Here's how dishonest Beltway journalism has become

by Eric Boehlert, Media Matters

Books about politics and the press don't come much more dishonest, or depressing, than the new tome hitting stores this week, The Way to Win (Random House). Written by corporate media bigwigs Mark Halperin, political director of ABC News and founder of its political newsletter The Note, and John F. Harris, national political editor of The Washington Post, the new digest -- it's their take on how to win the White House -- is already being toasted by celebrity journalists inside the Beltway, which in today's environment means the book politely re-enforces preferred conventional wisdom and graciously avoids asking tough questions about Republicans. The press corps also skates by in the eyes of Halperin and Harris, who continuously rewrite recent history in order to ensure that journalists shoulder little or no blame for D.C. pressroom disgraces such as Whitewater, the blatantly dishonest coverage heaped upon Al Gore's presidential campaign, and for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hoax that ensnared Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential run.

I say The Way to Win is dishonest because Halperin and Harris are obviously smart professionals who understand how politics and the press now (unfortunately) work in this country. Indeed, the two are celebrated as among Beltway journalism's best and brightest and are paid handsomely for reaching the pinnacle of their profession. Unfortunately, political journalism isn't what it used to be, and unfortunately, the duo opts to conform to the artificial guidelines that dictate public debate inside the Beltway today.

That's precisely why CBS' Bob Schieffer has already flacked the book on Face the Nation, why Charlie Rose has invited the two for an intimate chat, and why the Way To Win D.C. book party was awash with boldface guests, as elites from the press and politics flocked to toast the latest re-writing of the conventional wisdom. It's because Halperin and Harris tell a reassuring story that Beltway players, particularly in the press, love to hear. And for anybody who still thinks there's an ounce of friction between the true media elites and the Beltway's mostly Republican ruling class, read The Way to Win and think again. The Beltway really has become a tension-free world where journalists and politicos bond effortlessly.

Among the most important of Halperin and Harris's take-away tips -- their so-called "Trade Secret" -- is for candidates seeking the White House in 2008 to basically not act like Democrats. Specifically, Halperin and Harris stress that recent campaigns by Gore and Kerry failed because they lost control of their public image via the press, in sharp contrast to Bush's campaigns, which, thanks to the hard work of Karl Rove, were able to control their public image. What Halperin and Harris absolutely refuse to acknowledge is the willing role the press played in those key Democratic setbacks and the media's shrieking double standard that's been on display for the last decade.

For instance, Halperin and Harris's simplistic analysis of the Swift Boat fiasco, as it is for every Democratic public relations loss detailed in the book, is that the Kerry camp should have just convinced the press to stop writing damaging stories. Halperin and Harris's purposefully naïve construct is that Kerry and his aides had the power to fix negative press coverage -- just like Gore and Clinton did before him -- but for some bewildering reason they failed to do it. Apparently, all Democrats had to do was ask nicely and Beltway reporters would have stopped reporting made-up stuff about Whitewater, stopped reporting false claims about Gore inventing the Internet, etc., and stopped reporting fabrications about how Kerry's war service was riddled with mysteries.

Halperin and Harris refuse to consider the option that it's been a conscious choice the press has made to dog Democrats while going easy on Bush, repeatedly holding him to an absurdly low standard of professional and personal conduct.

A book that purposefully lacks context

Make no mistake, despite the afterthought section tacked on toward the end about Hillary Clinton's rise and her prospects in 2008, The Way to Win is basically a book about Bush and Rove and how they were able to manufacture Republican wins in 2000, 2002, and 2004, and how they've outclassed Democrats. It's also a book where the 2000 Florida recount barely exists, while the events of 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq are of only passing interest. Meaning, it's a book that purposefully lacks context. That way its authors -- both longtime Rove and Bush admirers -- can argue with straight faces it was the combined genius of the two men that secured victories over hapless and overmatched Democrats, not the United States Supreme Court or a manufactured wartime culture.

Indeed, Halperin and Harris elevate the act of playing dumb to Olympian heights. Note how they fawn over Bush and Rove in 2000 for deftly handling curiosity about the candidate's previous drug use by simply announcing they would not answer reporters' questions on that touchy subject. Good Lord, why didn't Clinton's War Room think of that in '92 when its candidate was nearly driven out the race over the issue of youthful drug use? According to Halperin and Harris, apparently all Clinton had to do during the destructive press orgy was do what Bush later did, which was show "fortitude," "discipline," and "steadfast commitment" and pull off the "daring" strategy" to not answer any questions and the press would have respected the Democrats' privacy and backed off.

Now they tell us.

And remember Whitewater? Well, Halperin and Harris don't. The duo devotes an entire chapter detailing Clinton's often troubled first term in office, yet the phrase "Whitewater" never appears in print there. Keep in mind that reproducing The Washington Post's library of breathless Whitewater stories printed during Clinton's first term would likely fill three volumes the size of The Way to Win, while ABC's Whitewater archives could fill a weekend of around-the-clock coverage. But for Halperin and Harris, the story, and the media's absolutely central role in keeping alive a Republican-generated hoax about a long-ago real estate deal, goes down the memory hole. How's that for a "Trade Secret"?

Clinton gets off easy compared to Kerry, whose 2004 campaign Halperin and Harris hold up to constant ridicule and use as prime example of how Democrats didn't have the smarts to right a damaged ship. Of course, the Kerry camp made missteps, but in this polite retelling, the press is essentially blameless.

Incredibly, Halperin and Harris pick up right where the mainstream media left off in 2004, telling blatantly dishonest tales about Kerry's war record. The two insist that "in any year, the complexities and puzzles about Kerry's life in Vietnam and his subsequent return as a prominent leader would have been subject to widespread attention in the Old Media." What "puzzles"? Kerry went to Vietnam, served honorably, won medals, came home, and, like thousands of fellow vets, became disenchanted with the war and protested it. What, exactly, is puzzling about that? And where's the proof the "Old Media" would have subjected the story to widespread attention, given the fact that during 2000 the "Old Media" completely ignored the "complexities and puzzles" about Bush's Texas Air National Guard service?

Rather than offering any fresh insight into the distasteful Swift Boat chapter, Halperin and Harris simply regurgitate the preferred corporate media storyline. For instance, the two write, "The Swift Boaters pointed out authentic flaws and contradictions in some of Kerry's assertions about his war service," and then promptly fail to specify a single assertion that the partisan Swifties proved to be flawed.

The irony is thick but nonetheless completely lost on Halperin and Harris; their slanted, lazy restating of the Swift Boat story is precisely the kind of reporting that helped doom the Kerry campaign.

Rove is a policy "ideas man"

While The Way to Win disses Dems, it is positively glowing toward Republicans. For instance, we're assured Rove's work is "scholarly and meticulous" and that Rove got into politics because "he was interested in ideas" and wanted to "advance the policies." Yet what about the fact that during the 2000 campaign Rove completely camouflaged Bush's true governing intentions -- hiding the ideas and policies Bush would later implement -- by running the candidate as a moderate? Halperin and Harris, constantly bumping into their own contradictions, think the maneuver was a stroke of genius. So much for the power of ideas.

That's not to say people shouldn't write laudatory books about Rove's political accomplishments. Be my guest. But high-priced corporate journalists shouldn't purposefully rewrite history in order to clear away any of the unpleasantries that have marked Rove's career. And I'm not even talking about his post-9-11 habit of portraying Democrats as coddling terrorists. I'm talking about the blatant strategic errors Rove has made, like during the 2000 campaign when he wasted Bush's time and money during the closing days by sending him to places like New Jersey and California where he lost to Gore by double digits. Like how Rove, bragging about how Bush was going to "win in a walk," allowed a badly outspent Gore to win most of the key toss-up states, including come-from-behind victories in Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine. For Halperin and Harris, too busy polishing Rove's resume, those blunders don't exist.

The two habitually misrepresent recent elections in order to slavishly adhere to their talking points that Bush and Co. have cracked the campaign code. Read this:

This means that no one (NO ONE!) is immune to this Trade Secret: The fight for every presidential nominee and every general election campaign dredges up past votes, quotes, actions, and inactions from everyone who runs for president, no matter what rough-and-tumble political scrutiny they previously have endured.

Really? A quick history lesson: Looking to raise money to pay off his investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bush sold two-thirds of his Harken Energy stock on June 22, 1990, for $4 a share and pocketed $848,560. In short order, Harken quickly announced that for the quarter ending June 30, 1990, it had lost $23 million, dwarfing the company's previous largest loss. Right after Bush sold his shares, Harken stock was trading for just $1. Critics wondered whether Bush, a member of Harken's three-person audit committee, sold his stock knowing the company was about to announce huge losses. Adding to his troubles, Bush then waited 34 weeks before filing forms with the SEC notifying it of his insider stock sales.

Think back again to Halperin and Harris's "Trade Secret" about how every detail from a candidates' past gets dredged up, because here's how many times during the 2000 general election race The New York Times raised questions about Bush's 1990 sweetheart deal with Harken Energy: 0. The Washington Post? 0. The Chicago Tribune? 0. ABC News? 0. NBC News? 0. CBS News? 0. CNN? 0.

You get the idea.

And here's how utterly bored the press was with the topic of Bush, with fleshing out his policies or filling in a portrait of the man: More than one year after the Texas governor announced his run for president and one week before Election Day, David Broder at The Washington Post casually mentioned to readers "there was little public knowledge of Bush's record and little understanding of his major proposals." [Emphasis added.] Broder did not suggest there was anything odd about that.

Broder and company certainly had no interest in the story of Bush's mysterious service in the Texas Air National Guard. Halperin and Harris insist that "for a variety of reasons" the press looked away from that story in 2000. But why? Halperin and Harris are mostly mum. Despite the fact the two worked for major news organizations during the 2000 campaign and could presumably offer up some insight as to what the "variety of reasons" were that the press gave Bush an unprecedented pass regarding the gaping holes in his personal biography, Halperin and Harris refuse to do so, since that would mean raising uncomfortable questions about their employers, ABC News and The Washington Post, which, you guessed it, ignored the story in 2000 and made major blunders while trying to cover it, belatedly, in 2004.

One vague theory Halperin and Harris do float in The Way to Win is that because the Guard story "had migrated from the Internet to the Old Media," that made it easier for the Bush campaign to knock it down. That retelling, of course, is patently false, and I'm guessing Halperin and Harris know it's false.

Rewriting history

The Bush National Guard story was born and bred in Old Media; on the front page of The Boston Globe, May 23, 2000, to be exact. After combing through 160 pages of military documents and interviewing Bush's former commanders (every quote in the story was on-the-record), reporter Walter Robinson detailed how Bush's flying career came to an abrupt and unexplained end in the spring of 1972 when Bush asked to be transferred from his Texas unit to an Alabama unit so he could work on a Senate campaign there. But Bush did not show up for drills in Alabama and by most indications never returned to serve with his Texas unit either. He simply walked away from his military obligation with nearly two years still remaining. The press corps remained nonplussed. During the 2000 campaign The New York Times published just two references to the Globe investigation into Bush's often no-show Guard service. And the paper was not alone. Just seven days after the Globe story ran, MSNBC's Chris Matthews sat down with candidate Bush for an entire hour and refused to raise the troubling National Guard questions documented in the Globe article. That's how committed the press was to ignoring the story.

Halperin and Harris make another half-hearted attempt to explain the deafening press silence on the matter by praising the Bush campaign for its "helpful" rapid and accurate press response to whatever inquiries about the Guard story did come up during Bush's run for the White House. Halperin and Harris emphasize a key "Trade Secret": "Have all your facts in a row for rapid response when a story breaks." They clearly suggest the Bush team did just that with regard to the bubbling Guard story.

Consider the less flattering reality, which the writing team dutifully ignores:

* In July 1999, Bush aides told The Houston Chronicle "such a transfer [to Alabama] was not unusual, and the Bush campaign says it was for the same flying job he held in Texas." That was patently false. Bush transferred to a unit that did not have the F-102 aircraft he was qualified to pilot, which meant, of course, Bush did not continue to fly in Alabama. The evidence suggests Bush never even showed up to do required drills with his Alabama unit.
* In Bush's 1999 autobiography, A Charge to Keep, he claimed that after completing Guard flight training in June 1970, "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years." [Emphasis added.] In fact, Bush stopped flying with his unit just 22 months after completing his training.
* In 1999, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes told reporters the GOP candidate missed his mandatory Guard physical because he was working on the Alabama campaign and had no access to the "special" doctors who performed the examinations. Wrong. Bush could have gotten an exam either at his base in Texas or at any of several Alabama Air National Guard installations in and around Montgomery.
* In 1999, Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett insisted Bush had reported to a Massachusetts Guard unit in order to fulfill his duty while attending Harvard Business School in 1974. Years later, Bartlett admitted he "misspoke" in the face of clear evidence that Bush made no effort whatsoever to serve out his Guard term while living in the Boston area.
* In 2000, Bartlett told The Boston Globe that Bush failed to take a required military physical because, "[a]s he was not flying, there was no reason for him to take a flight physical exam." That contradicted the Air Force Specialty Code, which required physicals be taken regardless of flight status.

Yet today, Halperin and Harris pretend the National Guard story never gained traction with reporters because the Bush camp was timely -- and accurate -- with its responses. It's purposefully dishonest analysis like that that makes The Way to Win such a dispiriting read. And if you haven't already, the book will make you wonder about the long-term health of American journalism.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey