush "convinced" Blanco to order an evacuation.

Rush Limbaugh took things a step further, claiming that "Bush was begging that governor [Blanco] on the Sunday before the hurricane hit to get people out of there and to declare an emergency." But if Bush was "begging" Blanco to "declare an emergency" on the Sunday before the hurricane hit, the president's response to the disaster was even more inept than we knew: Blanco had already declared an emergency two days earlier. Limbaugh's lies didn't stop there; as Media Matters has documented.

Fox News, of course, did its part. The "news" channel displayed a "timeline" of key Katrina events that curiously omitted two key details. The timeline included declarations of emergency by the Republican governors of Mississippi and Alabama but omitted Blanco's declaration, in keeping with the Bush administration's attempts to pretend that she was late to issue one. And the timeline indicated that three New Orleans levees broke on August 30 -- but omitted mention of two levees that broke on August 29, triggering catastrophic flooding. Coincidentally, a key (though false) Bush administration talking point has been that nobody anticipated the levee breaches and that, as of Tuesday August 30, everybody though New Orleans had "dodged a bullet." It is presumably nothing more than a coincidence that the Fox timeline left out two key details and that, in each case, the omission works in Bush's favor.

Perhaps the most egregious example of pro-Bush puffery in the media came in a September 16 New York Times editorial:

Once again, as he did after 9/11, Mr. Bush has responded to disaster with disconcerting uncertainty, then risen to the occasion later. Once again, he has delivered a speech that will reassure many Americans that he understands the enormity of the event and the demands of leadership to come.

Surely it is long past time to put to rest the feel-good but false notion that Bush somehow "rose to the occasion" after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 -- or at least to offer evidence for it rather than present it as axiomatic. How did Bush "rise to the occasion"? By promising to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" -- but failing to do so, while claiming to know where he is hiding? By taking the nation to war against a country that didn't attack us, based on false pretenses, a war that has required the commitment of resources that could have been used to get bin Laden and to help in preparation for and recovery from Katrina? By creating a massive Homeland Security bureaucracy stocked with political hacks who can't deal with the aftermath of a hurricane -- or, apparently, another terrorist attack?

The very same Times editorial that praised Bush for "rising to the occasion" after 9-11 also noted that, in the aftermath of those terrorist attacks, Bush "decided to invade Iraq, and he tried to do it on the cheap -- with disastrous results, for which the country continues to pay every day." He has approached his job with "a deep antipathy toward big government that has turned out to be utterly inappropriate for the world he inherited. The result has not been less government, but it has definitely been inept government."

Read that again: According to The New York Times, Bush has run an "inept government" with "disastrous results" since September 11 -- yet he is to be praised for "rising to the occasion." We shudder to wonder what kind of trouble we'd be in had he not "risen to the occasion." As it is, we must wonder why news organizations continue to propagate the myth that Bush did so. Is it because he gave a speech into a bullhorn? Because he staged a landing on an aircraft carrier, declaring "Mission Accomplished?" That wasn't rising to the occasion, that was acting. Rising to the occasion requires deeds, not mere words. The Times concedes, as nearly everyone now knows, that the administration's actions have failed; it's time to stop pretending that Bush's empty words constitute "rising to the occasion."

Conservative pundits blame America for Katrina

In the wake of Katrina's devastation, several conservative pundits have taken to blaming the United States for the death and suffering the hurricane caused.

Former Nixon administration "evil genius" and ex-con Charles Colson -- also known for advocating the firebombing of the Brookings Institution -- claimed on his radio show that God "allowed" Katrina to happen as a reminder to America of the importance of the war on terror and "to get our attention so that we don't delude ourselves into thinking that all we have to do is put things back the way they were and life will be normal again."

Trinity Broadcasting Network host Hal Lindsey added that Katrina is proof that "the judgment of America has begun."

And -- in what may be the single most predictable comment about Katrina to date -- Pat Robertson suggested that Katrina was God's punishment for abortion.

Smears, lies and videotape: CNN's Ed Henry doctored video, left out footage that contradicted his assertions

CNN correspondent Ed Henry selectively edited video of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) talking about former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Micahel D. Brown to omit Lieberman's statement that he opposed a provision in the Homeland Security legislation that allowed Brown to be promoted from deputy director to director without a second confirmation hearing. After carefully cutting Lieberman's comments (Henry used the sentences before and after the excised material), Henry asserted that Democrats had "allowed" Brown to be elevated without a hearing -- an assertion directly contradicted by the portion of Lieberman's comments that Henry left on the cutting-room floor.

False equivalency of the week: CNN's Schneider equated Bush's dismal poll numbers with Clinton's record highs

Media Matters documented CNN analyst Bill Schneider's faulty comparison of President Bush's current political situation with that of President Clinton's in 1998:

On CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, senior political analyst Bill Schneider falsely equated President Bush's current widespread unpopularity -- and that of President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal -- with President Clinton's standing with the public during the Monica Lewinsky matter. Noting that, despite his poor overall poll numbers, Bush still enjoys support from Republicans, Schneider said, "Sooner or later, every leader gets in trouble. President Reagan had Iran-Contra. President Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Like Bush, they had a base that helped them get through it." But Schneider's suggestion that all three presidents had to rely on the support of their base during times of general public unhappiness with their performance is mistaken: While Reagan did see his approval ratings plummet to the low 40s during the Iran-Contra matter, Clinton saw no similar erosion of public support during the Lewinsky matter.

Unlike Schneider, the public apparently saw little similarity between, on the one hand Reagan, whose administration illegally sold arms to Iran in hopes of appeasing terrorists, and Bush, whose administration took the nation into a war based on false pretenses and badly bungled preparation for, and response to, Hurricane Katrina, and, on the other, Clinton, who had an inappropriate personal relationship.

Clinton's approval ratings were very high all through 1998 as the Lewinsky matter played out -- typically in the 60s, occasionally (such as when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached him) breaking 70 percent. As an Associated Press summary of polls conducted in 1998 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and by CNN/USA Today/Gallup shows, Clinton's approval ratings were high when news of the Lewinsky matter surfaced, and remained high when former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey made further widely publicized allegations against him; when he admitted a relationship with Lewinsky; when Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released his report; and when House Republicans voted to impeach him.

Schneider's implication that only Clinton's "base" stood with him in 1998 is particularly bizarre in light of Schneider's own assessment of Clinton's 1998 job approval ratings, which he offered on the December 30, 1998, edition of CNN's Inside Politics:

President Clinton's job ratings have been in the 60s for most of the year -- the highest ratings for any president on record in his sixth year. Clinton's ratings spiked three times this year: after the State of the Union speech in January and again in August just after his speech in which he confessed his, "misleading the American public for the past seven months." The president got his biggest bounce of all, a phenomenal 73 percent, after he got impeached in December. A few more setbacks like that and he'll go into the stratosphere.

Conservative pundits fall back on old standby: lying about Clinton

Conservative pundits have reacted to President Bush's poor approval ratings by going back to what they know best: lying about President Clinton.

As usual, Rush Limbaugh led the way, claiming that "there never was a surplus [under Clinton]. It was 10-year economic forecasts. ... There never was a surplus." But Limbaugh was lying: There was a surplus under Clinton, every year from 1998 to 2001.

CNN contributor Joe Watkins said on CNN's Paula Zahn Now that "under Bill Clinton, 15.1 percent of the population was poor; under President Bush, 12.7 percent of the population is poor. That's a reduction, that's a good thing." But that was a distortion, and that's a bad thing. The poverty rate was 15.1 percent when Clinton took office; it decreased every year during his presidency, falling to 11.3 percent in his last year in office. Since then, it has increased every year of Bush's presidency, to 12.7 percent now. The "reduction" Watkins referred to occurred entirely under Bill Clinton -- and has been reversed under George Bush.

Apparently the Republican Party was handing out misleading poverty talking points, because Watkins was joined by Bill O'Reilly, who noted that the poverty rate "halfway through President Bush's tenure" is "a full point lower" than it was "[h]alfway through President Clinton's tenure in office in 1996." But O'Reilly, like Watkins, was crediting Bush with a reduction in poverty that occurred before Bush took office, while Bill Clinton was still president. Incredibly, after Media Matters pointed out the dishonesty of this comparison, O'Reilly defended it, saying "That's the only fair comparison. You gotta go real time," adding that "[t]he poverty under Bush is down 1 percent."

Of course, that isn't true, but what should we expect from a man who gets his economic data from the Paris Business Review?

O'Reilly hits trifecta of bizarre comments

When he wasn't making false comparisons between Clinton and Bush, O'Reilly spent much of his week making a series of bizarre comments.

First, he seemed to excuse the failure to evacuate tens of thousands of New Orleans residents because many of them are "drug-addicted" and "thugs":

O'REILLY: Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans are in that condition. They weren't going to leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren't going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.

Then he argued that progressives support marriages between humans and ducks:

O'REILLY: The secular progressive movement would like to have marriage abolished, in my opinion. They don't want it, because it is not diverse enough. You know, that's what this gay marriage thing is all about. But now, you know, the poly-amorphous marriage, whatever they call it, you can marry 18 people, you can marry a duck, I mean --

LIS WIEHL (co-host): A duck? Quack, quack.

O'REILLY: Well, why, you know, if you're in love with the duck, who is the society to tell you you can't do that?

The on-screen relationship between Lea Thompson's Beverly Switzler and Howard the Duck apparently made quite an impression on O'Reilly.

Finally -- and this one speaks for itself -- O'Reilly commented on the United Nations:

O'REILLY: Bush to address the U.N., says we must be steadfast in battling terrorism. I'm sure all the U.N. people fell asleep. They don't really care about anything over there at all. I just wish Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out. And I wouldn't have rescued them.
September 16, 2005
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Case File

Robert Novak is a syndicated columnist and, until his recent suspension, was a regular contributor to CNN. Novak, often referred to as "the Prince of Darkness" (a title he has been called in Washington circles and in CNN's on-air promotions for Crossfire), regularly promotes conservative positions in both print and broadcast while maintaining an air of journalistic legitimacy. During the 2004 presidential campaign, he repeatedly lauded and promoted the anti-John Kerry book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (Regnery, August 2004) without disclosing that his son, Alex Novak, was the director of marketing for the book's publisher, Regnery Publishing. Novak has been a central figure in a controversy surrounding his role in revealing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, an incident now under investigation by the Department of Justice. Novak's explanation of the events of Plame's outing has been murky at best, and he has changed his version of events depending on where he was telling the story. Read more ยป

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