TAKING THE PISS

Newsweek was right, the president lies, and the White House is full of bullies. Anyone else feel like they’re getting soaked?

Democrats on Capitol Hill say the media is biased; but not, of course, in the way most people think. When Dan Rather broadcast the now infamous item about Bush’s missing National Guard service, the fact that the story might have been wrong was bigger news than the story itself (and it probably cost Rather his job). But when President Bush lied his way into a war that’s going from bad to worse, the media and the public emitted a collective yawn. In a panel organized recently by anti-Bush gadfly Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), a collection of liberal pundits (including this writer) blamed this skewed view on everyone from the Republican propagandists at Fox News to the cowering “liberal” New York Times.

And surely the dearth of aggressive press coverage of the Bush administration’s ever growing travails is partly due to Fox’s role in the vast right-wing conspiracy, and to the anemic investigative prowess of journalistic standard-bearers like the Times and the Washington Post. But the problem has moved far beyond the media and into the body politic. Americans simply refuse to openly criticize this president, despite the ample proof in the polls that they are increasingly unhappy with just about everything his administration is doing.

Bush’s approval ratings continue to fall (Gallup and Quinnipiac have him at 46 percent, CBS at 44 percent, and Pew at 43 percent). According to Gallup, the poll with Bush’s best showing, “Bush’s 46 percent approval rating is just one point higher than the low of his term, and his ratings on the economy, Iraq, and Social Security have never been lower. Only four in 10 Americans say they agree with Bush on issues that matter most to them, and just a bare majority says he has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have.”

But if Americans are unhappy, why aren’t they speaking up? Perhaps it’s a lingering September 11 hangover. Immediately following the attacks Americans were scared to death. Not surprisingly, Bush’s approval ratings shot from a so-so 50 percent to an impressive 82 percent, and, in a bipartisan show of solidarity, free speech was put on holiday. Government websites removed information that might prove useful to terrorists, and liberal advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood voluntarily dismantled anti-Bush advocacy campaigns (like roevbush.com) that might be construed as unpatriotic. Critics less willing to wave the flag, like comedian Bill Maher, were simply bullied off network TV by conservative outrage.

And so it continues. In today’s with-us-or-against-us America, you wear your patriotism on your sleeve—or your front page—or else. The Bush administration said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was an arm of Al Qaeda, and that was that. Anyone who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid got a stern lecture from either former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer (“all Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do”), former attorney general John Ashcroft (“to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists”), or, just last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Richard Meyers (“This is about other people that are criticizing [the U.S. treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, Cuba], in what I view, in many cases, as an irresponsible way”).

Newsweek found out the hard way when it reported last month that U.S. soldiers may have flushed the Koran down a toilet in order to rattle war-on-terror prisoners at Guantánamo. Once word of the apparent sacrilege hit the Muslim world, anti-American protests ensued and, suddenly, Newsweek’s government source for the story recanted (though two other Defense Department officials shown the report before its publication did not dispute it). The White House immediately tarred Newsweek as the Hanoi Jane of the newsstand. “It has caused damage to the image of the United States abroad. People have lost their lives. It has certainly caused damage to the credibility of the media, as well, and Newsweek itself,” brayed White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The only thing is, Newsweek basically got the story right. Not only had numerous allegations of Koran desecration by American troops already been reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and foreign media, but just last Friday, Reuters reported that the Defense Department admitted that U.S. soldiers at Guantánamo had kicked and even urinated on prisoners’ Korans. The Defense Department subsequently explained that a guard was peeing near an air vent and “the wind blew his urine through the vent,” into a prisoner’s cell and onto a Koran. Which is pretty much the excretory equivalent of Lee Harvey Oswald’s magic bullet.

Did this revelation cause much consternation and gnashing of teeth by the American public, the press, or the White House? The media, seeing how big the Newsweek “scandal” had become, exerted itself mightily and reported the story exactly as the DOD gave it, with no one questioning how a stream of urine could miraculously weave its way through a series of air vents, nor asking why the guard in question was reprimanded and transferred to other duty if he had truly done nothing wrong.

But certainly the White House issued a mea culpa for so vocally having denied the Koran desecration we now know to have occurred? White House spokesman McClellan had only this to say on the subject: “It is unfortunate that some have chosen to take out of context a few isolated incidents by a few individuals.”

And so the American public remains unhappy, ignorant, and quiet, a condition that is not likely to change despite the recently unearthed British government document that shows that Bush planned the war in Iraq 10 months before we invaded, contrary to his public assurances at the time. It also shows that U.S. officials knew that they didn’t have the goods on Saddam, so they planned to just, ya know, make shit up. As a result, more than 1,600 U.S. soldiers, and countless Iraqi civilians, are dead in a war that appears to have no end.