Sunday, February 20, 2005

Funny, I was planning to post something Mark Danner wrote in the current New York Review of Books about the fraudulence of political reporting in America when along comes a front-page story in today's New York Times about a curious "unauthorized" release of "secretly taped" conversations with George W. Bush.

The recordings come from Doug Wead, an evangelical and author of a book on Bush; Wead says he made them before Bush reached the White House. We are told that Wead released the tapes of his own volition, and that the White House appears mildly nonplussed ("Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said, 'The governor was having casual conversations with someone he believed was his friend'").

Many excepts from the tapes are quoted -- but there doesn't seem to be a single unguarded moment. Every word appears to be focus-grouped, far enough to the right to win over the conservatives but not so far as to alienate the center.

Either these tapes weren't made secretly or the excepts played for David Kirkpatrick of the Times were selected with extreme care, and almost certainly vetted by the White House, which almost certainly determined (or assented to) the timing of their release. (All the Times will tell us about the editing process is that "Mr. Wead said he withheld many tapes of conversations that were repetitive or of a purely personal nature. The dozen conversations he agreed to play ranged in length from five minutes to nearly half an hour.")

Here are some exceprts. Does any of this strike you as candid?

Preparing to meet Christian leaders in September 1998, Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead, "As you said, there are some code words. There are some proper ways to say things, and some improper ways." He added, "I am going to say that I've accepted Christ into my life. And that's a true statement."


He mocked Vice President Al Gore for acknowledging marijuana use. "Baby boomers have got to grow up and say, yeah, I may have done drugs, but instead of admitting it, say to kids, don't do them," he said.


When Mr. Wead warned him that "power corrupts," for example, Mr. Bush told him not to worry: "I have got a great wife. And I read the Bible daily. The Bible is pretty good about keeping your ego in check."


Preparing to meet with influential Christian conservatives, Mr. Bush tested his lines with Mr. Wead. "I'm going to tell them the five turning points in my life," he said. "Accepting Christ. Marrying my wife. Having children. Running for governor. And listening to my mother."


[Bush] said he told Mr. Robison: "Look, James, I got to tell you two things right off the bat. One, I'm not going to kick gays, because I'm a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?"

Later, he read aloud an aide's report from a convention of the Christian Coalition, a conservative political group: "This crowd uses gays as the enemy. It's hard to distinguish between fear of the homosexual political agenda and fear of homosexuality, however."

"This is an issue I have been trying to downplay," Mr. Bush said. "I think it is bad for Republicans to be kicking gays."...

As early as 1998, however, Mr. Bush had already identified one gay-rights issue where he found common ground with conservative Christians: same-sex marriage. "Gay marriage, I am against that. Special rights, I am against that," Mr. Bush told Mr. Wead, five years before a Massachusetts court brought the issue to national attention.

That last one makes me wonder if these tapes were even made when they were said to have been made.

Now I want to talk about Mark Danner. The current New York Review prints two letters in response to a Danner article about the 2004, plus Danner's comment on the letters. What Danner says about campaign reporting seems true about much reporting that takes place when campaigns are over -- including the front-page "exclusive" about the Bush tapes:

In the major newspapers and, above all, on the television networks, campaign coverage is typically led by "inside stories" ... More often than not, this is a charade: the supposed "inside story" is just another version of the "message" that the campaign wants to get out to the public, another way of manipulating the news by creating a narrative that in fact helps reinforce the plotline designed and chosen by the campaign in the first place. Far from telling readers and viewers what is "really" happening in the campaign, the "inside story" stratagem is simply another way to get across the carefully crafted plotline developed by the campaign itself.

Danner gives an example:

On March 5, for example, The New York Times published a piece headlined "Bush Campaigns Amid a Furor over Ads," about a supposed controversy over the campaign's first television ads, which offered a glimpse of a dead fireman being carried out of the World Trade Center site. In the article the Times reporters revealed that the campaign was "scrambling to counter criticism that his first television commercials crassly politicized the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks." Indeed, the controversy was so serious, according to the Times, that it had "complicated efforts by Republicans to seize the initiative after months in which Mr. Bush has often been on the defensive." Newsweek, for its part, in an article headlined "A 'Shocking' Stumble," reported that the ad controversy "threw campaign officials on the defensive -- and raised questions about the Bush team's ability to effectively spend its massive $150 million war chest, some GOP insiders say."

Seven months later, and two weeks after the election,
Newsweek published another and very different "inside account," this one based on exclusive access to the campaigns which was granted on the understanding that nothing from this reporting would be published until after the election. Here is what Newsweek's writers now told us about what "two Bush strategists" really thought of their campaign's "shocking stumble":

McKinnon and Dowd were ecstatic. At a strategy meeting the next day -- the same morning the
Times headline appeared -- they joked about how they could fan the flames. Controversy sells, they said. It meant lots of "free media"; the ads were shown over and over again on news shows, particularly on cable TV. The "visual" of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of the nation's darkest hour -- and Bush's finest, when he climbed on the rock pile with a bullhorn. What's more, the story eclipsed some grim economic news....

At that Saturday's Breakfast Club, they were still laughing about the ad flap.... Dowd told the group they had received $6 million to $7 million worth of free ad coverage. "Unfortunately, we've been talking about 9/11 and our ads for five days," Dowd deadpanned at a senior staff meeting. "We're going to try to pivot back to the economy as soon as we can."

There were chuckles all around.

So much for the "inside story."

That was a big fraud. This is a small one. It's not an "inside story." It's really just more spin.

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