Still Liberal, Still Biased

How Big Media Helped the Left and Hurt the Right in 2003


Spinning Iraq as Vietnam-Like Quagmire: In a televised address to the nation on September 7, President Bush asked Congress for $87 billion to continue military operations in Iraq and to begin rebuilding the country’s damaged infrastructure. Bush’s desire to spend the resources required for a successful outcome prompted a rise in the number of media mavens who sought to detect a comparison between the liberation of Iraq and the failed mission in Vietnam that cost tens of thousands of American lives in the 1960s.

The Vietnam analogies did not start with Bush’s budget request, of course. CBS’s Jim Acosta, on the July 19 CBS Evening News, suggested that the President was an LBJ-style liar: “This is not the first time the U.S. has gone to war based on facts that later turned out to be questionable. Almost 40 years ago, President Johnson pointed to unconfirmed reports of attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to convince the Congress to widen the war in Vietnam.”

A couple of days before Bush spoke, Dan Rather interviewed the general running the military mission in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez. In excerpts of the interview shown on the September 4 Evening News, Rather confronted Sanchez with the defeatist Vietnam analogy: “A woman in South Carolina is quoted today as saying, ‘We’ve got a tar baby on our hands.’ Others have used the word ‘quick sand’ and ‘quagmire’ out of the Vietnam era.”

To his credit, Rather then asked the general to point out “the biggest mistake or inaccuracy that the press in general is making about the situation here?” Sanchez told Rather that the biggest problem was “the fact that the press does not focus at all on the successes of our great American soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines that are operating here in this country.”

After Bush’s speech, many in the media wrung their hands raw worrying about another Vietnam. On CNN’s NewsNight, Brian Cabell noted that “It’s an argument that seems likely to become louder in the months ahead: Is this truly a continuation of the war against terrorism, or is it possibly another drawn-out, inconclusive Vietnam War in the making?”

On ABC’s Nightline on September 25, Ted Koppel advertised his bias when he asked retired General Anthony Zinni, a critic of the war, whether “the whole notion of the weapons of mass destruction, the connection with al-Qaeda...was [that] as phony as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution?”

stephanopoulos091503Perhaps the most ridiculous attempt to link Iraq and Vietnam came on September 14 with the debut of the newly-revamped This Week with George Stephanopoulos, which featured a gimmicky new feature called “The Briefing.” Stephanopoulos announced: “We begin our morning briefing examining something that’s being heard more and more — that Iraq is starting to look like Vietnam.” He insisted, before George Will was allowed to undermine the premise: “There are also some striking similarities between the speeches of Lyndon Johnson and George Bush.”

ABC viewers were then treated to a series of back-to-back clips of Presidents Lyndon Johnson (in black and white) and George W. Bush, with no dates noted for either set of clips, in order to suggest eerie similarities. In fact, the clips showed only the superficiality that passes for real thinking at ABC. The three pairs of clips:

  • President Johnson: “The result would be increased unrest and instability and even wider war.” 

    President Bush: “Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks.”

  • President Johnson: “World War II was fought in both Europe and Asia and when it ended we found ourselves with continued responsibilities for the defense of freedom.” 

    President Bush in his September 7 address: “Following World War II, we lifted up the defeated nations of Japan and Germany and stood with them as they built representative governments. We committed years and resources to this cause.” 

  • President Johnson: “For our part, I will ask the Congress to join in a billion dollar American investment in this effort as soon as it is underway.” 

    President Bush: “I will soon submit to Congress a request for $87 billion.”

That last one is a real plum — Stephanopoulos or someone else at ABC must think it’s telling to point out that both Presidents asked for money from Congress. Didn’t Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Truman also ask for appropriations for military adventures that turned out to be successful?

And since when do liberals like Stephanopoulos think that money equals failure?

Recall, Part I: No Scrutiny of Democratic Frontrunner: When California’s recall election was certified on July 23, the first few weeks of media coverage focused on the “circus.” CBS’s Early Show invited on joke candidates like child actor Gary Coleman, and ignored more serious candidates like conservative state senator Tom McClintock. By September, national news reports focused on a few potentially electable candidates, with liberal Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante in the lead. But the networks applied no scrutiny to the then-frontrunner, despite his well-known racial controversies.

In 2001, Bustamante said “n-gg-r” when he said he meant to say “Negro” in the title of a black labor organization. In college, Bustamante was an active member of MEChA (the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), whose symbol is an eagle clutching a dynamite stick and a machete-like weapon in its claws. Their motto: “For the Race, everything. For those outside the Race, nothing.” The group believes in reclaiming the mythical land of Aztlan, or most of the southwestern United States, for the “bronze race.”

september_textboxNeither ABC nor NBC mentioned Bustamante’s MEChA ties, even though both interviewed him at length. When CBS’s Bob Schieffer and Los Angeles Times reporter Doyle McManus grilled Bustamante on the August 31 Face the Nation, they both skipped MEChA. Instead, Schieffer invited the frontrunner to pile on second-place GOP candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger for his raunchy comments in a 1977 issue of the pornographic magazine Oui. (See box.)

CBS’s Hattie Kauffman was the only network reporter to raise the MEChA issue, when she questioned Bustamante on the September 3 Early Show. After mentioning Schwarzenegger’s 26-year-old Oui interview, Kauffman added: “There are ghosts in Bustamante’s past as well. He was once a member of a radical group called MEChA. This was a Chicano student group that advocated a separate nation for Mexicans in the American Southwest. Did you know that when you joined?” Bustamante avoided a direct answer and would not disavow the group.

Instead, all the scrutiny was applied to Schwarzenegger. On the September 9 CBS Evening News, reporter Jerry Bowen suggested why Arnold was lagging: “The poll shows he trails Democrat Bustamante among women voters by 13 points, a gender gap aggravated perhaps by his past comments on sex and women that have drawn protesters to his campaign headquarters...And now in an Esquire magazine interview Schwarzenegger gave last spring, in which he expressed interest in the governorship, he remarked how bodybuilders are often thought to be dumb because of their appearance, same for women, he suggested.”

Bowen brought on Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation to denounce Arnold, never noting whether her group was more partisan than principled. On April 2, 1998, Spillar showed a different take when the target was Bill Clinton, telling the Washington Post there was nothing to the Paula Jones allegations: “We have said all along that we thought it was a weak case.”

Network reporters also had a tendency to only label conservatives, especially Senator McClintock. On September 25, Bowen described a TV debate: “The other three candidates —conservative Republican Tom McClintock, the Green Party’s Peter Camejo and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante — were subdued by comparison.”

This labeling imbalance was strange, since the views of Bustamante and Camejo on many matters was the polar opposite of McClintock’s positions. Two days earlier on ABC’s World News Tonight, reporter Linda Douglass noted: “Schwarzenegger is also battling another Republican, conservative state senator Tom McClintock. If Davis is recalled and they split the vote, Democrat Cruz Bustamante could win.”

But the liberal policies that actually overturned Gray Davis were rarely a focus of national network scrutiny. ABC, CBS, and NBC never did a morning or evening news story on the tripling of the car tax. On ABC, reporter Jake Tapper made a passing reference to how Tom McClintock “protested the recent tripling of the state car tax.” CBS was silent on the issue until October 1, when reporter Jerry Bowen noticed “the struggling governor is a victim of self-inflicted wounds. Signing a bill to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants backfired. And long lines yesterday punctuated his problems. Motorists registering their cars ahead of today’s tripling of the car tax, a budget-balancing tool that’s infuriated voters.” Of the Big Three, only NBC reported one story on Gray Davis moving to give illegal aliens driver’s licenses.