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Protecting Bush-Cheney

By Sam Parry, in ConsortiumNews.com,
16 October 2000

The national news media have altered the course of Campaign 2000 - perhaps decisively - by applying two starkly different standards for judging how Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, handle the truth versus how Vice President Al Gore does.

Bush and Cheney have gotten almost a free pass. They have been allowed to utter misleading statements and even outright falsehoods with little or no notice. By contrast, Gore"s comments have been fly-specked and every inconsistency trumpeted to support the media"s "theme" - reinforced by the Republicans - that Gore is an inveterate liar.

What the press rarely if ever admits is that many of Gore"s "lies" actually were cases of media mis-reporting.

This litany of bungled stories includes many of the media"s favorites: the "I was the one that started" Love Canal case, "inventing" the Internet, inspiring the male lead in Love Story (which author Eric Segal says was true), Gore"s work as a boy on the family farm (Gore's version again was true), the degree of danger he faced in Vietnam, his alleged misrepresentation of his father"s civil rights record, and his alleged exaggeration that his sister worked as a Peace Corps "volunteer."

The national news media mangled all these stories, a failure compounded by the pundit shows that routinely reference these mythical stories as fact.

On the Love Canal case, for instance, Gore actually referred to a Tennessee toxic waste dump and said "that was the one that started it all." The Washington Post and The New York Times transformed the quote to "I was the one that started it all." The Republicans refined it to say, "I was the one who started it all." [For details, see our examination of the Love Canal case.]

The other stories have been variations on the same sort of bogus reporting, with the Republicans spinning the news media in a calculated attempt to redefine Al Gore - by all accounts, a hard-working, thoughtful public servant - into a caricature and a laughingstock.

Yet rather than proof of an unethical press corps (and another example of Republican dirty politics), these canards have become the historical backdrop - a kind of accepted reference point - that has sustained the depiction of Gore as a dishonest man.

So, when Gore makes an innocuous mistake, such as remembering inaccurately being at a Texas disaster scene in 1998 with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration - when he actually was with the director"s deputy - the news media go into a sort of press riot over its Gore-as-serial-exaggerator theme.

Yet, saying you were on a trip with the FEMA director isn"t exactly like claiming you were hanging out with Nelson Mandela.

Indeed, it made no sense to think that the vice president of the United States would believe he was polishing his record by mentioning the FEMA director. Yet that was exactly the ugly conclusion that the Republicans and the press corps reached.

[For the best overall coverage of the media"s pattern of mis-reporting Gore, see Bob Somerby"s Daily Howler ]

By contrast to the front-page treatment given Gore"s FEMA mistake or the dispute over Gore"s description of an overcrowded Florida high school, the press shrugs its shoulders at false statements by Bush and Cheney.

In the second presidential debate, for instance, Bush argued that a stronger hate-crimes law was not needed in Texas because three men were facing the death penalty for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to his death behind a pickup truck.

"It"s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they"re put to death," Bush said, with an out-of-place smile across his face.

But Bush wasn"t telling the truth. One of the three killers actually had received life imprisonment, not the death penalty. Bush had misstated or exaggerated the facts of a major criminal case that had occurred during his tenure as Texas governor.

One could only imagine how the press would have played up a similar mistake by Gore. It would have been all the voters would have heard about for a week.

With its penchant for cookie-cutter "themes" used to define candidates, the press also might have seized on Bush"s smirking comment about the condemned men and used it to remind the public about Bush"s earlier insensitivity when he mimicked condemned murderess Carla Faye Tucker as she was pleading for her life.

"With pursed lips in mock desperation, [Bush said] "Please don"t kill me"," wrote Talk magazine"s conservative columnist Tucker Carlson.

Given the media"s endless search for a personality flaw behind Gore"s supposed exaggerations, a similar standard applied to Bush might have led to a conclusion that he suffers from a personality defect that leads him to mock people he is about to put to death. But the major news media didn"t see Bush"s misstatement or his smirk as much of a story.

The next day, The Washington Post stuck the governor"s exaggeration about the three condemned killers in a story on A6, where the newspaper also mentioned Bush"s accusation that former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin stole money from the International Monetary Fund.

Bush"s accusation against Chernomyrdin, aimed at undercutting Gore"s work on economic and political reform in Russia, was imprecise and not supported by the known factual record.

There have been suspicions of misconduct against Chernomyrdin, but they have not involved the IMF. After the debate, Chernomyrdin angrily denied Bush"s IMF accusations, which the campaign did not buttress with specific evidence.

The media"s rationale apparently was that Bush"s errors were the kinds of mistakes a candidate can make in the course of a 90-minute debate and the press shouldn"t be too picky. Yet, a very different standard has been applied to Gore.

Covering for Cheney

The imbalance in the press coverage was apparent, too, with Bush"s vice presidential running mate, Dick Cheney, a longtime favorite of official Washington.

At the vice presidential debate, Cheney depicted himself as a self-made multi-millionaire from his years as chairman of Halliburton Co. As for his success in the private sector, Cheney told Democratic nominee Joe Lieberman that "the government had absolutely nothing to do with it."

After years of hyper-critical coverage of Al Gore for supposedly puffing up his resumé, one might have expected the major media to jump all over this patently false statement. But the big newspapers and the major television networks offered no challenge to Cheney"s comment.

Bloomberg News, a business wire, was one of the few outlets that took note of the variance between Cheney"s assessment and the facts. "Cheney"s reply left out how closely Dallas-based Halliburton"s fortunes are linked to the U.S. government," Bloomberg News said.

The article noted that Halliburton was a leading defense contractor (with $1.8 billion in contracts from 1996-99) and a major beneficiary of federal loan guarantees (another $1.8 billion in loans and loan guarantees from the U.S.-funded Export-Import Bank during Cheney"s years).

The article also cited internal Ex-Im Bank e-mails showing that Cheney personally lobbied bank chairman James Harmon for a $500 million loan guarantee for Russia"s OAO Tyumen Oil Co. The Ex-Im loan guarantee, approved in March, helped finance Halliburton"s contract with Tyumen.

In further contradiction of Cheney"s self-made-man claim, the article quoted from a speech that Cheney gave to the Ex-Im Bank in 1997. "I see that we have in recent years been involved in projects in the following (countries) supported, in part, through Ex-Im activities: Algeria, Angola, Colombia, the Philippines, Russia, the Czech Republic, Thailand, China, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kuwait, India, Kenya, the Congo, Brazil, Argentina, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Indonesia, Malaysia and Mexico," Cheney said.

"Export financing agencies are a key element in making this possible, helping U.S. businesses blend private sector resources with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government," Cheney added. [Bloomberg News, Oct. 6, 2000]

Fresh from his debate pronouncement about his self-reliance, Cheney took the offensive denouncing Gore for alleged exaggerations. "He [Gore] seems to have a compulsion to embellish his arguments or " his resumé," Cheney said on Oct. 6. "He seems to have this uncontrollable desire periodically to add to his reputation, to his record, things that aren"t true. That"s worrisome and I think it"s appropriate for us to point that out."

Normally, hypocrisy is considered a big story, especially when the accuser"s behavior is more egregious than the actions of his target. Yet, Cheney"s own resumé polishing was barely mentioned in the major media. When it was, it was excused as harmless banter.

The media maintained this position even as Cheney went out of his way to defend his self-made man statement in comments on National Public Radio. There, he compounded his deception by insisting that the government contracts with Halliburton had predated his arrival at the company in 1995.

"We did do some" work for the government, Cheney told NPR interviewer Bob Edwards on Oct. 11. "The fact is the company I worked for won a competitive bid before I ever got there. So it"s not as though this were some kind of gift." [NPR"s Morning Edition ]

Contrary to Cheney"s suggestion that he was not responsible for bringing in any of Halliburton"s government business, Halliburton actually moved up the list of Pentagon contractors during Cheney"s tenure, reaching 17 in 1999, the latest available rankings.

The documents, cited in the Bloomberg News article, also made clear that Cheney personally lobbied for loan guarantees from the Ex-Im Bank. The bank uses U.S. taxpayer money to finance the overseas business of U.S. companies, what some critics call "corporate welfare."

The major media"s one-way microscope on Gore"s credibility missed Cheney"s exaggeration about his career while letting Cheney continue attacking Gore over alleged exaggerations about his career.

Bush & the Environment

Similarly, the press let Gov. Bush escape any serious attention over false and misleading statements about the environment and global warming, issues that will affect the future of the planet. In the Oct. 11 debate, Bush offered conflicting statements within the space of a few minutes, but the big-time press took no notice of the problems.

Bush"s first swing at the issue of pollution-causing industrial plants went this way: "We need to make sure that if we decontrol our plants that there's mandatory -- that the plants must conform to clean air standards, the grand-fathered plants. That's what we did in Texas. No excuses. I mean, you must conform."

Just minutes later, he had shifted toward what sounded like a voluntary program. "Well, I -- I -- I don't believe in command-and-control out of Washington, D.C. I believe Washington ought to set standards, but I don't -- again, I think we ought to be collaborative at the local levels. And I think we ought to work with people at the local levels."

Beyond the question of coherence, Bush"s statements seemed contradictory. Either the national government sets standards with compliance required or local governments can be allowed to set their own environmental rules, possibly in cooperation with business. Bush seemed to be having it both ways.

In Texas, Bush"s record suggests that he opposes mandatory standards even at the local and state levels. Bush cites as his most significant environmental accomplishment the setting of new rules for grand-fathered industrial plants, previously exempt from Texas clean air laws - what he apparently was referring to in his debate remarks.

But those plants were asked only to voluntarily comply with the clean air rules. The 1997 law carried no penalties for industries that didn"t seek a permit under the law. It is the kind of standard that polluting industries would salivate over at the national level.

As it turned out, Bush"s administration had drafted the new rules in close collaboration with representatives of the industries being regulated. The role of industry representatives was discovered in confidential memos obtained by the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition under the state"s Freedom of Information Act. [Sierra Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1999]

Without mandatory requirements, environmentalists argue that as few as 10 out of more than 800 grand-fathered facilities are likely to reduce emissions. [San Antonio Express News, June 4, 1999]

Other Bush comments have raised questions about his commitment to solving pollution problems in Texas and nationally. "I do not believe you can sue your way or regulate your way to clean air and clean water," Bush told the Dallas Morning News [Dec. 1, 1999]

On global warming, Bush"s debate comments were perhaps even more misleading. "I just - I think there"s been some - some of the scientists. I believe, Mr. Vice President, haven"t they been changing their opinion a little bit on global warming"" Bush said.

In reality, the only change within the scientific community has been to revise global warming projections upward, recognizing that the rising temperatures are a greater threat than had been thought. No credible scientist now denies that global warming is a real environmental development that has begun or is about to begin.

Even industry front groups, such as the Greening Earth Society, which supplied Bush some of his data for his Sept. 29 energy address, no longer deny the trends, though they argue that global warming might be beneficial. The Greening Earth Society, which was created by the Western Fuels Association, argues that higher levels of carbon dioxide will spur plant growth.

[For more on Bush"s reliance on Greening Earth data, see our story about Bush"s energy estimates.]

In his debate comment, Bush might have been referring to the recommendation from scientist, Dr. Jim Hansen, that the world first should address less common greenhouse gases, rather than confronting carbon dioxide, a gas emanating from fossil fuels and representing a much more difficult political battle.

Hansen"s suggestion, however, does not mean that scientists are less concerned about the world"s dependence on fossil fuels or the onset of global warming.

In the debate, Bush also protested the Kyoto Treaty aimed at curbing the pollution behind global warming. Bush said, "I"ll tell you one thing I"m not going to do is I"m not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world"s air, like the Kyoto Treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty."

In fact, China and India were not exempted from the treaty. They weren"t subjected to the same requirements as the developed world, but they committed themselves to reducing emissions and China appears to have stopped its emissions growth. Per person, China and India already have pollution rates that are fractions of the pollution caused by the United States.

At another point in the debate, Bush said the Clinton-Gore administration "took 40 million acres of land out of circulation without consulting local officials. " I just cited an example of the administration just unilaterally acting without any input."

Bush was referring to a pending administration proposal to protect 40 million acres of roadless areas in national forests from more road building and logging. As the Sierra Club noted in a press release, Bush"s statement was false.

"In fact, the Forest Service conducted 600 public meetings about the proposal nationwide and more than one million Americans urged the administration to strengthen the proposal," the Sierra Club said. "There was ample opportunity for local officials and others to comment on the proposal."

Defending his own record in Texas, Bush also asserted that "our water is cleaner now." False again, the Sierra Club said. "The discharge of industrial toxic pollution into surface waters in Texas increased from 23.2 million pounds in 1995 to 25.2 million pounds in 1998, the last year with data available," a Sierra Club press release said.

If Gore had made similar misrepresentations, they would have filled the air waves. Bush"s falsehoods passed virtually unnoticed.

Friends in the Press

There is now a long record of the major news media excusing, ignoring or forgetting Bush"s growing list of false, misleading or hypocritical statements on issues from the serious to the trivial.

Though the press occasionally notes Bush"s mangled syntax, the Texas governor seems to have inherited the friendly press coverage that his well-connected father received during his 12 years as vice president and president.

The list of Bush"s deception and hypocrisy is a long one, reaching from his youth to today"s campaign. Here is a sample:

--As a young man, Bush supported the Vietnam War. "My first impulse and first inclination was to support the country," Bush recalled in an interview. [NYT, July 11, 2000]. But Bush avoided service in the war by joining the Texas Air National Guard.

Bush has said no one to his knowledge helped him get into the National Guard. "I asked to become a pilot," Bush said. "I met the qualifications, and ended up becoming an F-102 pilot," The Associated Press reported. Bush insisted that he knew of no special treatment. [AP, July 5, 1999]

But the record indicates that, despite having the lowest acceptable score for entry, Bush jumped over other young men waiting to get into the National Guard.

Other accounts suggest that a "good friend" of Bush"s father, George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Houston who supported the war, weighed in with Ben Barnes, the Texas Speaker of the House, to arrange a slot for George W. Bush. [The Guardian (U.K.), July 29, 1999]

Sometime in late 1967 or early 1968, Barnes "personally asked the top official of the Texas Air National Guard to help George W. Bush obtain a pilot's slot in a Guard fighter squadron," The Washington Post reported. [Sept. 21, 1999]. On Sept. 27, 1999, Barnes submitted a sworn statement that he helped Bush by contacting Brig. Gen. James M. Rose.

--Bush has a one-year gap in his National Guard duty from 1972-1973 when he was supposed to have transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama Air National Guard.

According to the Boston Globe, "In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And " for a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen." [Boston Globe, May, 23, 2000]

Bush has said that he has "some recollection" of attending drills that year, but has not been more specific. Under Air National Guard rules at the time, anyone who did not report to required drills could be inducted in the draft to serve in Vietnam, according to the Globe. That never happened to Bush.

The press has reported these gaps in Bush"s record, but has not pressed the issue as a story worthy of determined pursuit or pundit show commentary. Similarly, Bush"s implausible answers have not led to questions from the media about Bush"s veracity.

By contrast, the press has dwelled on Gore"s supposed exaggerations about the dangers he faced as a U.S. Army reporter in Vietnam. Gore volunteered for the war, although he and his father, a senator from Tennessee, opposed it.

It is not clear how today"s reporters, who were not present with Gore in Vietnam, would have anyway of checking how much danger Gore might have encountered. But they have judged him a liar nonetheless.

--Early in the campaign, Bush faced short-lived press scrutiny of his possible drug use. To date, Bush has never answered the question of whether, when, how much or specifically what illicit drugs he used in his early adulthood.

The press accepted Bush"s carefully parsed statement in which Bush denied recent drug use while refusing to acknowledge earlier drug use.

While ducking questions about cocaine and other illegal drugs, Bush has confessed to drinking heavily well into his adult years. As part of his biography, he has described how he woke up after his 40th birthday party with a hangover and decided to stop drinking for good.

"It"s hard to usher in the responsibility era if you behave irresponsibly," Bush has declared even while avoiding questions about his own youthful indiscretions. [U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 16, 1998]

By contrast, Gore has admitted smoking marijuana as a young man.

--As Texas governor, Bush boasts that he knows how to work in a bi-partisan manner. One of his examples is the expansion of the Children"s Health Insurance Program [CHIP]. "In 1999, Governor Bush and the Texas Legislature worked together to implement the CHIPs program for more than 423,000 children," the Bush campaign has said.

Yet, according to the Houston Chronicle, Bush tried to block the Democratic initiative in the Texas Legislature to expand the CHIP program to children of parents earning up to twice the federal poverty level (about $33,600 for a family of four). Bush favored instead covering parents up to only 150 percent of poverty (about $25,200 for a family of four). [Houston Chronicle, Aug. 30, 2000].

After losing the legislative battle, Bush turned around and claimed credit for the CHIP expansion and his success in working with Democrats.

--Bush has made as a centerpiece of his campaign the theme that he would change the "tone" of Washington and restore "dignity" to the White House.

Yet, during the Republican primaries, the Bush campaign targeted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for personal attacks. By fall 1999, McCain, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, had narrowed Bush"s lead and the Bush assault began.

In October 1999, McCain said, "'Apparently the memo has gone out from the Bush campaign to start attacking John McCain, something that I'd hoped wouldn't happen."' [AP, Oct. 26, 1999]

Bush"s negative attacks intensified after McCain won the New Hampshire primary. Seeking to rebound in South Carolina, Bush visited Bob Jones University and refrained from criticizing the school"s ban on interracial dating and its anti-Catholic views. Bush also wouldn"t take a position on removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.

After winning the South Carolina primary, Bush apologized for having spoken at Bob Jones without "disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice."

--As McCain remained a threat, Bush"s campaign ran a misleading ad attacking the senator for not supporting breast cancer research.

The ad cited an omnibus spending bill, which McCain voted against not because of the breast cancer research but because of the enormous spending included in the entire package. McCain complained, but the Bush attack strategy worked.

--After securing the Republican nomination, Bush renewed his pledge to run a positive general election campaign. But again, the promise lasted only until the governor found himself lagging in the polls.

Bush again broke his promise, unleashing his campaign to tear down Gore"s character, ironically, targeting Gore"s credibility.

The news media observed the changed tactics but took little notice of how Bush was violating his own pledge.

Instead, the press happily joined in repeating many of the canards about Gore"s honesty, these largely mythical and exaggerated press accounts that the media have repeated over and over for many months -- Love Story, Love Canal, "inventing" the Internet, etc., etc.

A Strategy of Destruction

The Republican strategy to destroy Al Gore"s reputation actually had been underway for many months.

The New York Times described what it called "a skillful and sustained 18-month campaign by Republicans to portray the vice president as flawed and untrustworthy," according to an article on Oct. 15.

In one example, the Times noted that the Republicans successfully portrayed Gore as a liar for having talked about his work on the family"s farm as a boy. Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson mocked Gore as a pampered city boy misrepresenting his past.

"Friends later told reporters that Mr. Gore"s father had kept him on a backbreaking work schedule during summers on the family farm," the Times noted in one neutrally phrased passage. While praising the effectiveness of the Republican strategy, the newspaper did not offer any self-criticisms about its role in spreading many of the Republican calumnies.

As part of the recent imbalanced coverage, journalists averted their eyes when Bush told whoppers in the presidential debates.

--In one case, Bush reprised his contention that he is not a man who needs a focus group or polls to tell him what to think.

Bush said, "I think you've got to look at how one has handled responsibility in office, whether or not " you've got the capacity to convince people to follow; whether or not one makes decisions based upon sound principles; or whether or not you rely upon polls and focus groups on how to decide what the course of action is. We've got too much polling and focus groups going on in Washington today. We need decisions made on sound principles."

Left out was that Bush"s campaign has spent roughly $1 million on polls and focus groups during this campaign, about equal to the Gore campaign"s spending, according to a report by NBC News. [Oct. 6, 2000]. Indeed, Bush changed his campaign slogan from "Compassionate Conservative" to "Real Plans for Real People" because of poll analysis done by his campaign.

--In the first debate, Bush tried to make an issue out of President Clinton"s practice of allowing his friends and supporters to sleep over at the White House.

"I believe they've moved that sign, "The buck stops here," from the Oval Office desk to "The buck stops here" on the Lincoln bedroom, and that's not good for the country. It's not right. We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office," Bush said.

What Bush left out was that since he took office in 1995, he has had 203 guests stay over at the Governor"s Mansion in Austin, Texas. More than half of them have contributed to his campaign, amounting to $2.2 million. [The Public I]

The news media took little or no notice of Bush's hypocrisy.

--In the first presidential debate, Bush also claimed that he, as president, would not have the authority to override the Food and Drug Administration"s approval of the abortion drug RU-486. But he did not mention that his campaign supported the initiative in Congress to ban the drug, nor did he indicate that he supports sending the issue back to the FDA for more research.

He also ducked the issue of what personnel changes he would make at the FDA and whether those changes would have an impact on the approval of RU-486. Bush had previously stated that he would order his FDA appointees to review the decision.

--In perhaps Bush"s most obvious whopper in the first presidential debate, the Republican claimed that the Gore campaign had out-spent his. "This man has out-spent me," Bush said.

In fact, Bush has raised and spent more than twice as much money in this election as Gore has raised and spent.

There has been no explanation from the Bush campaign about this remarkable claim and the national news media have not pressed for one, as the media certainly would have if Gore had made a similarly false statement.

Rather than deal with Bush"s numerous debate distortions, the press flew into a frenzy over Gore"s mistake about the FEMA director.

The press was whipped on by the Bush campaign. Its chief strategist Karl Rove compared Gore to "Zelig," a Woody Allen character who put himself at the elbow of important people.

The press also zeroed in on Gore"s supposedly false statement about a 15-year-old girl in a Florida high school who had gone without a desk because of overcrowding. The major media accepted the denial of the school"s principal about the overcrowding problem and ignored the reporting from the local newspaper which backed Gore"s account.

The New York Times, for instance, reported that "the fact is, the girl has a desk, and went without one only a day." The article contained no attribution for this conclusion. [NYT, Oct. 6, 2000]

A day earlier, however, the local newspaper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, had a different version. "Kailey [Ellis, the 15-year-old girl] said she moved from a biology classroom where students had to sit on the floor to another that was short on desks on Aug. 31 - the ninth day of school. She stood for one 50-minute period, and the following day a classmate gave up his desk for her" and the classmate then went without a desk for the next week.

"I"m not still standing," Ellis told the newspaper, "but there"s still kids that have to sit on the side of desks and there"s still not enough room in the classes." [Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Oct. 5, 2000]

There was no indication that The New York Times, the self-proclaimed "newspaper of record," had made any attempt to ascertain the truth behind the school-overcrowding story. The Times apparently just accepted the account of the principal whose reputation had been put in question by the national attention on his school.

Cause and Effect

While this botched and biased campaign coverage might seem trivial to some, its cumulative effect has been to transform the presidential election campaign from one that had been dominated by issues to one controlled by the Republican/media"s harsh assessment of Gore"s character and credibility.

What has made this development a direct threat to the democratic process is that the media"s treatment has been extraordinarily one-sided and often erroneous.

The national press corps has acted as a political collaborator with the Republicans in a scheme to defame Al Gore and effectively hand the election to George W. Bush.

If George W. Bush is elected president on Nov. 7, he will owe a huge debt to a national press corps that has become a national disgrace.

Sam Parry, managing editor of Consortiumnews.com, works for Sierra Club's Human Rights & the Environment Campaign.

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