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The Bush Administration and the Media

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The Bush Administration and the Media


The Bush Administration and the Media

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

This past week, the Downing Street Memo, as it's been called, found some traction in the mainstream US media a month after it was first published in a British newspaper. The memo suggests that President Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq by mid-2002 while publicly insisting that war was only a last resort. Also this past week, we stumbled on to a press release from the ACLU in late March that got little play. The ACLU said it had obtained a Pentagon memo showing that General Ricardo Sanchez, the former head of US forces in Iraq, had lied to Congress about his orders on interrogation techniques.

Is the mainstream media gun-shy when it comes to stories with an anti-administration edge? Joining us now is Tom Rosenstiel. He's the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

So let me ask you: Is the mainstream media shying away from these stories?

Mr. TOM ROSENSTIEL (Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism): Well, it's not that simple. There are a lot of things that go into choices that journalists make about what stories to do and what stories not to do. One of the issues or factors that comes along is: What's the group mentality at a certain time? It's what I call the metanarrative. Journalists spend so much time synthesizing other things that are in the media elsewhere...

LUDDEN: Keeping up with the pack.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: ...keeping up with the pack--so that there's a context for the audience. So it's hard to stray away too far from the story that everyone else is telling because it will seem disconnected. So one question is: What's the metanarrative back in March when this memo came? Did it seem to fit with the large story?

LUDDEN: This is the ACLU.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. I mean, this weekend, Bush appears to be in a down phase. There were polls that emerged this week that suggested his ratings were dropping. You had problems in his agenda on Social Security. You had Republicans in his own party going against him on the war. This kind of a memo has--kind of fits that large story today better than it might have in March in much the same way that in the spring of 2004, there was a lot more skepticism about weapons of mass destruction and the justification for the war than there was in the run-up to the war when public support for what the president wanted to do was very high in the press for reasons that, you know, may not be justifiable, were not very skeptical, because the president was popular.

LUDDEN: So recent polls say--showing slipping support for what's happening in Iraq; make it fertile ground for the Downing Street Memo that didn't exist a month ago.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: And the news tends to snowball thus.

LUDDEN: So are you telling me then that it's not a factor of the media shying away from this story?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: No, I think that the metanarrative, as I call it, is one factor, but I would not discount the fact that the press is unpopular. And this administration is highly disciplined and highly skilled at not only controlling its message but condemning and criticizing the press at every turn for being liberal. Some people think that it's cynical, that people in the administration are simply, if you will, working the refs, trying to put the press on the defensive. Others, I think, in the administration are quite sincere in their belief that the press is unremittingly liberal and simply has it out for conservatives.

Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President Bush, in his book said that he doesn't believe that there's a conscious bias in the press, but Ari was certainly, when he was working for the White House, not afraid to imply that the press did things out of bias. But whatever the intention there, it certainly does raise the bar that if you're going to criticize the administration, you've got to really have the evidence.

LUDDEN: Are you saying that such accusations have convinced the media themselves that they've got a liberal bias or the public?

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: It makes them more self-conscious about that reputation and makes them want to sort of double over backwards.

LUDDEN: What about this notion that both The Washington Post and The New York Times have suggested--kind of in their own defense, I think--that, well, the Downing Street Memo suggesting that the Bush administration had already decided on the war. That's not news. You had analysts--I mean, the administration may have been denying this, but you had analysts and critics and others suggesting that for, you know, years now.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think that notion that something that's sort of old news is not news is a little bit of rationalization. I think the Downing Street Memo was inherently ambiguous. It wasn't clear whether you were hearing one person in the Blair administration's take on this or whether these were really words that were said. And what did the word `fixed' mean? Did it mean something was being altered or that something was now inert and had been decided? So it was open to interpretation.

The Sanchez document and the allegation from the ACLU that he lied under oath--this is a little more cut and dry. You could take these facts, stack them up and then really press the Pentagon to say, `Is this a lie or is it not?' You're not really in some kind of, you know, epistemological debate over the meaning of certain words in the way that you are with the Downing Street Memo.

LUDDEN: Tom Rosenstiel is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It's affiliated with the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Thanks so much.

Mr. ROSENSTIEL: My pleasure.

LUDDEN: And you can find the Sanchez memo and the ACLU's March press release on our Web site,

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