The Cocaine Question

The Cocaine Question

The Cocaine Question

How you look at things.
Aug. 25 1999 3:30 AM

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.

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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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

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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."

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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.

Bush's Republican rivals are happy to exploit and hide behind the media's pseudo-objectivity. While defending Bush's "privacy," Sen. John McCain stipulated that "it is the media and the American people who decide what questions should be asked." A spokesman for Gary Bauer agreed: "Gary feels the candidates don't determine what is the statute of limitations on questions of character and committing a felony. The American people and the press do." Dan Quayle called the drug story a "side show" but added that Bush's wounds were "self-inflicted. ... The general principle is that these questions, unfortunately, are going to be asked." Sen. Orrin Hatch concluded, "I don't think it's going to go away. ... The media is going to beat it to death until he finally has to just say one way or the other."

It's hard to feel sorry for Bush, given his preposterous spins on the question. He says he's stonewalling it because divulging past drug abuse "sends bad signals to your children." Bush's surrogates claim that he's leading a "heroic" effort "to purge the system of this 'gotcha' politics." He's making himself a "positive role model" for kids and displaying the "leadership" for which "the American people are hungering." "George Bush is the first guy in the line of fire who's had the guts to stand up and say, 'I'm not going to play by the old rules anymore,' " former GOP Chairman Haley Barbour boasted on television this weekend. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, chastised Bush's rivals for failing to "show the same courage that George W. has shown" by "taking a stand" against "personal destruction." Comments like these make you wonder not whether Bush and his friends ever used cocaine, but whether they ever stopped.

The point is not that the question is unfair. The point is that the power to choose and craft questions is more profound than the power to choose and craft answers--and with that power goes responsibility. When the question is as controversial as the answer, journalists who report the exact answer and who said it ought to report the exact question and who asked it. And if it's their question, they ought to justify it. In Newsweek, for example, Stuart Taylor Jr. spends an entire column proposing and defending a better question than the media have asked Bush so far: "Would you seek long prison terms for today's 18-year-olds for doing what you say you may or may not have done as a young man--and when you now suggest that whatever you did was a mere youthful indiscretion, and thus irrelevant to your candidacy?" You can decide for yourself whether you like Taylor's question--and that's the point. He has thought it through, spelled it out, and told you who's asking it and why.

The same can't be said for the New York Times. In its editorial on the cocaine controversy, the Times advised Bush "to be honest, and to let the country take his measure. In his campaign, the governor has emphasized the importance of assuming responsibility for one's own actions. He should be thinking now about how to set a good example." So should the Times.