Features

Extreme prejudice

Media | Reporters asked damaging questions first, sought answers later

Issue: "Will Kurds stand alone?," June 1, 2002

"BUSH KNEW," read the New York Post's headline on the morning of May 16, conjuring up the shocking impression that the president had known the Sept. 11 attacks were coming, but did not move to prevent them. The next day, a Post editorial denigrated the impression the paper left as "pernicious nonsense," pointing out that during a routine briefing Mr. Bush was told "merely that there was reason to suspect a bin Laden plot to hijack American planes. There was no specific date mentioned, no specific target, no specific airline."

Other newspaper editorial pages noted that the haystack of information flowing in made it nearly impossible for anyone to pick out a particular needle. But that did not keep TV news stars from suggesting a new scandal for George W. Bush was in the making.

On NBC, Katie Couric led off the Today show with the Watergate-era question, "What did he know and when did he know it?" On ABC, Charlie Gibson wondered if President Bush was "really surprised" when he was told about the World Trade Center. The morning anchors encouraged viewers to assume the worst, that the president was either incompetent or blithely inactive as our homeland was attacked.

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Democratic leaders-notably those without an intelligence background-quickly seconded that emotion. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt echoed NBC's Watergate line. Sen. Hillary Clinton demanded to know "why did we not know this on April 16, or March 16, or February or January 16, or August 16 of last year?"

But as the story deepened and intelligence experts were consulted, the furor died down, and people began questioning the motives of Democratic critics. Those critics still were pointing fingers, but this time at the media. Mr. Gephardt's aides told columnist Morton Kondracke that their boss was merely repeating what Katie Couric had said.

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