Published September 30, 2002, in The National Review Online

Much Ado About Nothing

By John R. Lott Jr.

Calling for President Bush to apologize, Senator Tom Daschle angrily attacked Bush on the Senate floor last Wednesday for politicizing the war. Daschle said: "This is outrageous! Outrageous!" Claiming that Bush questioned Democrats patriotism, Daschle referred to Hawaii's Senator Inouye, who lost an arm in World War II. That same day Senator Robert Byrd called President Bush's conduct "despicable."

Pretty heated rhetoric. Yet, this entire ruckus was based on something that never occurred. Only through the filter of the press - with incomplete, out-of-context quotes - was it possible for Democrats' claims about Bush to be taken seriously.

Daschle's evidence that Bush was questioning Democrats' patriotism and politicizing the war came from a Washington Post quote of a speech that Bush had just made in New Jersey. The Post reported: "Bush has suggested that Democrats do not care about national security, saying on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Senate is 'not interested in the security of the American people.'"

But was Bush criticizing Democrats? Consider a more complete quote of the president's speech:

"the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people. I will not accept a Department of Homeland Security that does not allow this president and future presidents to better keep the American people secure. People are working hard to get it right in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats. See, this isn't a partisan issue."

The president criticized "the Senate" - specifically not Democrats - over the Homeland Security Bill. Bush never even mentioned that Democrats control the Senate. The criticism was really one of union-job regulations and union influence, something with which Democratic senators such as Zell Miller agree. Some of the press coverage corrected the misimpression that Bush was referring to the war with Iraq.

Accepting Senator Daschle's claim that he knew nothing about Bush's speech beyond the Washington Post article, he should have checked the quote before lashing out against the president on the Senate floor. But that was not the only problem. The original Washington Post article error was compounded many times over. On the broader issue of attacking Democrats virtually no one in the media got the story correct.

In the news coverage from Wednesday afternoon through Friday afternoon, a Nexis computer search of national television news broadcasts and major newspapers reveals that 178 separate stories carried the quote that raised Daschle's hackles. Whether it was ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, or a myriad of other news outlets (even some foreign publications) only the partial quote was reported. Yet, just three of these news stories mentioned the subsequent sentences (Brit Hume's Special Report on Fox News, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The Associated Press sent out a file with this additional text from Bush's speech, but with little effect.

It might be one thing to chalk up this blunder to sloppiness (possibly just reprinting Democrat press releases and not reading the speech themselves) or the Bush administration failing to inform the press what really happened. But neither explanation really applies here. One piece in the Los Angeles Times at least acknowledged that the Bush administration argued that the quote was taken "out of context," but it provided no details about what context was missing and left readers believing it was merely a Republican debating point.

At least some of the press did read Bush's speech even if they selectively relayed it to readers. Take the New York Times, the so-called newspaper of record. The Times reprinted Daschle's entire Senate floor remarks and excerpted some of Bush's speech, but somehow managed to cut off reprinting Bush's speech right before Bush praised hardworking "Republicans and Democrats."

The impact of these selective quotes is obvious. Ideally, Daschle's or Byrd's angry floor speeches would never have taken place. But if just the next few sentences in Bush's speech had been mentioned, no one would have taken them seriously. Amazingly the distortion was so effective that by the end of the week even some Republicans were breaking ranks with the president.

President Bush has tried hard to change the culture of Washington, to take out the political attacks and downplay the rhetoric. Clearly he can't win for trying. A speech where he praises "Republicans and Democrats" is selectively quoted and turned by into a political attack.

Laziness by the press can't explain why this debate took place. Possibly the press merely wants to create controversy or maybe some deeper bias is at work. In neither case is public discourse well served.

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Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

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