The Bush Rule of Journalism

by Robert Parry, 1/17/05


"Don't take on the Bushes" is becoming an unwritten rule in American journalism. Reporters can make mistakes in covering other politicians and suffer little or no consequence, but a false step when doing a critical piece on the Bushes is a career killer.

The latest to learn this hard lesson are four producers at CBS, who demonstrated inadequate care in checking out memos purportedly written by George W. Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. For this sloppiness, CBS fired the four, including Mary Mapes who helped break last year's Abu Ghraib torture scandal.

A painful irony for the CBS producers was that the central points of the memos - that Bush had blown off a required flight physical and was getting favored treatment in the National Guard - were already known, and indeed, were confirmed by the commander's secretary in a follow-up interview with CBS. But even honest mistakes are firing offenses when the Bushes are involved.

By contrast, journalists understand that they get a free shot at many other politicians who don't have the protective infrastructure that surrounds the Bush family. Take for example the case of reporters for the New York Times and the Washington Post who misquoted Al Gore about his role in the Love Canal toxic waste clean-up.


The misquote in late 1999 prompted knee-slapping commentaries across the country calling Gore "delusional" because he supposedly had falsely claimed credit for the Love Canal clean-up by saying "I was the one that started it all." But Gore actually had said, "that was the one that started it all," referring to a similar toxic waste case in Toone, Tennessee.

Even after the error was pointed out by New Hampshire high school students who heard Gore's remark first hand, the two prestige newspapers dragged their heels on running corrections. While the newspapers dawdled, the story of Lyin' Al and Love Canal reverberated through the echo chamber of TV pundit shows, conservative talk radio and newspaper columns. Al Gore was a laughingstock whose sanity was in doubt.

The Post finally ran a "correction" a week after the misquote, although the newspaper continued to misrepresent the context of Gore's remark. The Post falsely claimed that Gore's use of the word "that" referred to his congressional hearing on toxic waste dumps, allowing the newspaper to pretend that Gore was still exaggerating his role.

Three days later, the Times ran its brief correction, which also failed to fully explain either the context of the original quote or how the error had completely distorted what Gore had actually said.

For their part, the two reporters - the Times' Katharine Seeyle and the Post's Ceci Connolly - insisted that their accounts were essentially accurate even though they clearly weren't. At least publicly, neither reporter was punished. Both continued to write prominent stories for their newspapers. Connolly even got a job moonlighting as a political commentator for Fox News.

Meanwhile, the real losers - besides Gore - were the American voters who got a distorted impression of a major presidential candidate.

The Love Canal misquote - and the refusal of the two newspapers to publish meaningful corrections - gave momentum to what became a dominant narrative of the campaign, that Gore was a dishonest braggart. The media commentators also bandied about another bogus quote attributed to Gore, that he had "invented the Internet." [For details, see's "Al Gore v. the Media."]

Exit polls in 2000 found that doubts about Gore's honesty were a major factor why many voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush.

Gore's media-created reputation as dishonest and slightly crazy continued to dog him, even after he left office. In 2002, when Gore spoke out against Bush's rush to war with Iraq, the television pundits and newspaper columnists again hooted him down, while reprising his reputation as untrustworthy and daffy. [See's "Politics of Preemption."]

Facing this unrelenting media hostility, Gore chose not to enter the presidential contest in 2004.

But Gore is certainly not alone as a public figure who has suffered from the Washington press corps' proclivity for bad journalism and no accountability.

Whitewater Case

The Whitewater "scandal," which haunted President Clinton during his eight years in office, started in March 1992 when New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote an imprecise account that combined a prosecutorial tone with a misleading storyline.

Gerth's chronology was so confusing that it led Times' editors to give the story a faulty headline, "Clintons Joined S&L Operator in an Ozark Real Estate Venture," which missed the crucial point that Clinton partner Jim McDougal didn't own a savings and loan when the Clintons joined him in the Whitewater land deal. McDougal bought a controlling interest in Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan five years later.

In the 1996 book, Fools for Scandal, journalist Gene Lyons also noted how Gerth juxtaposed unrelated facts to give the impression that Beverly Bassett Schaffer got her job as Arkansas Securities Commissioner in the mid-1980s, presumably so she could give preferential treatment to McDougal.

"After federal regulators found that Mr. McDougal's savings institution, Madison Guaranty, was insolvent, meaning it faced possible closure by the state, Mr. Clinton appointed a new state securities commissioner," Bassett Schaffer, Gerth wrote.

But Lyons found no correlation between Bassett Schaffer's appointment in January 1985 and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board report about Madison in January 1984, a year earlier. Lyons quoted Walter Faulk, who was then director of supervision for the FHLBB in Dallas, denying that Bassett Schaffer or Clinton attempted to subvert normal procedures for coping with a troubled S&L.

Bassett Schaffer also said Gerth ignored a lengthy explanation of her actions that she had supplied. Nevertheless, Gerth's story became the guiding light for years of investigations by the news media, Congress and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

Even years later, after Starr's investigation failed to make a case against Clinton over Whitewater, the Times refused to address the inadequacies of its original reporting on this central "scandal" of the Clinton administration.

In fairness to Gerth, however, it's often true that a groundbreaking story on a complex issue rarely gets every detail or nuance right. Normally, some leeway is given to reporters who pave the way for others to follow.

Bush Rules

But that's never the case when the Bushes are involved. When a story puts the Bushes in a negative light, no leeway is granted. A different set of rules apply.

Unlike other political figures, the Bushes must be given the benefit of the doubt, even if an innocent explanation stretches credulity. Also, any ambiguity in the reporting - such as sources who are less than pristine or evidence that isn't 100 percent clear - must be interpreted in the Bushes' favor.

Journalists or other investigators who violate these Bush rules must expect that they are putting their reputations and livelihoods in jeopardy.

Defiant journalists can expect the conservative news media and right-wing interest groups to place critical Bush stories under a microscope. Backgrounds of the witnesses and even the journalists will be investigated, with any blemishes that are found quickly becoming "the story" in both conservative and mainstream news outlets.

Even Republican investigators outside of journalism can expect this treatment. Look, for instance, at the harsh attacks on Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh - a lifelong Republican - when his probe threatened the long-running cover-up that had protected George H.W. Bush's false claims that he was "not in the loop" on the arms-for-hostage scandal. [For details, see Walsh's Firewall or Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Part of the reason for this protective phenomenon surrounding the Bushes is that the family straddles two powerful political groupings: the East Coast Establishment and the Texas oil money. George H.W. Bush engineered this remarkable alliance of interests in the years after World War II by putting down roots in Texas, after being raised by a family with a pedigree in the world of Wall Street investment banking.

Plus, the Bushes - particularly George W. Bush - can count on help from the attack dogs in the conservative news media, ranging from Fox News and the Washington Times, to Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers.

Burned Books

When this powerful defense mechanism strikes, it can leave some writers who have crossed the Bushes so devastated that they eventually turn to suicide.

In 1999, biographer J.R. Hatfield wrote Fortunate Son, an account of George W. Bush's early life. Though most of the biography was fairly routine, Hatfield ran into trouble when he cited three sources alleging that the elder George Bush intervened to pull his son out of legal hot water over a drug arrest in 1972.

According to Hatfield's account, George Bush senior arranged to have his son's legal trouble fixed by a friendly judge in exchange for getting George Bush junior to perform some community service. This claim brought heated denials from both father and son, although George W. Bush always ducked direct questions about whether he had used cocaine or other illegal drugs.

But the media sleuths didn't demand a straight answer from Bush about illegal drugs or other possible arrests involving substance abuse - we learned later that Bush was concealing a drunk-driving charge in Maine. Instead, journalists turned their investigative attention to Hatfield. The Dallas Morning News soon discovered that the writer had served time in prison for trying to kill two of his bosses at a Dallas real estate firm.

Following that disclosure, Hatfield's publisher, St. Martin's Press, recalled copies of Fortunate Son from the bookstores and threw them into the furnace. "They're heat, furnace fodder," declared Sally Richardson, president of St. Martin's trade division. [NYT, Oct. 23, 1999]

The national press corps hailed the decision to recall the book, while castigating Hatfield and St. Martin's for publishing it in the first place. Conservatives in the news media were gleeful, hoping the controversy would end the pesky questions about Bush's cocaine use.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon's right-wing Washington Times joked that Hatfield "surely thought he would set the world on fire. He just didn't figure that it was his book that would be the kindling. One hopes the finality of the furnace puts an end to the story." [Washington Times, Oct. 28, 1999]

What was lacking in the intensive press coverage, however, was any concern about the disturbing image of a book being denounced by a well-connected political family and then being burned. Through more than two centuries of rough-and-tumble American politics, it is hard to recall any precedent for this sort of book burning.

In the years that followed, the discredited Hatfield had trouble finding work and his life spiraled downward. In July 2001, Hatfield, then 43, was found dead in a hotel room in Springdale, Ark., having taken an overdose of prescription pills.

Hatfield left behind a suicide note listing alcohol, financial problems and the controversy over Fortunate Son as his reasons for killing himself.

Guard Questions

"The finality of the furnace" - as the Washington Times called it - also kept the U.S. news media from reexamining Hatfield's allegations even as new evidence emerged revealing that something had occurred in the early 1970s that had deeply alarmed George H.W. Bush.

According to Bush family friends, the elder George Bush did intervene in 1972 to protect the younger George Bush from the consequences of some unidentified reckless behavior.

In early September 2004, some fresh details came out in an interview that had with the widow of Jimmy Allison, a newspaper owner and campaign consultant from Midland, Texas, who had served as "the Bush's family's political guru." Allison's widow, Linda, said the senior George Bush was desperate to get his son out of Texas and onto an Alabama Senate campaign that Jimmy Allison was managing.

"The impression I had was that Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston and under Jimmy's wing," Linda Allison said. "I think they wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on him." ['s "George W. Bush's Missing Year," Sept. 2, 2004]

Though Linda Allison's disclosure dovetailed with the general account that Hatfield had reported in 1999 - that the senior George Bush was pulling strings to get his wayward son out of trouble - the searing treatment of Hatfield and then the bitter controversy over the CBS memos in mid-September 2004 kept the major news media from seriously reexamining Bush's dubious explanations of his youthful indiscretions.

Contra Cocaine

Another reporter who fell victim to the Bush rules of journalism was the San Jose Mercury News' Gary Webb.

In 1996, Webb wrote a three-part series that revived a decade-old controversy about the Reagan-Bush administration's protection of Nicaraguan contra groups that had turned to the cocaine trade to finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. Though Webb's series didn't specifically target one of the Bushes, it did reopen a controversy from the mid-1980s that threatened the image of George H.W. Bush.

Not only did some contra supporters claim that Bush's vice presidential office presided over contra-support operations that had veered into drug trafficking, but Bush then served as the top government official responsible for drug interdiction. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' - or Parry's latest book, Secrecy & Privilege.]

Rev. Moon's Washington Times again stepped to the fore, opening the assault on Webb's series. The right-wing newspaper was soon followed by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

In scathing front-page articles, the newspapers largely accepted the then-dominant conventional wisdom that the contra-cocaine allegations were a bogus "conspiracy theory." The big papers pounded Webb and his series so hard that Mercury News editors backed away from the stories and forced Webb to resign.

But Webb's series did lead to internal investigations by inspectors general at the CIA and the Justice Department. In 1998, facts published by those investigations showed that more than 50 contras and contra entities were implicated in the drug trade and that the Reagan-Bush administration had obstructed criminal investigations of these contra-drug smuggling operations.

If pieced together with other parts of the historical record, the IG probes could have devastated George H.W. Bush's reputation, which was then underpinning the presidential aspirations of George W. Bush. Instead, the major newspapers avoided any detailed examination of the CIA's drug admissions and let the contra-cocaine story die.

For Webb, however, his career remained in ruins. According to family and friends, he grew despondent; his marriage broke up; eventually, he lost a job he had with the California state government; and in December 2004, at the age of 49, he killed himself with his father's handgun. [See's "America's Debt to Journalist Gary Webb."]

Lessons Learned

So, by now, the Bush-journalism rules are well understood by U.S. journalists, even if the rules are never formally enunciated.

The consequences of crossing the Bushes - even if you turn out to be right - can be devastating. Understandably, journalists pull their punches when the Bush family is involved.

Another example of how this dynamic has worked to George W. Bush's political advantage can be found in the aftermath of the botched CBS memo story in September 2004. While the news media was ripping into Dan Rather and CBS, Bush slipped away almost unscathed despite additional evidence that indeed he had shirked his National Guard duty.

While doubting the authenticity of the CBS memos, Marian Carr Knox, a former Texas Air National Guard secretary, told interviewers that the information in the purported memos was "correct." Knox said her late boss, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, indeed was "upset" that Bush had refused to obey his order to take a flight physical and that Bush's refusal to follow the rules had caused dissension among other National Guard pilots.

But instead of focusing on the actions of a President of the United States, the glare of attention remained on CBS and its failure to follow proper journalistic procedures. George W. Bush came out the victim, again.

'Inadequate Time'

The dust-up left many American voters with the impression that Bush was innocent of the charges that he had skipped out on his National Guard duty.

That impression held even when an important new piece of the puzzle was released by the U.S. government about a week after the CBS memo flap - Bush's hand-written resignation letter from the Texas Air National Guard.

After moving to Boston to attend Harvard Business School, Bush was supposed to finish up his National Guard service in Massachusetts. Instead, however, in November 1974, Bush scribbled a note saying he wanted out of the Guard.

Bush explained that he had "inadequate time to fullfill (sic) possible future commitments." His request was granted. He was given an honorable discharge. [See Reuters, Sept. 29, 2004]

If given half the attention that CBS' missteps were getting at the time, the cavalier attitude of Bush's resignation letter might have done severe damage to Bush, especially since he was forcing today's National Guardsmen to pull long and dangerous duty in Iraq. After all, John Kerry was clobbered by questions raised about the extent of his heroism in Vietnam combat.

If dealing with a non-Bush, the U.S. news media also might have made a story out of the discrepancy between the privileged treatment that Lt. Bush got in the 1970s and the sacrifice expected of today's Guardsmen.

For example, Charles and Billi Crockett were a married couple serving in a National Guard unit from Sheldon, Iowa, the 2168th transportation company. When their Guard unit was sent to Iraq, the Crocketts were forced to leave behind their two small daughters, possibly for more than a year. The girls were placed with relatives. [See PBS' "Now With Bill Moyers" transcript, Sept. 17, 2004. For more on Bush's National Guard story, see's "Bush the Infallible."]

But what's clear now - as the U.S. news media has learned to tip-toe around Bush family scandals - is the applicability of that the old adage about the rich: "The Bushes aren't like the rest of us."


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek.

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