Bush, Puppet Master of the Press?

The White House received some serious hand-rubbing good political news in the last week of November: passing a new Medicare bill, watching economic growth numbers revised upward to a startling 8.2 percent, and on Thanksgiving, the President secretly jetting into Baghdad to meet with wildly cheering troops.

With all this positive news, you just knew it wouldn't take long for liberals in the media to complain about pro-Bush media bias.

On "Fox News Sunday," Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly sulked because the White House won't allow camera access to flag-draped coffins coming off planes at Dover Air Force Base, and complained about how the press was "never" allowed into Bush campaign fundraisers in 2000. Her conclusion: "George Bush, from the time he was a candidate in 2000, right on through Thanksgiving Day, has absolutely controlled, maybe even manipulated the press."

Pardon me, but it's hard to stop laughing.

This claim demands sarcasm. I'm sure reporters remember how they were all manipulated by Bush during the 2000 campaign cycle to "report" about how maybe, just maybe he snorted cocaine at some time in his party-hearty past. I'm sure they'll never forget how Bush insisted they tell the voters what a lame-brained bumpkin they thought he was. I'm positive journalists can recall absolutely being forced to hyperventilate on the airwaves about tabloid stories claiming "Bush knew" about September 11, but failed to stop it, right? Or how Time was conned by the White House into putting "Mission NOT Accomplished" on its cover? Even today, reporters are being fooled into noting each lost soldier with the trope that "that's now [insert number here] American deaths since President Bush declared major combat operations over."

That's how Bush is "controlling" the press.

But there's something quite annoying at the center of Connolly's complaint: that arrogant notion that journalists must be granted access to positively everything, or the world is shrouded in dangerous secrecy - unless it involves a Clinton scandal, in which case it's time for America to "move on."

What liberal reporters are griping about is their fervent partisan desire not for policy substance, but for the damaging visual: They want to present a split screen of Bush speaking over video of military coffins being unloaded off airplanes - which is exactly what CNN did to the first President Bush.

The media dread of positive Bush television images is sending some into hysterics. Connolly actually insisted on Fox that the President's flight to Baghdad was not a "troop movement," there should be less fuss about keeping the logistical details secret. In G.I. Ceci's world, keeping the Commander-in-Chief's movements quiet in a war zone is less important than troop movements. Is there any doubt that he is a highly desirable target for terrorists and Baathist remnants? She should not be surprised (but probably would be surprised) to hear the public's response: Oh, shut up. Criticize the policy if you want, or criticize the politician, but don't try to tell us that media access is more important than the President's security.

Not all journalists lacked sense on the Sunday shows. On CNN's "Reliable Sources," host Howard Kurtz goaded Post reporter Mike Allen and Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman about the Baghdad trip, but they were decidedly less outraged than Kurtz was, as he asked: "Was the press used here for an elaborate two-hour, turkey-filled presidential photo-op?" Klaidman reminded Kurtz that the press is always seen as "used" in one way or another, and media behavior would have been as much or more of an issue had the press blown the secret of the President's trip.

For all the claims of Bush as puppet master of the press, by Friday morning, all three network morning shows were raining skepticism on the trip, to no one's surprise. ABC's Charlie Gibson wondered why "things are so unstable" that the President had to "sneak in, in darkness." CBS's Harry Smith insisted the President erred in his speech to soldiers, that he should not be connecting the Iraq war to the fight against terrorists. NBC's Matt Lauer wondered if the Baghdad trip was arranged to blunt criticism because "he did not attend any of the funerals of the fallen soldiers in Iraq."

This should have stopped G.I. Ceci from making silly claims of the press being "absolutely controlled" by Bush two days later. But that presupposes that she actually watched the TV news, which apparently is too much to expect.