Now they tell us: AP exposed Bush's use of straw man arguments after years of uncritically reporting them
Media Matters | March 22 2006
Summary: In a March 20 article, the AP's Jennifer Loven gave numerous examples of Bush's use of the "straw man argument," noting that he is resorting to the tactic "more often these days." But nowhere in the article did she acknowledge that many AP writers -- including her -- have simply reported Bush's misrepresentations of his opponents' arguments without challenging them.
In a March 20 article, Associated Press staff writer Jennifer Loven noted President Bush's frequent use of "straw man" arguments, in which he misrepresents his opponents' arguments in order to knock them down. Loven gave numerous examples of Bush's use of this rhetorical device in speeches and press conferences and noted that he is resorting to the tactic "more often these days." But nowhere in the article did she acknowledge that many AP writers -- including her -- have simply reported Bush's misrepresentations of his opponents' arguments without challenging them.
In the article, "Bush's Rhetoric Targets Unnamed Critics," Loven explained in detail how Bush typically goes about mounting a "straw man" argument:
When the president starts a sentence with "some say" or offers up what "some in Washington" believe, as he is doing more often these days, a rhetorical retort almost assuredly follows.
The device usually is code for Democrats or other White House opponents. In describing what they advocate, Bush often omits an important nuance or substitutes an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.
He typically then says he "strongly disagrees" -- conveniently knocking down a straw man of his own making.
Bush routinely is criticized for dressing up events with a too-rosy glow. But experts in political speech say the straw man device, in which the president makes himself appear entirely reasonable by contrast to supposed "critics," is just as problematic.
Loven went on to cite various examples in which Bush used this tactic to mischaracterize and attack his opponents' positions on a wide variety of issues. What she failed to mention, however, was that the AP had in many cases reported these arguments, without challenge. For instance, Loven targeted Bush's claim -- made during an October 25, 2005, speech -- that some critics of the war "say perhaps we ought to just pull out of Iraq." She correctly noted that, at the time, no Democrats were advocating an immediate pull-out:
Last fall, the rhetorical tool became popular with Bush when the debate heated up over when troops would return from Iraq. "Some say perhaps we ought to just pull out of Iraq," he told GOP supporters in October, echoing similar lines from other speeches. "That is foolhardy policy."
Yet even the speediest plan, as advocated by only a few Democrats, suggested not an immediate drawdown, but one over six months. Most Democrats were not even arguing for a specific troop withdrawal timetable.
But on October 25, 2005, Loven's colleague Nedra Pickler uncritically reported Bush's claim, noting only that the remark earned him "the one standing ovation to interrupt his speech." Further, on November 29, 2005, Bush asserted, "We've heard some people say, 'Pull them out right now.' That's a huge mistake." An AP article published the same day -- this time written by military writer Robert Burns -- again repeated this claim without question.
In her March 20 article, Loven also highlighted Bush's "mischaracterization" of the opposition to his counter-terrorism policies, which he repeatedly advanced during his re-election campaign:
Running for re-election against Sen. John Kerry in 2004, Bush frequently used some version of this line to paint his Democratic opponent as weaker in the fight against terrorism: "My opponent and others believe this matter is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement."
The assertion was called a mischaracterization of Kerry's views even by a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
But Loven made no mention of the fact that Bush has continued to put forward this argument since winning re-election in 2004 and that the AP has reported it without challenge. For example, a January 2 article by AP staff writer Deb Riechmann uncritically reported Bush making this claim about his warrantless domestic surveillance program during a January 1 visit to the Brooke Army Medical Center:
After spending hours visiting wounded troops suffering from what he described as the "horrible consequences" of war, President Bush minced no words in defending the domestic spying program he authorized to foil terrorists.
"Some say, well maybe this isn't a war -- maybe this is just a law enforcement operation. I strongly disagree," Bush said Sunday at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he answered reporters' questions about the eavesdropping program set up after the 9-11 attacks. "We're at war with an enemy that wants to hurt us again."
In Washington, lawmakers are preparing for hearings into the domestic spying program, which Bush contends does not involve widespread eavesdropping on Americans.
In addition to those examples of Bush straw man arguments that Loven cited, he has offered numerous others in recent years, many of which the AP has similarly repeated. For example, in a November 4, 2004, press conference, he strongly disagreed with "an attitude among some that certain people may never be free -- they just don't long to be free":
BUSH: There is a certain attitude in the world, by some, that says that it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world. ... And I fully understand that that might rankle some, and be viewed by some as folly. I just strongly disagree with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world. ... I simply do not agree with those who either say overtly or believe that certain societies cannot be free. It's just not a part of my thinking.
BUSH: [T]here is an attitude among some that certain people may never be free -- they just don't long to be free or are incapable of running an election. And I disagree with that. And the Afghan people, by going to the polls in the millions, proved that this administration's faith in freedom to change peoples' habits is worthy.
In a November 5, 2004, response, CJR Daily reporter Liz Cox Barrett flagged Bush's argument as a straw man:
"By some?" "Among some?" Why didn't a single reporter ask Bush the identity of these "some" who believe that "certain societies cannot be free," these "some" who believe that certain people are "incapable of running an election?"
It may not be that press was unwilling to press Bush to identify these "some" at the news conference yesterday, it may be that it was unable -- after all, Bush made it clear he would not be entertaining multi-part or follow-up questions. But reporters could at least have taken note of Bush's circumlocutions in today's coverage.
Indeed, the reporters who failed to take note included Loven herself. In a November 4, 2005, article, she repeated Bush's claim from the press conference, but let it go unquestioned:
Bush also pledged to pursue the foreign policy that was a flashpoint in the presidential campaign and has sparked criticism by some American allies in Europe.
"There is a certain attitude in the world by some that says that it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world," he said, a reference to Iraq in particular. "I've heard that criticism."
A November 4, 2005, article by AP White House correspondent Terence Hunt also repeated without challenge Bush's disagreement "with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world." And, as Barrett noted in her post, an un-bylined, November 4, 2005, AP article highlighted certain sections of Bush's speech, including his claim that there exists "a certain attitude in the world by some that says that it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world."
Bush again rolled out the straw man argument during his 2005 campaign to partially privatize Social Security. For instance, during a February 4, 2005, "Conversation on Social Security" held in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bush alleged that his opponents had mounted "campaigns" to convince current Social Security recipients that his plan would affect their monthly payments:
BUSH: And part of the problem with dealing with this issue, part of the problem is seeing -- seeing the problem and coming up with a solution is, a lot of people in political life are afraid of talking about it because they're afraid somebody in their state is going to say, well, when you talk about Social Security, really what you're doing is taking away my check. You know what I'm talking about? You've seen those campaigns. Old so-and-so is going to take away my check. Well, that's just not reality. Those are scare tactics. Senior citizens are just fine.
A February 4, 2005, AP article by Riechmann reported in the lead paragraph that Bush had warned against "scare tactics" and "decried the kind of opposition campaigns now being waged against his proposals, saying they mislead seniors into thinking they won't get the Social Security checks on which they depend." In a post that day on CJR Daily, Thomas Lang noted the AP's failure to point out "that a politician is using the straw man to paint his political opponents as scaremongers":
There is strong opposition to Bush's Social Security proposals. But we know of no example of opponents suggesting that current recipients of Social Security checks could be shortchanged by Bush's plan. It's an interesting accusation, but it's one that no one has made. And AP owes it to its readers to point that out.
Another example of the AP's failure to question these arguments came during the recent port controversy, sparked by the Bush administration's approval of a deal to transfer operations at six U.S. ports from a British firm to Dubai Ports World (DPW), a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In response to congressional criticism of the acquisition, Bush and his aides repeatedly suggested anti-Arab bias on the part of those criticizing the deal. For example, during a February 28 joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bush said to reporters:
BUSH: And so my question to the members of Congress as they review this matter is, one, please look at the facts. And two, what kind of signal does it send throughout the world if it's okay for a British company to manage the ports, but not a company ... from the Arab world?
But, as Media Matters for America noted at the time, Bush falsely suggested that the only difference between the two companies was national origin. In fact, the law recognizes a different distinction: DPW is owned by a member state of the UAE; the British company was not state-owned. Under the law, the interagency panel that examines foreign investments in the United States must conduct an additional 45-day review when the acquisition of U.S. assets by a foreign, government-owned company provokes national security concerns. Many critics of the deal claimed that due to the UAE's "mixed" record on terrorism, the DPW transaction should have been subject to the additional review under the law and that the Bush administration therefore flouted the law by declining to conduct the full review.
Nonetheless, a March 1 article by AP staff writer Liz Sidoti repeated Bush's February 28 comments without challenge:
Bush, the final arbiter of the new investigation, suggested there was no reason to think it would produce any different outcome than the government's initial review and urged Congress to be careful.
"What kind of signal does it send throughout the world if it's OK for a British company to manage the ports but not a company that has been secured that has been cleared for security purposes from the Arab world?" he asked.
Last modified March 22, 2006