Has George Bush generated less negative commentary in the US media than Bill Clinton did during a comparative period in his presidency?
This was among the questions tackled at a discussion at the American University on Tuesday evening, entitled President Bush and the Media, that was participated in by several media persons.
Opinion was divided, but overall it appeared that the Republican administration is getting away with many policy decisions that need to be more closely and objectively examined. He is doing so, it was argued, because he has a far more Washington-wise, and a more disciplined, team of advisers around him, led by Vice-President Richard Cheney, than Clinton had. The advisers are depending less on the media for Bush's projection and doing more of their own manipulation of public perceptions.
One participant, the editor of an online newspaper, said there was an "echo chamber on the right" that dominated most of the talk channels, and much of what President Bush and his team said was being taken at face value. The editor recalled that when he had started as a journalist, his first boss had told him: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." This wasn't happening where the Bush administration was concerned.
Others taking part in the discussion suggested that the Bush team had been successful in projecting the president, despite his obvious limitations, as a thoughtful leader by making him seem as if he had agonized long and hard over moral and ethical issues while making his decision on subjects such as stem-cell research. Demonstrators displaying placards saying, "The human embryo is not a lab rat", were carefully displayed outside the White House to synchronize with President Bush's compromise decision to authorize limited federal funding for stem-cell research. Similarly, the president seems to be succeeding in what a writer on economics describes as attempts at plain double-speak, if not downright dishonesty, in the matter of tax cuts (carried out in isolation without an economic plan), budget deficits, energy and the environment.
At what point, one journalist asked, should the media question whether the presumption that what the administration is saying is right rather than that it is wrong. This is particularly so in the field of foreign affairs where the American media, because also of its own proclivities, faithfully laps up whatever is dished out by the administration in relation to the Israel-Palestine struggle and questions like China and its weapons programme. In the year or so that this correspondent has been in Washington, he has yet to see one writer or commentator in the mainstream media referring to the hypocrisy inherent in the United States proclaiming a one-China policy and yet arming Taiwan as its stooge in East Asia just as it is bolstering Israel as its policeman in the Middle East.
Over the past few days, even some of the most respected constituents of the media have been buying one version after another of what Washington has to say to China on missiles and sounding as confused as the administration and senior officials leaking conflicting statements. Is the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice indicating that the US is prepared to do a nuclear deal with China in return for Beijing's support of the national defence programme or is she not? No newspaper has seriously bothered to investigate this point.
The remarkable thing about media coverage of the Republican administration is that President Bush has been able to garner a favourable poll rating in the few months that he has been in office despite the fact that he lost last November's election where the popular vote was concerned. And all that Al Gore can do is gnash his teeth in private and in public sport a fetching beard and plan how he can stage a political comeback.
This article was publihsed in Pakistan newspaper Dawn.