The Bush Rule of Journalism
by Robert Parry
"Don't take on the Bushes"
is becoming an unwritten rule in American journalism. Reporters
can make mistakes in covering other politicians and suffer little
or no consequence, but a false step when doing a critical piece
on the Bushes is a career killer.
The latest to learn this hard lesson are
four producers at CBS, who demonstrated inadequate care in checking
out memos purportedly written by George W. Bush's commanding officer
in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. For this sloppiness,
CBS fired the four, including Mary Mapes who helped break last
year's Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
A painful irony for the CBS producers
was that the central points of the memos - that Bush had blown
off a required flight physical and was getting favored treatment
in the National Guard - were already known, and indeed, were confirmed
by the commander's secretary in a follow-up interview with CBS.
But even honest mistakes are firing offenses when the Bushes are
By contrast, journalists understand that
they get a free shot at many other politicians who don't have
the protective infrastructure that surrounds the Bush family.
Take for example the case of reporters for the New York Times
and the Washington Post who misquoted Al Gore about his role in
the Love Canal toxic waste clean-up.
The misquote in late 1999 prompted knee-slapping
commentaries across the country calling Gore "delusional"
because he supposedly had falsely claimed credit for the Love
Canal clean-up by saying "I was the one that started it all."
But Gore actually had said, "that was the one that
started it all," referring to a similar toxic waste case
in Toone, Tennessee.
Even after the error was pointed out by
New Hampshire high school students who heard Gore's remark first
hand, the two prestige newspapers dragged their heels on running
corrections. While the newspapers dawdled, the story of Lyin'
Al and Love Canal reverberated through the echo chamber of TV
pundit shows, conservative talk radio and newspaper columns. Al
Gore was a laughingstock whose sanity was in doubt.
The Post finally ran a "correction"
a week after the misquote, although the newspaper continued to
misrepresent the context of Gore's remark. The Post falsely claimed
that Gore's use of the word "that" referred to his congressional
hearing on toxic waste dumps, allowing the newspaper to pretend
that Gore was still exaggerating his role.
Three days later, the Times ran its brief
correction, which also failed to fully explain either the context
of the original quote or how the error had completely distorted
what Gore had actually said.
For their part, the two reporters - the
Times' Katharine Seeyle and the Post's Ceci Connolly - insisted
that their accounts were essentially accurate even though they
clearly weren't. At least publicly, neither reporter was punished.
Both continued to write prominent stories for their newspapers.
Connolly even got a job moonlighting as a political commentator
for Fox News.
Meanwhile, the real losers - besides Gore
- were the American voters who got a distorted impression of a
major presidential candidate.
The Love Canal misquote - and the refusal
of the two newspapers to publish meaningful corrections - gave
momentum to what became a dominant narrative of the campaign,
that Gore was a dishonest braggart. The media commentators also
bandied about another bogus quote attributed to Gore, that he
had "invented the Internet." [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's
"Al Gore v. the Media."]
Exit polls in 2000 found that doubts about
Gore's honesty were a major factor why many voters cast their
ballots for George W. Bush.
Gore's media-created reputation as dishonest
and slightly crazy continued to dog him, even after he left office.
In 2002, when Gore spoke out against Bush's rush to war with Iraq,
the television pundits and newspaper columnists again hooted him
down, while reprising his reputation as untrustworthy and daffy.
[See Consortiumnews.com's "Politics of Preemption."]
Facing this unrelenting media hostility,
Gore chose not to enter the presidential contest in 2004.
But Gore is certainly not alone as a public
figure who has suffered from the Washington press corps' proclivity
for bad journalism and no accountability.
The Whitewater "scandal," which
haunted President Clinton during his eight years in office, started
in March 1992 when New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote an
imprecise account that combined a prosecutorial tone with a misleading
Gerth's chronology was so confusing that
it led Times' editors to give the story a faulty headline, "Clintons
Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real Estate Venture,"
which missed the crucial point that Clinton partner Jim McDougal
didn't own a savings and loan when the Clintons joined him in
the Whitewater land deal. McDougal bought a controlling interest
in Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan five years later.
In the 1996 book, Fools for Scandal,
journalist Gene Lyons also noted how Gerth juxtaposed unrelated
facts to give the impression that Beverly Bassett Schaffer got
her job as Arkansas Securities Commissioner in the mid-1980s,
presumably so she could give preferential treatment to McDougal.
"After federal regulators found
that Mr. McDougal's savings institution, Madison Guaranty, was
insolvent, meaning it faced possible closure by the state, Mr.
Clinton appointed a new state securities commissioner," Bassett
Schaffer, Gerth wrote.
But Lyons found no correlation between
Bassett Schaffer's appointment in January 1985 and the Federal
Home Loan Bank Board report about Madison in January 1984, a year
earlier. Lyons quoted Walter Faulk, who was then director of supervision
for the FHLBB in Dallas, denying that Bassett Schaffer or Clinton
attempted to subvert normal procedures for coping with a troubled
Bassett Schaffer also said Gerth ignored
a lengthy explanation of her actions that she had supplied. Nevertheless,
Gerth's story became the guiding light for years of investigations
by the news media, Congress and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Even years later, after Starr's investigation
failed to make a case against Clinton over Whitewater, the Times
refused to address the inadequacies of its original reporting
on this central "scandal" of the Clinton administration.
In fairness to Gerth, however, it's often
true that a groundbreaking story on a complex issue rarely gets
every detail or nuance right. Normally, some leeway is given to
reporters who pave the way for others to follow.
But that's never the case when the Bushes
are involved. When a story puts the Bushes in a negative light,
no leeway is granted. A different set of rules apply.
Unlike other political figures, the Bushes
must be given the benefit of the doubt, even if an innocent explanation
stretches credulity. Also, any ambiguity in the reporting - such
as sources who are less than pristine or evidence that isn't 100
percent clear - must be interpreted in the Bushes' favor.
Journalists or other investigators who
violate these Bush rules must expect that they are putting their
reputations and livelihoods in jeopardy.
Defiant journalists can expect the conservative
news media and right-wing interest groups to place critical Bush
stories under a microscope. Backgrounds of the witnesses and even
the journalists will be investigated, with any blemishes that
are found quickly becoming "the story" in both conservative
and mainstream news outlets.
Even Republican investigators outside
of journalism can expect this treatment. Look, for instance, at
the harsh attacks on Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh
- a lifelong Republican - when his probe threatened the long-running
cover-up that had protected George H.W. Bush's false claims that
he was "not in the loop" on the arms-for-hostage scandal.
[For details, see Walsh's Firewall or Robert Parry's
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate
Part of the reason for this protective
phenomenon surrounding the Bushes is that the family straddles
two powerful political groupings: the East Coast Establishment
and the Texas oil money. George H.W. Bush engineered this remarkable
alliance of interests in the years after World War II by putting
down roots in Texas, after being raised by a family with a pedigree
in the world of Wall Street investment banking.
Plus, the Bushes - particularly George
W. Bush - can count on help from the attack dogs in the conservative
news media, ranging from Fox News and the Washington Times, to
Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers.
When this powerful defense mechanism strikes,
it can leave some writers who have crossed the Bushes so devastated
that they eventually turn to suicide.
In 1999, biographer J.R. Hatfield wrote
Fortunate Son, an account of George W. Bush's early life.
Though most of the biography was fairly routine, Hatfield ran
into trouble when he cited three sources alleging that the elder
George Bush intervened to pull his son out of legal hot water
over a drug arrest in 1972.
According to Hatfield's account, George
Bush senior arranged to have his son's legal trouble fixed by
a friendly judge in exchange for getting George Bush junior to
perform some community service. This claim brought heated denials
from both father and son, although George W. Bush always ducked
direct questions about whether he had used cocaine or other illegal
But the media sleuths didn't demand a
straight answer from Bush about illegal drugs or other possible
arrests involving substance abuse - we learned later that Bush
was concealing a drunk-driving charge in Maine. Instead, journalists
turned their investigative attention to Hatfield. The Dallas Morning
News soon discovered that the writer had served time in prison
for trying to kill two of his bosses at a Dallas real estate firm.
Following that disclosure, Hatfield's
publisher, St. Martin's Press, recalled copies of Fortunate
Son from the bookstores and threw them into the furnace. "They're
heat, furnace fodder," declared Sally Richardson, president
of St. Martin's trade division. [NYT, Oct. 23, 1999]
The national press corps hailed the decision
to recall the book, while castigating Hatfield and St. Martin's
for publishing it in the first place. Conservatives in the news
media were gleeful, hoping the controversy would end the pesky
questions about Bush's cocaine use.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon's right-wing Washington
Times joked that Hatfield "surely thought he would set the
world on fire. He just didn't figure that it was his book that
would be the kindling. One hopes the finality of the furnace
puts an end to the story." [Washington Times, Oct. 28, 1999]
What was lacking in the intensive press
coverage, however, was any concern about the disturbing image
of a book being denounced by a well-connected political family
and then being burned. Through more than two centuries of rough-and-tumble
American politics, it is hard to recall any precedent for this
sort of book burning.
In the years that followed, the discredited
Hatfield had trouble finding work and his life spiraled downward.
In July 2001, Hatfield, then 43, was found dead in a hotel room
in Springdale, Ark., having taken an overdose of prescription
Hatfield left behind a suicide note listing
alcohol, financial problems and the controversy over Fortunate
Son as his reasons for killing himself.
"The finality of the furnace"
- as the Washington Times called it - also kept the U.S. news
media from reexamining Hatfield's allegations even as new evidence
emerged revealing that something had occurred in the early 1970s
that had deeply alarmed George H.W. Bush.
According to Bush family friends, the
elder George Bush did intervene in 1972 to protect the younger
George Bush from the consequences of some unidentified reckless
In early September 2004, some fresh details
came out in an interview that Salon.com had with the widow of
Jimmy Allison, a newspaper owner and campaign consultant from
Midland, Texas, who had served as "the Bush's family's political
guru." Allison's widow, Linda, said the senior George Bush
was desperate to get his son out of Texas and onto an Alabama
Senate campaign that Jimmy Allison was managing.
"The impression I had was that Georgie
was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing
the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston
and under Jimmy's wing," Linda Allison said. "I think
they wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on him."
[Salon.com's "George W. Bush's Missing Year," Sept.
Though Linda Allison's disclosure dovetailed
with the general account that Hatfield had reported in 1999 -
that the senior George Bush was pulling strings to get his wayward
son out of trouble - the searing treatment of Hatfield and then
the bitter controversy over the CBS memos in mid-September 2004
kept the major news media from seriously reexamining Bush's dubious
explanations of his youthful indiscretions.
Another reporter who fell victim to the
Bush rules of journalism was the San Jose Mercury News' Gary Webb.
In 1996, Webb wrote a three-part series
that revived a decade-old controversy about the Reagan-Bush administration's
protection of Nicaraguan contra groups that had turned to the
cocaine trade to finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist
Sandinista government. Though Webb's series didn't specifically
target one of the Bushes, it did reopen a controversy from the
mid-1980s that threatened the image of George H.W. Bush.
Not only did some contra supporters claim
that Bush's vice presidential office presided over contra-support
operations that had veered into drug trafficking, but Bush then
served as the top government official responsible for drug interdiction.
[For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth' - or Parry's latest book,
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Rev. Moon's Washington Times again stepped
to the fore, opening the assault on Webb's series. The right-wing
newspaper was soon followed by the New York Times, the Washington
Post and the Los Angeles Times.
In scathing front-page articles, the newspapers
largely accepted the then-dominant conventional wisdom that the
contra-cocaine allegations were a bogus "conspiracy theory."
The big papers pounded Webb and his series so hard that Mercury
News editors backed away from the stories and forced Webb to resign.
But Webb's series did lead to internal
investigations by inspectors general at the CIA and the Justice
Department. In 1998, facts published by those investigations showed
that more than 50 contras and contra entities were implicated
in the drug trade and that the Reagan-Bush administration had
obstructed criminal investigations of these contra-drug smuggling
If pieced together with other parts of
the historical record, the IG probes could have devastated George
H.W. Bush's reputation, which was then underpinning the presidential
aspirations of George W. Bush. Instead, the major newspapers avoided
any detailed examination of the CIA's drug admissions and let
the contra-cocaine story die.
For Webb, however, his career remained
in ruins. According to family and friends, he grew despondent;
his marriage broke up; eventually, he lost a job he had with the
California state government; and in December 2004, at the age
of 49, he killed himself with his father's handgun. [See Consortiumnews.com's
"America's Debt to Journalist Gary Webb."]
So, by now, the Bush-journalism rules
are well understood by U.S. journalists, even if the rules are
never formally enunciated.
The consequences of crossing the Bushes
- even if you turn out to be right - can be devastating. Understandably,
journalists pull their punches when the Bush family is involved.
Another example of how this dynamic has
worked to George W. Bush's political advantage can be found in
the aftermath of the botched CBS memo story in September 2004.
While the news media was ripping into Dan Rather and CBS, Bush
slipped away almost unscathed despite additional evidence that
indeed he had shirked his National Guard duty.
While doubting the authenticity of the
CBS memos, Marian Carr Knox, a former Texas Air National Guard
secretary, told interviewers that the information in the purported
memos was "correct." Knox said her late boss, Lt. Col.
Jerry Killian, indeed was "upset" that Bush had refused
to obey his order to take a flight physical and that Bush's refusal
to follow the rules had caused dissension among other National
But instead of focusing on the actions
of a President of the United States, the glare of attention remained
on CBS and its failure to follow proper journalistic procedures.
George W. Bush came out the victim, again.
The dust-up left many American voters
with the impression that Bush was innocent of the charges that
he had skipped out on his National Guard duty.
That impression held even when an important
new piece of the puzzle was released by the U.S. government about
a week after the CBS memo flap - Bush's hand-written resignation
letter from the Texas Air National Guard.
After moving to Boston to attend Harvard
Business School, Bush was supposed to finish up his National Guard
service in Massachusetts. Instead, however, in November 1974,
Bush scribbled a note saying he wanted out of the Guard.
Bush explained that he had "inadequate
time to fullfill (sic) possible future commitments." His
request was granted. He was given an honorable discharge. [See
Reuters, Sept. 29, 2004]
If given half the attention that CBS'
missteps were getting at the time, the cavalier attitude of Bush's
resignation letter might have done severe damage to Bush, especially
since he was forcing today's National Guardsmen to pull long and
dangerous duty in Iraq. After all, John Kerry was clobbered by
questions raised about the extent of his heroism in Vietnam combat.
If dealing with a non-Bush, the U.S. news
media also might have made a story out of the discrepancy between
the privileged treatment that Lt. Bush got in the 1970s and the
sacrifice expected of today's Guardsmen.
For example, Charles and Billi Crockett
were a married couple serving in a National Guard unit from Sheldon,
Iowa, the 2168th transportation company. When their Guard unit
was sent to Iraq, the Crocketts were forced to leave behind their
two small daughters, possibly for more than a year. The girls
were placed with relatives. [See PBS' "Now With Bill Moyers"
transcript, Sept. 17, 2004. For more on Bush's National Guard
story, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush the Infallible."]
But what's clear now - as the U.S. news
media has learned to tip-toe around Bush family scandals - is
the applicability of that the old adage about the rich: "The
Bushes aren't like the rest of us."
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek.
The Bush page