- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

Is it payback time? For three days, peevish print and broadcast journalists have made mischief against the White House, determined to build one hazy news item into a blockbuster case against President Bush.
It is a classic case of incestuous media amplification bolstered with hasty conclusions.
On Wednesday night, CBS aired a report that Mr. Bush received an intelligence briefing which "warned in the weeks before 9/11 that an attack by Osama bin Laden could involve the hijacking of U.S. aircraft."
On ABC, this quickly translated to the more emphatic, "President Bush was told of Osama bin Laden's plans to hijack U.S. jetliners before September 11." MSNBC concluded, "It's another piece of evidence about mixed signals," while Knight-Ridder observed, "U.S. intelligence and law enforcement analysts failed to connect pieces of information that could have alerted them to the terrorists' plans."
The news was quickly distilled into a convenient phrase with built-in political references:
"What did President Bush know, and when did he know it?" asked a dozen earnest TV correspondents, punctuating a fierce contretemps of reactions and counter-reactions between White House press and politicians seeking publicity buzz.
And where there was one clandestine memo, others followed. Subsequent news stories reinforced their case by citing other "leaked" intelligence briefs dating as far back as 1993.
Yesterday, the correspondents were all suited up in full scandal regalia.
"Terror clues missed, or the blame game?" asked CNN while NBC said the White House was enduring "a firestorm of criticism." The online journal Salon characterized the Bush administration as seeking ways "to conceal its tragic errors."
American Press Institute President William L. Winter faulted the tendency toward instant analysis, particularly in broadcast.
"There was much use of judgmental terms, or a few select words designed to create a specific impression," Mr. Winter said yesterday. "I heard one report that said the White House was on 'damage control.' Were they really? Or was it just a press conference?"
Newspapers, Mr. Winter said, had a "more even tone."
"Some were carrying on their role in our democracy by providing some real context," he said.
Indeed, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Los Angeles Times all pointed out that the initial report at the center of the media bluster was no smoking gun.
"Even critics of the administration acknowledged that the warning appears to have been so vague that expecting the White House to have foreseen September 11 is unfair," the Los Angeles Times reported.
"A lot of the frenzy is obscuring the importance of the story, and journalists are actually getting in the way here," said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
And what is the importance?
"The possibility of a president knowing about specific danger and not acting. That is what matters," Mr. Lichter said. "Some stories are instead concentrating on White House press relations. Journalists themselves have gotten to show their teeth and act tough again by covering the 'big story.'"
Mr. Lichter compared the "what did he know?" phrase with the use of a "-gate" suffix to denote scandal. "The media is just hyperventilating," he added.
After months of good behavior and a minimum of Bush-bashing, perhaps the media needed a scandal fix. The possibility of a juicy White House cover-up came just as the hubbub over Mr. Bush's photograph aboard Air Force One as a fund-raising tool had run its course.
Both Mr. Winter and Mr. Lichter believe it will take some time before the dust settles and the lasting significance of the story emerges.
"We'll still have a story here if we get some additional facts," Mr. Winter observed.
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.


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