Identical storytellers

The major media are not giving Bush a fair shake

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

If the question has crossed your mind in recent weeks whether a journalistic voice like that of WORLD magazine has any importance now that things are so bipartisan, tranquil, and sweet-spirited in Washington, I urge you to look again. The question may still be unresolved for a few pointy-headed academics or professional societies of journalists. But anybody with an ounce of common sense in his or her system needs neither a survey, a study, nor a search engine to tell you in an instant that George W. Bush isn't getting anything like a fair shake from America's major media. Toward the end of Mr. Bush's trip to Europe, for example, I checked out 100 uses of the word combination "Kyoto protocol" to see if I was just being unduly suspicious, or if the big media really were unfairly beating up on Mr. Bush on this issue. Of those first 100 instances on the Lexis-Nexis search system (I'll admit I had to look quickly!), here's what I found:

  • At least 86 focused pointedly on Mr. Bush's objection to U.S. acquiescence in the treaty, which would place severe restrictions on this country, hike the cost of manufacturing, and raise new threats to a shaky world economy.
  • Only two stories made reference to the fact that the U.S. Senate had voted 95-0 in 1997 to turn down U.S. involvement in the treaty.
  • No story mentioned the fact that the treaty specifically exempts the world's two most populous nations-China and India.
  • Even in the midst of Mr. Bush's visit to Europe, and with repeated references to how unpopular Mr. Bush was in Europe because of his objection to Kyoto, not a single one of the news stories included the slightly pertinent information that no European nation has itself yet ratified the Kyoto treaty.

In other words, it's all W's fault. He's got this pernicious tie to the oil and gas interests, and he alone is blocking the way to the green future we all want so much. Yet in the midst of all this, I also actually found three items-two commentary columns and one news story-purporting to show how the American media have given President Bush a free pass during the first 150 days in office, especially when compared to how difficult those reporters made life for Bill Clinton eight years earlier! Even one WORLD reader wrote me last week to ask why we weren't headlining the misbehavior of the Bushes' two daughters, both charged in Austin, Texas, with underage drinking offenses. "If it had been Chelsea Clinton," this reader chastised me, "you would have put it on WORLD's front cover." To Chelsea's credit, she never tempted us to do so. Nor did we do so when Al Gore's son was arrested for speeding during his dad's campaign for president. But to the discredit of the big media, their stories about the Bush girls outnumbered their stories about the Gores' son something like 100-1. I told our critic that WORLD doesn't feature stories about teenagers acting like teenagers. It was adults acting like teenagers over the last few years that had kept us so busy. Want still another current example of biased news writing? Try the reporting on gas prices. Network news media, the major newspapers, and the big news magazines have all in recent days referred cavalierly and repeatedly to "prices almost doubling" since George W. Bush took office. Nothing of the sort, of course, has taken place. Even if you concede that 30 cents or even 40 cents have been tacked on to the average gallon of gas sold across the United States this past spring, that still amounts to nothing more than a 20-30 percent increase over last year's costs. That's a far cry from doubling. All that in just the last two weeks. Add to it, if you will, the less explicit but very real portrayal of Mr. Bush as a big-mistake-waiting-to-happen during his European trip. It was a resurrection of a theme the media used against Mr. Bush early in the Republican primaries and again in the general election, even though in both instances there was always enough in the Texan's approach to persuade voters he had the savvy to be their president. Still not persuaded, however, the sophisticates of the media rolled out the same old saw for the trip to Europe. When Mr. Bush on one occasion mispronounced the name of the president of Spain, reporters jumped with glee. "Didn't we tell you he wasn't up to the job?" they implicitly asked viewers and readers. What almost none of them reported was that Le Monde of Paris and BBC gave Mr. Bush high marks for his performance, with the French newspaper going so far as to suggest that Mr. Bush dwarfed some of his EU political counterparts both with his policy proposals and with his good-spirited approach. But details like that spoil the story line. Which is why it's so important to have some alternative storytellers like WORLD around. At the very least, it gives you two possibilities to weigh against each other.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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