The Magazine

How to Stage a Controversy

From the March 22, 2004 issue: Peace activists, left-wing flacks, and compliant reporters produced the flap over Bush's 9/11 ads.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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IT WAS THE WEEK of March 4, and the Bush reelection campaign was ready to go on the offensive. One campaign official told the New York Times that the president was "eager" to start the debate with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Another, Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, said, "We have a whole series of things we're going to correct that have been said over the last six months." And the day before the ads premiered, Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, put it this way to CNN: "There's now about to be a two-way conversation. We're now going to talk about the clear choice that Americans will face on November 2, 2004."

Mehlman spoke too soon. What people ended up talking about after the Bush ads were unveiled was whether the president's campaign had "exploited" the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by using a couple of seconds of footage from that day in two of its three advertisements. That's because the news coverage of the official launch of George W. Bush's reelection campaign focused on the reactions to the ads of firefighters and 9/11 victims' families. These people, presented as a random assortment of individuals, were angry at the president for using the attacks supposedly as a political prop.

Democrats seized on the controversy. "This is just the latest example of the way this president has been a divider and not a uniter," Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign strategist, said on ABC. Devine's boss, John Kerry, told the New York Times, "There are plenty of ways to convey the threat of terror without usurping what I think is a very sensitive memory in the American consciousness." Paul Begala, the CNN pundit and former Clinton adviser, put it bluntly: "The president's use of footage from September 11 in a partisan political commercial has provoked outrage from victims' families and from firefighters who say their brothers and sisters did not sacrifice and suffer for a cheap, cheesy, campaign ad."

This criticism caught the Bush campaign by surprise. On Friday, March 5, Karen Hughes, the Bush strategist, told the Early Show's Harry Smith, "with all due respect, . . . I just completely disagree" with those who thought the television ads were exploitative. Hughes's reason, expressed haltingly, was that "September 11 was not just a distant tragedy. It's a defining event for the future of our country." There were other reasons to be skeptical of the criticism as well, which Hughes neglected to mention. The images of Ground Zero amounted to only a few seconds in each ad. And soot-covered New York City firefighters roaming through the rubble of the World Trade Center were nothing new to American television.

Neither is it anything new, of course, when a small group of people with excellent public relations skills and a political axe to grind are able to manipulate an unskeptical media. Which seems to be what happened in the case of the Bush television ads. For much of the controversy can be traced directly to a press release issued by the Institute for Public Accuracy, or IPA, at a little after 2:00 P.M. on March 4.

The IPA is a five-person media clearinghouse located in the National Press Building. According to GuideStar, a website that tracks nonprofits, the group "promotes the inclusion of outlooks that usually get short shrift." It does this by issuing press releases. It has been issuing press releases since April 8, 1998. These go out to about 7,000 journalists and television producers. They promote speakers and experts whose outlooks are generally of a far-left bent. When I asked Sam Husseini, the IPA's communications director, whether the outfit was left-liberal, he told me, "I'm so far beyond labels, just give me the facts." But the IPA's facts are often questionable (mass starvation in Afghanistan, a massacre at the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, and so on), and their opinions are always hard-left. After the Clinton administration began its bombing of Kosovo in March 1999, the IPA promoted the antiwar punditry of Howard Zinn, the radical historian, who claimed Clinton had "deceived" the United States into war against Slobodan Milosevic. And when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the IPA turned reporters onto similar radical ideologues who opposed the war. Ditto with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The IPA release on March 4 was brief--under 500 words--and little more than a list. It highlighted three potential stories and sources for journalists. One was the upcoming trip to Afghanistan of a mother whose firefighter son was killed in the September 11 attacks. Another was an Afghan women's rights activist's comments on International Women's Day, which took place on March 8.