Food for Thought

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Because he says it so much better than I ever could… here is an editorial by Don Wycliff of the Chicago Tribune.

Bush reaping the benefits of journalistic professionalism
Covering an inarticulate president

Published April 29, 2004

Why is the press protecting George W. Bush?

You heard me right, Russ. And Larry. And Byron. And all the rest of you folks who pen those jeering notes to me every day about anti-Bush bias in the Tribune’s news reports.

Why is the Democrat-loving, Republican-hating, pond scum-swilling, lower-than-the-rug-on-the-floor, biased, liberal [curl upper lip when pronouncing] press protecting George W. Bush?

You don’t believe it’s happening? Well, then, tell me about the furor over W’s speech last week to a joint meeting in Washington of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America.

You didn’t hear about it?

That’s the proof.

If the press were not protecting Bush, you’d have read in your Chicago Tribune–or Washington Post or New York Times or Wall Street Journal or USA Today–that he delivered one of the most confusing, inarticulate public addresses since … well, some people would say since his press conference a week earlier.

As it was, those hopelessly biased reporters who cover Bush overlooked the mangled syntax, penetrated the rhetorical fog and extracted some usable lines from the dross and manufactured stories that had the president sounding, if not quite statesmanlike, then at least intelligible.

The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller led with Bush’s response to a poll that showed the majority of Americans expect another terrorist attack in the U.S. before the November election. “Well, I understand why they think they’re going to get hit again,” Bush was quoted as saying. “This is a hard country to defend.”

The Washington Post focused on his remarks about Iran’s effort to acquire nukes. “The Iranians need to feel the pressure from the world that any nuclear weapons program will be uniformly condemned–it’s essential that they hear that message,” the president was quoted.

Neither The Wall Street Journal nor the Tribune carried a story about the speech per se, although the Tribune carried an Associated Press story that wove one quote from the speech into a story on the unexpectedly high costs of the Iraqi excursion. “The Iraqi people are looking at Americans and saying, `Are we going to cut and run again?'” the quote ran. “And we’re not going to cut and run if I’m in the Oval Office.”

I can’t prove it, but I would bet that most of the editors and publishers went away from the speech wondering why Bush, who long ago proved that he is no extemporaneous speaker, hadn’t ordered up an address for the occasion from his stable of White House speechwriters. I heard more than one of those in attendance say the same thing: “He wasted an opportunity.”

But you didn’t read about any of that, because the reporters, trained to seek meaning and the meaningful in any utterance by the president, focused on what could be understood.

Bush has benefited from this journalistic professionalism throughout his presidency. In a column almost two years ago, in July 2002, I quoted the complaint of a reader who claimed we had misquoted the president’s statement in a press conference denying any “`malfeasance’ in his business dealings prior to becoming president.”

“The word that he actually used … sounded to me something like `misfeance’–something which is not a word in any dictionary I’ve ever seen,” the reader, Sean Barnawell of Chicago, wrote. “I feel the Tribune should not be in the business of `cleansing’ what the president says in order to make him sound more articulate than he is.”

I replied thus: “Ideally, we would have a president so articulate that we would never be in doubt as to what he said. In reality, we have one who regularly mispronounces. … This confronts us with the question whether our purpose is to transmit to readers what the president means when he speaks out or to simply relate what he says. I have always felt that transmitting meaning is paramount. ..”

And so “nuculer” becomes “nuclear” in the newspaper. And “misfeance,” unknown to any dictionary, becomes “malfeasance,” because an experienced White House reporter has learned to translate Bushspeak.

Bush benefits from the reporters’ professionalism. And his cheering section jeers from the sidelines about journalistic “bias.”

The investigation continues

In response to queries from outside the Tribune and within, let me assure you that the review of Uli Schmetzer’s past work is going forward. My colleague Margaret Holt and I continue to read stories, marking those that seem to merit additional attention and turning them over to a researcher in the paper’s editorial library for deeper investigation. Those that merit even deeper attention after that will get it. But it would be imprudent of me at this stage to suggest when the investigation will be finished.


Don Wycliff is the Tribune’s public editor. He listens to readers’ concerns and questions about the paper’s coverage and writes weekly about current issues in journalism. His e-mail address is The views expressed are his own.


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