Bush Lies, Media Swallows

Article excerpt

The more things change ... Roughly ten years ago, I celebrated the criminal indictment of Elliott Abrams for lying to Congress by writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times on the increasing acceptance of official deception. (I was just starting my dissertation on the topic back then.) The piece got bogged down, however, when an editor refused to allow me even to imply that then-President Bush was also lying to the country. I noted that such reticence made the entire exercise feel a bit absurd. He did not dispute this point but explained that Times policy simply would not allow it. I asked for a compromise. I was offered the following: "Either take it out and a million people will read you tomorrow, or leave it in and send it around to your friends." (It was a better line before e-mail.) Anyway, I took it out, but I think it was the last time I've appeared on that page.

President Bush is a liar. There, I said it, but most of the mainstream media won't. Liberal pundits Michael Kinsley, Paul Krugman and Richard Cohen have addressed the issue on the Op-Ed pages, but almost all news pages and network broadcasts pretend not to notice. In the one significant effort by a national daily to deal with Bush's consistent pattern of mendacity, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank could not bring himself (or was not allowed) to utter the crucial words. Instead, readers were treated to such complicated linguistic circumlocutions as: Bush's statements represented "embroidering key assertions" and were clearly "dubious, if not wrong." The President's "rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy," he has "taken some liberties," "omitted qualifiers" and "simply outpace[d] the facts." But "Bush lied"? Never.

Ben Bradlee explains, "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print this version of Nixon's first comments on Watergate for instance. `The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night, and for that reason he would be unable to comment on the bizarre burglary. That is a lie.'"

Part of the reason is deference to the office and the belief that the American public will not accept a mere reporter calling the President a liar. Part of the reason is the culture of Washington--where it is somehow worse to call a person a liar in public than to be one. A final reason is political. Some reporters are just political activists with columns who prefer useful lies to the truth. For instance, Robert Novak once told me that he "admired" Elliott Abrams for lying to him in a television interview about illegal US acts of war against Nicaragua because he agreed with the cause.

Let us note, moreover, that Bradlee's observation, offered in 1997, did not apply to President Clinton. Reporters were positively eager to call Clinton a liar, although his lies were about private matters about which many of us, including many reporters, lie all the time. "I'd like to be able to tell my children, `You should tell the truth,'" Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal said on Meet the Press. "I'd like to be able to tell them, `You should respect the President. …