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President Bush holds a press conference—only his eighth since taking office—in which he conflates Iraq and Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attacks and the global war on terror at least 12 times. For instance, he says: “Iraq is a part of the war on terror. It’s a country that trains terrorists; it’s a country that could arm terrorists. Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country.” Perhaps his most alarming statement is, “September the 11th should say to the American people that we’re now a battlefield.” (White House 3/6/2003; Boehlert 5/4/2006; Moyers 4/25/2007) Bush insists that he has not yet decided to take military action against Iraq (see March 6, 2003). (Boehlert 5/4/2006)
Scripted and Orchestrated - Oddly, none of the 94 assembled journalists challenge Bush’s conflations, no one asks about Osama bin Laden, and no one asks follow-up questions to elicit information past the sound bites Bush delivers. There is a reason for that. In 2007, PBS’s Bill Moyers will report that “the White House press corps will ask no hard questions… about those claims,” because the entire press conference is scripted. “Sure enough, the president’s staff has given him a list of reporters to call on,” Moyers will report. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer later admits to giving Bush the list, which omits reporters from such media outlets as Time, Newsweek, USA Today, and the Washington Post. After calling on CNN reporter John King, Bush says, “This is a scripted—” and then breaks into laughter. King, like his colleagues, continues as if nothing untoward is happening. Author and media commentator Eric Boehlert will later say: “[Bush] sort of giggled and laughed. And, the reporters sort of laughed. And, I don’t know if it was out of embarrassment for him or embarrassment for them because they still continued to play along after his question was done. They all shot up their hands and pretended they had a chance of being called on.” Several questions later, Bush pretends to choose from the available reporters, saying: “Let’s see here… Elizabeth… Gregory… April.… Did you have a question or did I call upon you cold?” The reporter asks, “How is your faith guiding you?” Bush responds: “My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance.” Boehlert will later say: “I think it just crystallized what was wrong with the press coverage during the run up to the war. I think they felt like the war was gonna happen and the best thing for them to do was to get out of the way.” (White House 3/6/2003; Boehlert 5/4/2006; Moyers 4/25/2007)
Defending the Press's Complicity - New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, a participant in the conference, will later defends the press corps’ “timid behavior,” in Boehlert’s characterization, by saying: “I think we were very deferential because… it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.” (Boehlert 5/4/2006)
Compliant Media Coverage - The broadcast news media, transmitting the live feed of the conference, could not have been more accommodating, author and media critic Frank Rich will later note. “CNN flashed the White House’s chosen messages in repetitive rotation on the bottom of the screen while the event was still going on—‘People of good will are hoping for peace’ and ‘My job is to protect America.’” After the conference, Fox News commentator Greta van Susteren tells her audience, “What I liked tonight was that in prime time [Bush] said to the American people, my job is to protect the American people.” (Rich 2006, pp. 70)
Follow-Up Coverage Equally Stage-Managed - Boehlert notes that the post-conference coverage is equally one-sided. On MSNBC’s flagship news commentary show, Hardball, host Chris Matthews spends an hour discussing the conference and the upcoming invasion. Matthews invites six guests on. Five are advocates of the war, and one, given a few moments for “balance,” questions some of the assumptions behind the rationale for war. The five pro-war guests include an “independent military analyst,” retired General Montgomery Meigs, who is one of around 75 retired military officers later exposed as participants in a Pentagon propaganda operation designed to promote the war (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond). (Boehlert 5/4/2006)
Some Criticism Leveled - Several journalists later write harsh critiques of the conference and the media’s complicity (see March-April 2003).
National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson engages in rather unusual tactics against former counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, in response to Clarke’s recent criticisms of the Bush administration’s lack of preparation for the 9/11 attacks (see March 22, 2004 and March 24, 2004). Wilkinson is abetted by CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer.
'X-Files Stuff' - In the CNN studio, Wilkinson twists a passage from Clarke’s book Against All Enemies, saying: “He’s talking about how he sits back and visualizes chanting by bin Laden and how bin Laden has some sort of mind control over US officials. This is sort of ‘X-Files’ stuff.” (CNN 3/30/2004) (The precise quote, as reported by the New York Times’s Paul Krugman, is: “Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed.… It was as if Osama bin Laden, hidden in some high mountain redoubt, were engaging in long-range mind control of George Bush.” Krugman writes: “That’s not ‘X-Files stuff’: it’s a literary device, meant to emphasize just how ill conceived our policy is. Mr. Blitzer should be telling Mr. Wilkinson to apologize, not rerunning those comments in his own defense.”) (Krugman 4/2/2004)
'Weird Aspects in His Life' - For his part, Blitzer later says in a question to CNN’s John King: “What administration officials have been saying since the weekend, basically that Richard Clarke from their vantage point was a disgruntled former government official, angry because he didn’t get a certain promotion. He’s got a hot new book out now that he wants to promote. He wants to make a few bucks, and that his own personal life, they’re also suggesting that there are some weird aspects in his life as well, that they don’t know what made this guy come forward and make these accusations against the president.”
CNN Clarification - Blitzer’s use of innuendo (“weird aspects in his life”) from unnamed administration sources causes enough of a backlash that Blitzer issues a “clarification” of his remarks: “I was not referring to anything charged by so-called unnamed White House officials.… I was simply seeking to flesh out what Bush National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson had said on this program two days earlier.… Other than that… White House officials were not talking about Clarke’s personal life in any way.” As author and media critic Frank Rich will point out, Blitzer’s clarification is disingenuous in his implicit denial that his administration sources were anonymous, when in fact they were not. (CNN 3/30/2004; Rich 2006, pp. 114-119) (Krugman, who blasted Blitzer in his column, responds to Blitzer’s clarification by writing, “Silly me: I ‘alleged’ that Mr. Blitzer said something because he actually said it, and described ‘so-called unnamed’ officials as unnamed because he didn’t name them.”) (Krugman 4/2/2004) Blitzer eventually admits that his source was not multiple administration officials, but a single official (whom he refuses to name), and that the “weird aspects” of Clarke’s life were nothing more than his tendency to obsess over terrorist attack scenarios. (CNN 3/30/2004; Rich 2006, pp. 114-119)
Asked about the Libby trial by CNN anchor John King, Vice President Dick Cheney refuses to comment. “John, I’m not going to comment on the case,” Cheney says. “I may be called as a witness. Scooter Libby, obviously, one of the finest men I’ve ever known. He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence. And I have not made any comments on the case up ‘til now, and I won’t.” (CNN 6/22/2006)
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that Iran most likely has enough fissile material to make a nuclear weapon. When asked by CNN’s John King whether Iran “might now have enough fissile material to make a bomb,” Mullen replies, “We think they do, quite frankly.” He adds, “Iran having a nuclear weapon, I believe, for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.” A spokesman for Mullen later “clarifies” his remarks to emphasize that Mullen was talking about “low-grade” material, and notes that for such to be used in a nuclear weapon, it would need to be highly enriched. Defense Secretary Robert Gates contradicts Mullen, saying that Iran is “not close to a weapon at this point” (see March 1, 2009), a point with which both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, agree. After Mullen’s interview, his spokesman, Captain John Kirby, tells CNN: “There are two components here: having enough and having it highly enriched. The chairman concurs Iran has enough low-enriched to produce a nuclear weapon, but it’s important to note it’s low-grade, and to enrich it would take time.” Iran has recently tested its first nuclear power plant, using dummy fuel rods that did not produce a nuclear reaction. (CNN 3/1/2009)
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