What's News? The GOP Decides

Friday's Wall Street Journal offered up a tick-tock on the Dubai debacle and circled back to mid-February when the issue first began to simmer across party lines. The paper painted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as one of the early Paul Reveres; he was quoted in the first AP story on the dubious deal and he held a handful of February press conferences criticizing the White House deal. It was Schumer, among others, according to the Journal, who "sparked" the "media firestorm."

I don't buy it, because Schumer's early port press conferences were not unlike the countless other Q&A's Democrats have held over the last six years; press conferences that raised serious questions about the policies and competency of the Bush White House, and press conferences that for the most part were completely ignored by Beltway media elites. The only, only, only reason the port story broke big was because Republicans turned on the White House. That's what made it newsworthy. Throughout the Bush presidency there's been a very simple formula for defining what's news -- if Republicans say it's news, than it is. Democrats are largely irrelevant. (Yes, Democrats are the minority party, but being in the minority didn't stop reporters from camping outside GOP Congressional offices during the Clinton years, eagerly amplifying whatever allegation the caucus had hatched the night before.)

Recall the Harriet Miers nomination when Democrats raised immediate objections. Only after conservatives announced the choice was not worthy of the highest court was it all hands on deck for Beltway reporters. Same with the Dubai port deal and now the same is true with Bush's crumbling job approval ratings. With Republicans officially spooked by the White House's losing streak the topic is only now considered big news, despite the fact Bush has been unusually unpopular throughout his second term. On Inauguration Day 2005, Bush boasted the lowest job approval rating of any newly elected two-term president in modern history, yet the press played dumb at the time. (Bush's slight standing with the public was mentioned only four times during TV's day-long Inauguration gab-fest, according to TvEyes.) Back then Republicans were offering Bush their full support, so the press politely passed on examining the president's falling star.

Things have changed. But even now the debate over Bush's slow motion demise is being framed very narrowly, as in, What do Republicans think of Bush's unpopularity? On Sunday, the New York Times published two articles addressing Bush's lack of support. Combined, the two articles quoted 16 sources, all 16 were Republicans. Not one Democrat or even one neutral political observer, such as a poli-sci prof or think tank guru, was quoted. On Monday, the Washington Post published a page 1 piece that gently asked the question, Why are senior White House strategists suddenly so ineffective? (Answer: They're tired.) The article quoted six people; all of them Republicans. And this week's Time magazine addresses Bush's obvious political woes. The article quotes five sources; all of them Republicans. So between the Times, the Post and Time articles, 27 sources were quoted and not one Democrat or independent was ever asked to voice their opinion about Bush's sagging performance.

P.S. Yes, that's the same Time magazine that just last month, busy pushing a Bush-is-back narrative, announced the president had "found his voice" and that relieved White House aides "were smiling again" after a turbulent 2005. Oops.