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Reporting on the Manipulator-in-Chief

December 9th, 2003 · No Comments

In recent decades, there have been plenty of famous presidential deceptions. Reagan said he’d never bargain with terrorists, but he did. Bush senior said he asked us to read his lips when he said “no new taxes,” then he signed off on new taxes. Clinton said he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but he did (unless you accept Clinton’s lawyerly parsing of what “sexual relations” might mean).

But the current Bush administration has taken dishonesty to new heights, or should I say depths, as misleading the public via the news media has become standard operating procedure.

A few examples.

January 22, 2003: President Bush makes a speech on the economy at a warehouse in St. Louis, unveiling his strategy to revive the economy and illustrate his connection with American small businesses. The staging of the event reeks of phony, though. The wall of boxes bearing the “Made in the USA” slogan behind the president is actually a painted backdrop. The real boxes in front of the President’s podium are also hiding something. Their “Made in China” labels, a testament to the limp state of the American economy, have been covered with tape.

May 1, 2003: President George W. Bush dons a flight suit for a navy combat jet flight to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California. Below a large banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Bush announces that major military operations in Iraq are complete.

(White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer initially reported that the president’s voyage to the aircraft carrier “will not be a helicopter arrival, because the ship is so far out at sea.” Later it was revealed that the combat jet was more theatrical than necessary: the USS Abraham Lincoln was only 30 miles off the coast of San Diego, easily within reach by helicopter. In fact, the carrier, which was returning home after a 10-month deployment, had to delay its port arrival for hours to await the president’s landing so that his speech could be delivered in the golden “magic hour light” of the early evening.)

October 28, 2003: Six months later, as the administration fails to make good on the “Mission Accomplished” message, President Bush denies that the White House was involved in making the banner, and said the Navy was responsible for it. Finally, after being pressed, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan ‘fessed up: “We took care of the production of it. We have people to do those things.”

November 27, 2003: President Bush takes a secret trip to Iraq to bolster the morale of American troops. In the most widely circulated photo of his brief visit to Iraq, the president is holding up a festive platter with a whole roasted turkey surrounded by grapes. (Only on December 3 did the White House admit that this was a phony bird — a plastic prop, while the real turkey was served from steam trays.)

What’s behind all of this? This is media management, Bush-style. The White House has a special “event staging team” (costing taxpayers $3.7 million in 2003) that includes former producers at ABC and Fox news, and a former NBC cameraman, all who are betting that the news media are more apt to lap up pretty pictures and pre-packaged tales rather than dig up the real story beneath the phony gloss.

This column’s purpose is media criticism, and here’s the media criticism part: the news media do a lousy job of telling us about these almost daily deceptions. The above examples are the ones we know about. But, in all of these cases, the lies and deceptions are typically small sidebars to the big staged stories, or they are not covered at all.

If lies, deceptions, and tall tales are the standard operating procedure of the White House, we as citizens need to know more about every instance of it. This is not a partisan appeal against the Bush administration, but instead a call for a strong press that simply tells the truth loud and clear about all of our public officials, including the president.

Tags: Journalism Ethics

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