The Cocaine Question
This weekend, Adam Clymer of the New York Times reported that George W. Bush, responding in Ohio to a question about long-ago cocaine abuse, had issued "another awkward answer" of the sort that had "made the issue linger." A Times "Media Watch" story noted that Bush's previous answers had obviously failed to "end the questioning." What both articles neglected to mention was who had asked the question in Ohio: Adam Clymer.
This practice of self-concealment, which reporters pass off as "objectivity," is one of the great frauds of American journalism. While many "opinion" writers argue openly that the cocaine question is legitimate--pointing out, for example, that Bush has jailed drug offenders and that Republicans have investigated President Clinton's sex life--most "news" reporters pretend that the question is immaculately conceived and needs no justification. Reluctant to become "part of the story," news reporters press the question while obscuring their complicity in keeping it alive. Instead, they tell readers that the question is "dogging" Bush. Nonsense. Questions don't dog politicians. Reporters dog politicians. And while they're dogging Bush, they ought to account for dodging a few questions of their own.
1. Who's askingthe cocaine question? Journalists pretend that the question drives itself. It "hounds," "haunts," and "stalks" Bush. It "percolates," "persists," and "swirls around" him. It is "turbulence," a "storm," a "blizzard." John Stacks, a Time editor who has led the drug frenzy, said the question has "a kind of organic life." "These things take on a life of their own," agreed Dan Balz of the Washington Post. "It followed [Bush] from Texas to Ohio today, the question that will not go away," NBC's Brian Williams reported Thursday night. "The questions would not go away," agreed NBC correspondent David Bloom. And who, exactly, had followed Bush and asked him the question that day? David Bloom.
2. Who's judgingBush's answers? Not the media. They don't evaluate the merits of a candidate's remarks. They just assess whether the remarks will succeed or fail politically. Rather than treat the cocaine inquiry as a dialogue in which the questions as well as the answers are subject to rational scrutiny, most reporters depict it as a force of nature. Bush's replies have failed to "douse the questions," "dampen the controversy," or "turn down the heat." On the contrary, they have "stoked a brush fire," "fed the story," and given it "oxygen," with "the automatic and absolutely inevitable effect of keeping it going." Journalists are just part of this "automatic" cycle. They're not hurting Bush. He's hurting himself.
3. Why is thepress pursuing him? Reporters who acknowledge their role in the assault seldom offer a reason. They say they're just doing what comes naturally, and Bush is to blame for provoking them. His answers "opened the door," "courted scrutiny," and "encouraged" more questions. "His not answering it is just like waving red meat in front of carnivores," argued Susan Feeney of the frenzy-leading Dallas Morning News. "It's inevitable that reporters will push until there's an answer." On Good Morning America, ABC's Charles Gibson told George Stephanopoulos, "You know the press. [Bush's answers] won't push the questions away, and he'll get them again and again." Boys on the bus will be boys on the bus.
4. What's wrongwith his answers? Journalists who admit to judging Bush's answers generally accuse him of "shifting," "backpedaling," "altering," and "reversing." And what exactly did he reverse? He "reversed his stance of not going beyond acknowledging youthful 'mistakes,' " complained the Times' Maureen Dowd. "First it was seven years, then it was 15 years, then it was 25 years." The complaint is not that Bush reversed his story--there is no contradiction in being drug-free for seven, 15, and 25 years--but that he reversed his spin, obliging his advisers to "defend the change of strategy." Why concede a politician's substantive consistency, when you can attack his tactical vacillation?
5. Did heuse cocaine? Careful journalists never infer such impropriety. Instead, they posit the appearance of impropriety, warning that Bush's answers "create an appearance at least that he has something to hide" and "leave the implication" that he used hard drugs. His assertion of "marital fidelity," according to the Times, "only adds to the impression that he is hiding something about other aspects of his life." By confining their inferences to such "impressions," the media sidestep the unpleasant duty of ascertaining the truth.
6. Is helying? Again, scrupulous reporters eschew this question, focusing instead on public perception. Dowd, Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, and Chris Black of CNN concluded that Bush "looks like" and "sounds like" he's dissembling. The Post suggested that Bush may have "created the impression with voters that he is being cute or coy rather than forthcoming." Other pundits, too scrupulous to characterize the public's perceptions of Bush, quoted their colleagues' perceptions of the public's perceptions. ("Several people said ... that George Bush came off as Clintonesque," ventured CBS's Bob Schieffer.) Since the media decline to characterize the truth, perception is all that matters. "Inconsistencies and ambiguities, real or imagined, are to journalists as catnip to the cat," shrugged the New York Daily News, justifying the drug story's persistence.
7. Is thecontroversy important? Pundits tend to ignore this question, focusing instead on how Bush is "handling the crisis." "What disturbed me this past week more was not even the fundamental issue, but it was the handling of it," said ABC's Cokie Roberts. Gigot agreed: "What should especially disturb Republicans is Mr. Bush's political judgment. If there's bad news to get out, Politics 101 says release it as early as possible." Time called the controversy "the first big public test of Bush's instincts and of his staff, and the results were pretty wobbly." Other publications, too timid to endorse even this superficial assessment, reported that "analysts" and "top Republicans" were questioning Bush's "erratic handling of the drug question" and warning that his "candidacy had been bruised by his handling of the issue."
8. What exactlyis the question? The media imply that Bush keeps refusing to say whether he has used cocaine. But that's not how the question has generally been posed during this two-week frenzy. The first version, crafted by CNN's Rowland Evans, was: "Sir, is it not in your interest to tell us flatly if these rumors are or are not true? ... Everybody says--every politician--[that] it's to your disadvantage not to answer it." The second version, posed by a Reuters correspondent, was whether Bush thought rumors of his cocaine use were "being planted." A third version, posed by USA Today, was: "How can you make questions about whether you used illegal drugs in your youth go away? Won't they dog your campaign until you answer?" As Bush's inquisitors focus less on the truth and more on politics, the inquisition becomes self-justifying.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.