Still Liberal, Still Biased

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


Media Suggest Sixteen Words Undermined Entire Iraq War: The White House acknowledged in July that President Bush had overreached in his State of the Union address when he cited a British report that Iraq had sought enriched uranium in Africa. Those 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Some of the documents that supported such a conclusion turned out to be forgeries, and administration officials regretted that Bush overreached. But the media also overreached in concluding that this sentence qualified as a “vital argument” for the war.

July_textbox“There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made,” the White House said in a statement quoted in the July 8 editions of the New York Times.

But reporting that same night on the White House’s admission, ABC and NBC themselves overreached in broadly asserting that the concession undermined a “vital argument” for the war against Saddam Hussein. Over the next few days, the media perpetuated a self-fulfilling storyline, that the Bush administration was “being pressed to defend” its case for war, even as the press did most of the pressing.

“On World News Tonight,” Peter Jennings teased at the top of his July 8 broadcast, “the Bush administration admits that a vital argument for going to war against Iraq was not true.” At the same time, NBC’s Tom Brokaw announced: “Coming clean. The White House admits for the first time the President’s State of the Union claim about Iraq’s nuclear program might in fact be wrong.”

The day Senator Edward Kennedy questioned whether the war was “based on deliberate deception or outright lies,” Jennings expressed disappointment in what he saw as Democrats holding back their attacks, and rued how the public’s support of Bush limited the damage he might suffer: “Under certain circumstances this admission by the administration might have serious political consequences, but this is a popular President.”

But as David Martin pointed out on the July 8 CBS Evening News, while the specific example Bush cited may have been faulty, that did not mean that the Iraqis were not cheating: “Both [Colin] Powell and the CIA believed then and believe now there is plenty of other evidence to show Saddam was still pursuing a nuclear weapon.”

Martin reminded viewers: “An Iraqi scientist has led the CIA to his rose garden where twelve years ago he buried the plans and some of the parts needed to make bomb-grade uranium, convincing evidence Saddam intended to revive his nuclear weapons program.”

Other reporters refused to let the Bush-bashing moment pass so easily. On July 9, Jennings topped his newscast with the media’s questioning of the President: “On World News Tonight, the Bush administration is obliged again to defend its case for war in Iraq — from Africa to Capitol Hill....Good evening, everyone. We begin tonight with the Bush administration’s credibility. Today in Europe and Africa and in the Congress, the administration is being pressed to defend its public justification for going to war in Iraq.”

On July 10, the CBS Evening News hyped a report that substitute anchor John Roberts suggested proved Bush’s mendacity: “President Bush’s false claim about Iraqi weapons. He made it despite a CIA warning the intelligence was bad.” CBS’s own Web site took the irresponsible accusation even further: “Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False,” declared the headline over a posting on In the actual story, CBS’s David Martin reported something far short of the “Bush knew” claim or that the CIA said “the intelligence was bad.”

But most journalists weren’t hunting for nuance. On Friday, July 11, NBC’s Brian Williams kept up the drumbeat as he led off the Nightly News by smarmily linking the error with America’s war dead: “It was just one sentence in a long State of the Union speech that the President delivered in January. But it was a major accusation, one part of the President’s case for possible war with Iraq. The facts have turned out differently. The accusation was wrong. And now, with 148,000 Americans on the ground there, with over 200 dead and over a thousand wounded, the questions for this White House are heating up.”

Over on ABC, Jennings was peddling a poll which reflected how effectively the media had spun the issue: “An ABC News/Washington Post poll which has just been finished, finds that 52 percent of Americans, a majority for the first time, find the level of U.S. casualties in Iraq unacceptable. And 50 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration in arguing for the war intentionally exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.”

time071403That weekend, Time put a photo of Bush delivering his State of the Union speech on the cover with the condemnatory headline, ”UNtruth & Consequences.” On Saturday’s World News Tonight, ABC anchor Claire Shipman declared: “The firestorm over false intelligence that President Bush used to help justify war in Iraq is intensifying.” The next day, July 13 CBS’s John Roberts announced: “The White House tried to lay to rest today the swirl of controversy over whether it knowingly put dubious intelligence into this year’s State of the Union address....But as Joie Chen reports, the issue refuses to go away.”

“The issue refuses to go away”? Or the media refused to let it go?

Media Make “Centrist” Dean the Latest Craze: By mid-summer, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign was on fire in the media. As Dean’s trial balloon swiftly rose, reporters acknowledged his heightened chances by avoiding or rebutting the idea that he was liberal, let alone ultra-liberal.

As the year began, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was seen as a left-wing lark, an implausible dark-horse candidacy. In January, the New York Times asked: “Why should anyone take him seriously?” He appeared to be what political reporters call “out of the mainstream.” Dean told abortion advocates that partial-birth abortion was “an issue about nothing. It’s an issue about [pro-life] extremism.” In Vermont, Dean signed a bill in 2000 installing “civil unions” for gay men and lesbians. He proposed repealing the Bush tax cuts to fund more socialized-medicine schemes like Hillary Clinton’s. Most dramatically, he opposed military action against Saddam Hussein, saying on the April day Baghdad was liberated, “I suppose that’s a good thing.”

But Dean’s Vermont record was regularly promoted as moderate. CBS Early Show co-host Hannah Storm told Dean: “You have opposed the war on Iraq. You oppose the President’s tax-cut package, and yet you are [sic] a centrist governor.” On ABC’s This Week July 6, reporter Michel Martin replied to Paul Gigot‘s insistence that Dean was driving the other contenders left by claiming, “The irony being, of course, that he wasn’t a terribly liberal governor. He was, in fact, a moderate.”

This same pattern extended to national newspapers and magazines. A July 6 front-page Washington Post profile by Evelyn Nieves was headlined “Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush.” The word “liberal” did not appear until three-fourths the way into the story, and then only in a quote of denial: “‘His being called a liberal is one of the great white lies of the campaign,’ said Tom Salmon, a fellow Democrat and governor of Vermont for two terms during the Nixon-Ford era. ‘He’s a rock-solid fiscal conservative.’” Nieves allowed Dean to deny the tag. “‘I think it’s pathetic that I’m considered the left-wing liberal,’ Dean said.”

Time magazine suggested Dean’s supporters aren’t ideological, just “a seam of online middle-class resentment...made up of passionate and often disgruntled believers.” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wouldn’t describe Dean as liberal, but he did pronounce him a sage: “As an early foe of war in Iraq, he made acerbic comments that now look prescient.”

When Dean hit the big time in early August —with cover stories in Time and Newsweek and a major inside spread in U.S. News & World Report —he was introduced as a centrist. Time’s John Cloud insisted “he is a rock-ribbed budget hawk, a moderate on gays and guns, and a true lefty on only a few issues, primarily the use of U.S. military power.” Cloud also asked: “So is he a liberal, a conservative, or something in between? The answer is, all of the above.” Dean’s plan to create universal socialized medicine is “modest by Democratic standards.” Dean’s civil-unions law was somehow “a moderate compromise.”

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter tried an old trope: “The old labels are increasingly useless. Dean, for instance, is hardly an old-fashioned big-spending liberal. As governor from 1991 to 2002, he repeatedly balanced the budget, though Vermont is the only state that doesn’t require him to do so by law.” Alter explained, he “developed a reputation as a centrist.” Alter added that in Vermont, “Dean focused on fiscal responsibility” and unbelievably, considering the “civil unions” bill, suggested “On social issues, he resisted most liberal blandishments.” In a related Web chat, Alter aggressively defended Dean: “On fiscal issues, he’s far to the right of [Ted] Kennedy.”

U.S. News political writer Roger Simon located those who “find Dean’s style invigorating,” including self-declared Republican Joe Mathews, who says he’ll vote for Dean “because he admires the fiscal conservatism Dean displayed in 11 years as governor. Matthews added: “ Dean is not particularly left wing. And as far as checkbook issues, he is to the right of George Bush, because if it isn’t in the bank, Dean doesn’t spend it.”

Media outlets did not balance the “rock-solid fiscal conservative” angle with the the report from the Cato Institute’s annual report card on state fiscal performances. Cato gave Governor Dean a “D” for fiscal matters in 2002. They noted: “He supports state-funded universal health care, generous state subsidies for child care, a higher minimum wage, liberal family leave legislation, and taxpayer-financed campaigns....After 12 years of Dean’s so-called ‘fiscal conservatism,’ Vermont remains one of the highest taxing and spending states.”

Reporters wishfully confused a balanced budget — which could entail massive government spending, balanced by massive taxation — with the word “conservatism,” which should be defined as a preference for small and limited government, or at the very least static spending levels.