Jewish World Review June 29, 2004 / 10 Tamuz, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Hostile media, prickly president — a troubling mix | The running battle between the White House and the mainstream news media resembles two punks fighting over their need for due respect. As a journalist, I hope it doesn't degenerate into a full-scale gang war, but I'm not hopeful that it won't.

A healthy news-media skepticism toward the government it covers is a good thing. Hostility is not.

Coverage of the 9-11 commission's staff report, and related stories, to impugn the Bush administration's veracity over Iraq looks like hostility to me. Conversely, the president ought not to view the news media as the enemy. This can lead to unfortunate excesses, as Richard Nixon demonstrated.

We are witnessing a historic dispute between the president and most of the "mainstream" news media that carries short-term risks for a president who needs at least the pretense of a cordial relationship to get his message across. But the potential liability is probably larger for the industry to which I have devoted my professional lifetime.

The technological and lifestyle changes of the 21st century, combined with a political and populist resentment from a solid chunk of the public who sees the news media's views and values as out of sync, threaten the media's continued prosperity.

Whether Bush wins his battle with the media, we'll find out come November.

Network-news ratings and newspaper readership show the media continue to lose in the court of public opinion. Americans rate journalists as lowly as politicians in the integrity department. Fox News, ridiculed by much of the media establishment as ideologically conservative, regularly outdraws CNN and MSNBC combined.

But this battle is more than the traditional right-of-center president fighting a news media that, despite all their protestations, are dominated by a left-of-center orientation. We've had those before, with Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

It's also cultural and personal on both sides.

Bush is a Texan at heart who thinks most of the D.C.-based news media have their heads up their you- know-what.

Most of the major, New York-Washington based media organizations think the Bush administration doesn't respect them or their role in the governmental process. They see the president's religious convictions and belief that the U.S. system is superior as personality flaws.

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Unlike his dad, or the people who made the trains run under Reagan and Nixon, this Bush doesn't care what the news media think. He has no compulsion about challenging them.

That's why the 9-11 panel's staff report on ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda is so telling. Unless you were vacationing on Mars, it would have been impossible to miss the news-media coverage that gave the strong impression Bush had justified the invasion of Iraq, at least partly, by alleging Saddam had been in league with the terrorist group. The commission reported that there was "no credible evidence" that the two cooperated in the 9-11 attacks.

The coverage either implied or suggested Bush had made that allegation in justifying the war. Bush never made that charge, although he did allege a "relationship" between the two.

Bush and his brethren were rightly outraged by the coverage and struck back, claiming the news media failed both to reflect his past statements truthfully, and that the panel had agreed there had been Saddam/al-Qaeda contacts.

They were helped out by Lee Hamilton, the panel's ranking Democrat, who said there were "no major differences between the president's position and the commission's findings."

Then, on the heels of the report - which dominated front pages and newscasts - Russian leader Vladimir Putin disclosed that his intelligence services had warned Bush before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam was planning terrorist attacks against the United States.

You'd think that information - which Bush never disclosed for fear of compromising intelligence sources - might cause a ruckus because it would bolster the case for war. Yet it was given short shrift. The New York Times and Washington Post buried it on pages A8 and A11, respectively.

Yes, the daily news flow influences where stories are placed, and the Putin comments came the day a U.S. hostage was beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the striking juxtaposition illustrates a mind-set among much of the media that should be troubling to those who worry about journalism's future.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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