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Bush flip-flop on immigration
Media Matters
May 19, 2006

Nearly two years ago, in the very first edition of this weekly newsletter, we addressed the media double-standard toward the "flip-flops" of Sen. John Kerry [D-MA] and President Bush. Because news reports tend to fit into pre-existing storylines, Kerry's shifts in position -- real and imagined -- were highlighted, while Bush's were ignored, lest they undermine the Bush-as-resolute-leader storyline. As we explained at the time, there is nothing new about this phenomenon:

In March 2000, Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp wrote that the Post "seems to have assigned [roles] to the actors in this unfolding political drama. ... Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a 'maverick'; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass."

This typecasting wasn't unique to the Post. As Paul Waldman* (co-author, with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of The Press Effect, which illustrates the media's tendency to shoehorn news reports into preexisting story lines) wrote in 2003, "Reporters decided before the 2000 campaign began that Gore was dishonest, and while he occasionally gave them support for this impression, he was also skewered for lies he never told."

Likewise, this year, Senator John Kerry is being skewered for flips he never flopped. As Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) recently noted, "The Bush campaign has been remarkably successful at getting the press to buy the notion that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. ... But reporters have been much less quick to look at various Bush reversals of policy through the same lens."

Even two years later, when everyone must know how this works by now, it continues. News organizations just can't break the habit; they just can't bring themselves to report that Bush is a serial flip-flopper.

Take The Washington Post editorial board, for example. On March 11, 2004, the Post ran an editorial about Kerry titled "Flip-Flop, Hedge and Straddle," so we know the paper isn't philosophically opposed to branding politicians flip-floppers. Yet this week, after Bush gave a televised prime-time address on immigration in which he seemed to strongly differ with a bill passed by the House of Representatives that he had previously endorsed, the Post downplayed his abrupt change.

When the House passed its legislation in December 2005, Bush said, "I applaud the House for passing a strong immigration reform bill. America is a nation built on the rule of law, and this bill will help us protect our borders and crack down on illegal entry into the United States. Securing our borders is essential to securing the homeland. I urge the Senate to take action on immigration reform so that I can sign a good bill into law."

That sounds like a pretty clear endorsement of the House bill, making his current opposition to its key provisions a pretty clear flip-flop. Also, in a December 16, 2005, statement on the House floor, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the House bill's sponsor, noted the administration's support for an amendment to the House bill that would strengthen one of the bill's -- in The Washington Post's word -- "draconian" provisions -- the section that would make criminals of illegal immigrants. As Media Matters for America documented, in arguing for an amendment to reduce the offense of illegal presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor, Sensenbrenner noted that the administration wanted to facilitate criminal prosecutions:

SENSENBRENNER: The administration subsequently requested the penalty for these crimes be lowered to 6 months. Making the first offense a felony, as the base bill would do, would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge and a jury trial.

Also because it is a felony, the defendant would be able to get a lawyer at public expense if the defendant could not afford the lawyer. These requirements would mean that the government would seldom if ever actually use the new penalties. By leaving these offenses as misdemeanors, more prosecutions are likely to be brought against those aliens whose cases merit criminal prosecution.

But that's not how the Post described Bush's position on the bill. Instead, the Post asserted that Bush had "responded weakly when the House passed its draconian measure." This is wrong: Bush did not respond "weakly" to the House bill at first. He endorsed it, and according to Sensenbrenner, had pushed for the provisions that the Post's editorial board would presumably consider most "draconian." Which means Bush has now flip-flopped. It's as clear as day, but the Post -- which once titled an editorial about Kerry, "Flip-Flop, Hedge and Straddle" -- hid from readers the fact that Bush did a 180 on the issue.

At least the Post didn't praise Bush's "consistency" while doing so. That's what "liberal" pundit Joe Klein did during an appearance on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight. Discussing Bush's views on immigration a day after his prime-time address, Klein said:

KLEIN: Look, this is a deeply held position with the president. I would watch him during the 2000 campaign night after night go into country club, conservative Republican audiences and be asked hostile questions about immigration and take essentially the same position he took last night. I -- I think that it's really important for journalists to acknowledge it when a politician goes up against his base as he's going up against the conservative base of the Republican Party on a matter of conscience.

That's Time magazine's purportedly liberal columnist praising a conservative president who has just completed a nationally televised flip-flop for his consistency, for staying true to his "deeply held position." Is it any wonder that progressives lose political and policy battles when they have people like Joe Klein speaking for them? Is it any wonder that they lose when they don't confront these storylines head-on? The Daily Howler editor Bob Somerby correctly noted that the problem isn't limited to media coverage of Bush; conservatives overall are portrayed as resolute and honest while progressives are "fake":

This tendency will badly damage Dems in Campaign 2008, as the press corps rolls out its familiar script: Dem contender are [sic] fake, inauthentic. Republicans are straight-talking straight-shooters. This script has been killing Dems for the past fifteen years -- and party leaders simply refuses [sic] to address it. To all appearances, so do a set of liberal bloggers who are tied to the Dem Party structure.

Result? Get ready to go down once again as the script is applied to [Sen. John] McCain [R-AZ]. For the latest examples, keep reading.

The press corps has worked off this script for years. And just as [Daou Report founder and editor Peter] Daou says, Democrat leaders and strategists simply refuse to address this problem. Put more simply, they refuse to discuss the way our world works.

As Somerby noted, Bush isn't alone among conservatives in getting a pass from the media on his flip-flops. In December 2005, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff dismissed the potential use of U.S. National Guard troops for border security as "a horribly over-expensive and very difficult way to manage this problem." Now that Bush has decided to do exactly that, Chertoff advocates his plan -- and, as Media Matters detailed, the media ignored the inconsistency. Chertoff's previous comments are simply disappeared by news organizations.

And we haven't even gotten to John McCain yet. As Somerby and others have noted, the media storyline on McCain is in place: he's a "straight talker," no matter what lies he tells. He's "authentic" and "politically courageous" and a "maverick," no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. And that media portrayal of McCain isn't going to change, regardless of how many examples to the contrary progressives accumulate. It isn't going to change until progressives directly challenge journalists on the assumptions they make in their reporting.

And it isn't going to change until those journalists who understand the problem -- and there are many -- do something about it. When Joe Klein went on CNN and talked about Bush's "deeply held position" on immigration -- the one that directly contradicted the position he had taken in December 2005 -- none of the other journalists present corrected him. Host Lou Dobbs didn't. CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider didn't. New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Tom DeFrank didn't. Surely, at least one of them knew the position the president of the United States had taken on one of the nation's most hotly-debated issues just a few months before. But none of them said a word. When talk show pundits praise McCain's "straight talk," or mock former Vice President Al Gore's "exaggeration," how often do their fellow panelists challenge them rather than nodding along and chuckling appreciatively.

* Waldman is now a senior fellow at Media Matters; his most recent book is Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success (Wiley, April 2006).

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