The Magazine

Bushophobia on West 43rd Street

The New York Times's daily rant.

Aug 12, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 46 • By ERIN SHELEY
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ON TWO CONSECUTIVE DAYS last week, the New York Times advanced its crusade against military action in Iraq with page-one "news" stories--the first detailing a leaked war plan, the second predicting dire effects for the U.S. economy. While these prominently featured pieces occasioned much comment, lesser instances of the Times's political use of its news columns are commonplace and also deserve attention.

Writing in the New York Sun on July 19, Andrew Sullivan cited, for example, the Times's reporting of one of its own polls. Although the survey had found that 70 percent of respondents approved of President Bush's job performance, and 80 percent agreed that he "shared their moral values," the Times's headline declared: "Poll Finds Concerns that Bush is Overly Influenced by Business" (July 18). Sullivan contrasted this with the Washington Post's headline on its own similar findings: "Poll Shows Bush's Ratings Weathering Business Scandals" (July 17). It's as if the Times, tired of waiting for the nation to turn against the president, had decided simply to write the news it wanted to see.

A more extensive comparison of the Times's front-page coverage with that of the Post shows the former striving to present a consistent anti-Bush narrative--even at the cost of informing the public. Consider the two papers' handling of the president's unveiling of his homeland security strategy. The Post's story, "President to Detail Security Strategy" (July 17), laid out the contents and objectives of Bush's proposal. The Times's piece the next day said almost nothing about the substance of the strategy and concentrated instead on criticisms of it. Under the headline "Yeas and Nays for Bush's Security Wish List," the Times devoted 7 of 15 paragraphs to comments from spokesmen for the ACLU and think tanks who fear that the plan threatens civil liberties--an idea the Post never touched on. While Times readers came away with little information on which to base their own opinions of the proposal, they did learn the views of congresswoman Jane Harman and the executive director of the Eagle Forum, which opposes national ID cards.

Often, the bias operates by the simple omission of nuance. In late June, for example, both papers asked Democratic and Republican political strategists how the WorldCom disaster would affect the president. For the Times, the story turned out to be that Bush was in peril; for the Post, that Bush was resilient, though he might face trouble in the fall. The Times piece opened with "President Bush and the Republicans struggling" against "what strategists in both parties say could be a shift in the way voters view business and the economy" (June 28). The Post's lead had the strategists agreeing that WorldCom was "unlikely by itself to be particularly injurious to Bush," although "a public disenchantment could stick to the Bush administration and Republicans in November" (June 28).

In other pieces, the editorializing is obvious, as in the Times's coverage of Bush's optimistic comments on the stock market. While the Post's lead simply stated that Bush "tried to calm investors' fears" by predicting higher stock prices (July 23), the Times gasped, "In a highly unusual violation of the unwritten rule against presidential pronouncements of how markets will act, President Bush today predicted that as stocks become a better value 'you'll see the market go back up'" (July 22). Both papers reported Bush's defense of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, but the Times placed this in the second paragraph framed by the speculation that Bush had "intended to quiet some Republican leaders who are urging the administration to begin thinking about candidates who could replace Mr. O'Neill." In the Post, Bush's statements about O'Neill came at the end of the article, after a more extensive discussion of the president's comments on the stock market.

Or take what ought to have been a routine story about Bush's visit with the troops at Fort Drum, New York, on July 19, where he spoke on counterterrorism and the International Criminal Court. The Times's David Sanger interrupted his reporting to muse, "Mr. Bush was visibly relieved today to be back in a welcoming military setting after two weeks of questions about his handling of the corporate scandals that have rocked Wall Street and dominated talk in Washington." Later Sanger observed, "The cheers that followed him around this military base . . . seemed more like the kind of reception he routinely received in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks." The Post interviewed a soldier, who called the president "a big motivation," and provided three paragraphs of quotations from his speech. The Times quoted three sentences.