The Magazine

The Other Losers Tuesday Night

From the November 15, 2004 issue: The failed media effort to oust George W. Bush.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"WE'D RATHER be last than wrong." So said Dan Rather anchoring election night coverage for CBS. He was apparently serious. That he could say this with a straight face only weeks after presenting the world with forged documents to bring down the president should cement his reputation as the least trusted man in America.

Dan Rather is just a small part of a much bigger story. His careless reporting and, later, dogmatic defense of his errors were but one episode in the media's long offensive against George W. Bush.

The assault began in July 2003, when Joseph Wilson accused the president of lying. Wilson's charges have since been thoroughly discredited and the author of The Politics of Truth revealed as unreliable. But the damage was done. Wilson's claim that the Bush administration had knowingly cooked intelligence provided the prism through which many reporters viewed the election.

For some 16 months, then, journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post and the television networks saw themselves not as conveyors of facts but as truth-squadders, toiling away on the gray margins of political debate to elucidate the many misstatements, exaggerations, and outright lies of the Bush administration and its campaign affiliates. Sometimes these "fact-check" pieces were labeled "news analysis." More often, they were splashed on the front page as straight news or presented on the evening news.

Many of these reporters were trained at the best universities in the country. They fancy themselves thinkers, not mere scribes. They go to work every day to tell us not what the Bush administration has said, but what it has left unsaid. They are scornful of the president's "simple" worldview--where Americans are good and terrorists are evil, where nations are with us or against us--and suspicious of his motives. They inhabit a world where Bush administration policymakers are incapable of telling the truth and "intelligence officials," especially those who provide them leaks, are unimpeachable. They knew that the Bush campaign lied more than the Kerry campaign and that when the Kerry campaign lied it was of little or no consequence.

Think I'm exaggerating? Consider the memo written some three weeks before the election by ABC News political director Mark Halperin.

"[T]he current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done," Halperin wrote. As a consequence, ABC has "a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that. . . . It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest [sic]. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right."

Halperin was way behind. His colleagues had been on the job for months. Here is a brief, random review of their effort.

Joseph Wilson--When Wilson claimed that his clandestine work proved the Bush administration was lying about alleged Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Niger, he was lionized as a courageous truthteller willing to stand up to a corrupt and deceitful administration. Oops. In fact, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee review of pre-Iraq war intelligence concluded that Wilson's findings contradicted his earlier public claims and that despite his insistence that his wife, undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, had had nothing to do with his selection, his work was undertaken after she recommended him for the job. The media buried those reports.

Richard Clarke--Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism czar, was similarly celebrated when he published a book criticizing the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror and the Iraq war. The Fox News Channel released a transcript of a background briefing Clarke gave while he was still at the White House in which Clarke praised some of the very efforts he would later criticize. Most journalists focused on the propriety of Fox's action, not the contradictions in Clarke's accounts. Clarke also argued that Iraq had never supported al Qaeda, "ever." Several months later, the final 9/11 Commission report, however, quoted an email Clarke had written in 1999 in which he cited the existence of an agreement between Iraq and al Qaeda as evidence that Saddam Hussein had assisted al Qaeda with chemical weapons. Most journalists ignored the revelation.