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Caveat lector

Milbank says routine dissembling has gotten the press corps’ goat.

TUESDAY, JULY 16, 2002

NEW MORNING: This looks to be a brand new day in the annals of Bush business coverage. For that reason, we’ll postpone our background report on Coulter and Couric, the silly topic which is getting so much play on cable TV and talk radio (that report will follow tomorrow). Instead, there’s a set of reports in this morning’s press that you ought to read and consider. They deal with issues the press corps refused to treat back when they should have been treated—back in Campaign 2000, when Governor Bush made his run for the White House.

Bush announced for the White House in June 1999. As of that time, the press corps had obsessed (and dissembled) about Clinton’s past business dealings for a period of more than seven years. But from June 1999 right through the election, the press corps simply walked away from the background of Candidate Bush. Make no mistake—now that the press corps is hot for a scandal, some among them will start to embellish, misleading you about Bush business matters. But here is a set of pieces from this morning’s press that you ought to explore. We do not assert that every claim in these pieces is perfectly accurate, or that every judgment reached is fully justified. In each case, though, one question should be asked: Why in the world are we reading this now? And, Why did the press corps take a pass on these topics in Campaign 2000? Apparently running on “Clinton time,” the press corps is several years late.

Bush and The Texas Land Grab, Nicholas Kristof, New York Times: “Democrats and media hounds are baying under the wrong tree,” Kristof writes. “The point in President Bush’s business career where he took outrageous shortcuts was not at Harken Energy, but rather when he was grabbing land for a new baseball stadium in Arlington for his Texas Rangers baseball team.” For the record, Kristof explicitly says in his piece, “Mr. Bush broke no laws” in his stadium dealings.

Kristof isn’t the first to call attention to aspects of Bush’s stadium deal. In June 1999, Byron York wrote a cover story for The American Spectator reviewing the Texan’s business career. As a conservative, York was troubled by the way Bush and associates bullied the tax-payers into giving them a shiny, free stadium. But York didn’t know that the national press was about to go in the bag for Bush. “Should Bush continue to run at the front of the Republican presidential pack, the story of how he made his money might well become the story of his campaign,” he opined. “Far more than tales of youthful drinking and carousing, the record of Bush’s rise to wealth reveals how he became what he is today. It’s a complicated tale of family connections, hard work, and sweet deals, topped off by a taxpayer-subsidized baseball bonanza that may leave some Republicans feeling queasy about how their candidate got rich.”

Of course, this didn’t become the story of the campaign; the press corps took a total pass, devoting its time to inventing “misstatements” which Gore was supposed to have made. Three years after York’s excellent piece, the press may be ready to comment.

Steps to Wealth, Paul Krugman, New York Times: Krugman also mentions the stadium deal, but focuses on a related matter—changes made by Governor Bush in the way the University of Texas endowment is handled. This matter was also raised—and then ignored—during Campaign 2000. In February 2000, Joe Conason offered a lengthy treatment of this topic in Harper’s. The article excited exactly no interest. At the time, of course, the press was quite busy. They were busy typing up spin from the Bradley campaign about what a Big Liar Gore is.

The watchdog didn’t bark, Harold Evans, Salon: Evans lomns the press corps’ startling lassitude during Campaign 2000. “Why the activities of oilman George W. Bush in the 1980s and 1990s should be a matter of headlines now is something of a mystery,” he writes. Using a phrase from Sherlock Holmes, Evans continues his analysis: “The ‘curious incident’ regarding the president’s shady stock dealings is why the watchdog media didn’t bark during the 2000 presidential election.” Specifically, Evans notes a Talk magazine piece which the corps ignored in October 2000. But he derides the press corps’ vacuous performance throughout Campaign 2K. “The 2000 election was notorious for the way beat reporters got themselves trapped in a narrative that was throughout impervious to real news,” he writes. “Throughout the entire campaign, the political reporters and their editors were typically less concerned with the integrity of Bush than with Gore’s decision to wear earth tones.” Evans shows admirable restraint as he sketches the press corps’ performance. In fact, it is hard to find words to describe the press corps’ dysfunction during Campaign 2000.

The Minutes Waltz and a Skeptical Press Corps, Dana Milbank, Washington Post: In an intriguing account from inside the press corps, Milbank explains the “increasingly contentious coverage of the administration.” At one point, he offers a somewhat self-serving account of why the corps was so deferential to Bush before this. But he offers the first insider account of why the coverage has now switched so suddenly.

According to Milbank, routine dissembling from the White House has finally got the corps’ goat. As an example, he cites a bait-and-switch maneuver from last week’s press conference. Asked about a Harken matter, Bush told reporters to check the Harken director’s minutes. When reporters followed up on his suggestion, the White House refused to hand over the docs. But we’ve been intrigued by another example, one which Milbank doesn’t mention. Until recently, Bush has been lying right in the press corps’ face about that absurd “trifecta” affair. Indeed, even after the entire press corps knew he was lying, Bush kept lying all the same. It’s hardly surprising that Bush was so bold, given the press corps’ long, sorry deference. But has any president been more overtly contemptuous of his press corps? Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been wondering if that was the straw that finally broke the corps’ back.

Let me stress one point again: I do not assert that these pieces have everything right. While I trust these writers’ intentions, readers should always be vigilant. As I noted yesterday, there have been major articles in the past few days in which basic facts have been spun about Harken. Many pundits are now on the hunt, eager for a Bush business scandal. And don’t be fooled—when the press corps decides it wants scandal, some reporters start making one up. They did it to Gore all throughout the campaign. Some will now do it to Bush.

But the corps took a dive in Campaign 2000, essentially throwing the election to Bush. They obsessed about earth tones, Love Canal and Love Story. Psychiatrically skilled beyond all belief, they often said that Gore’s polo shirts meant that Gore doesn’t know who he is. (The utterly vacuous Brian Williams was simply in love with this story.) Dissembling and spinning for all they were worth, they invented a string of bogus claims about Gore—and simply refused to explore Bush’s history. This morning, the shape of debate does seem to have changed. Make no mistake—these topics should have been hashed three years back. But the press corps is ready to look at them now, and these four pieces are well worth exploring. My advice? Hold all journalists to the same standard you’d maintain if they wrote about Bill.

HOW LAZY WAS IT? In her new book, Coulter pretends that the press corps hounded Bush during Campaign 2000. The claim is simply absurd. As York suggested in June 1999, if the press had wanted to go after Bush, it would have flogged his business history. No such flogging was ever observed.

Just how wrong was York’s prediction? Let’s perform one of Coulter’s beloved searches. According to NEXIS, the New York Times mentioned Harken twice from 1/1/99 through November 2000! (Kevin Sack, 5/8/99; Bob Herbert, 2/3/00) Would “the story of how he made his money…become the story of [Bush’s] campaign?” York, being rational, thought that it might. As he wrote his admirable piece in June 1999, York—being rational—couldn’t foresee the gong-show the press would be crafting.