A look at the Times's reporting of the secret George W. Bush tapes
COMMENTARY | March 14, 2005
Writer Russ Baker has problems with a The New York Times story, citing a lack of transparency and a need for a high ‘vigilance level.’
By Russ Baker
Q. Faced with difficulties of maintaining White House access in a time of unsurpassed administration spin and hostility to the media, did New York Times editors lower their guard in the way they handled a front-page article about suspect 'secret tapes' of conversations between George W. Bush and “a friend?”
Q. If the tapes were really worthy of front-page treatment, why didn't the paper do better analysis and work up a hard lede instead of presenting the 'revelations' in a kind of soft-focus way that revealed little?
Perhaps you saw the New York Times' peculiar front-page exclusive a few weeks back (February 20th), based on purportedly unauthorized, secret late-90s recordings of George W. Bush, letting it all hang out in conversations with an "old friend"? The tapes were made just before and during the period that Bush became a presidential candidate.
Based on the Sunday front-page placement, readers had the right to expect revelations and new insights. Instead, what they got was material that sounded disturbingly like what Bush and his own advisers would release if they were trying to improve his image. Indeed, the Times reporter, in what appeared unintended irony, noted how the private Bush sounds remarkably like the public Bush.
For its part, in criticizing the release of the tapes, the White House actually validated them, thereby drawing more, not less, attention to the "revelations" – which among other things appear to deliberately muddy the waters on Bush's past drug use, to be a rehearsal of talking points for the Christian Right and to reposition W. as an engaged, forceful decisionmaker not relying heavily on advisors.
Furthermore, the reporter appears to have buried what seemed most significant about the tapes. In them, Bush appeared to be somewhat wary of the Christian Right – and seemed to be calculatedly discussing plans to talk to them “in code” – the kind of revelations that if applied to, say, Bill Clinton and his base, would most assuredly have generated big news.
Bush also seemed to suggest that politicians should lie or fudge past drug use. But this also was soft-pedaled.
A problem also was the failure to spell out for readers why the reporter agreed to listen to some tapes but not others, which were described as containing “personal” material. That distinction seems highly arbitrary. Is it too skeptical to wonder if the ones withheld would have shown Bush in a less flattering light? Did the reporter ask to hear them? And for transparency, shouldn’t the story have stated whether he did or didn’t? That might have added a good deal to readers’ impressions and understanding.
Now that Karl Rove, a master disinformation expert of longstanding, has been elevated to the position of Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, journalists have every reason to raise vigilance levels at least to Code Orange. And to ask questions not just about the content of official and non-official messages alike, but about the origins and intent of the messages themselves.
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Russ Baker is a longtime, award-winning investigative reporter and essayist. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Columbia Journalism Review, and the New York Times.