Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency

Terra Daily

Terra Daily

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Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath exhibited one of the most astonishing media spectacles in US history. Houses and towns along the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Mississippi were destroyed and flood surges wreaked havoc miles inland. New Orleans was buried in water and for several days, the crowds in the Superdome and Convention Center were not given food, water, or evacuation and there were reports of fighting, rape, robbery, and death. Indeed, no federal or state troops were sent to the city in the early days of the disaster, and thousands were trapped in their homes as the flood waters rose and there were widespread images of looting and crime.

Just as President Bush remained transfixed reading “My Pet Goat” to a Florida audience of schoolchildren after 9/11, a spectacle preserved on the Internet and memorialized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, so too was the president invisible in the aftermath of Katrina (as he had been after the Asian Tsunami). Bush remained on a five-week vacation during the first days of the disaster punctuated by a visit to a private event in Arizona where he bragged about how well things were going in Iraq, comparing the war there that he initiated to World War II, inferring that he was FDR. The next day Bush was shown clowning at a fundraiser in San Diego, smiling and strumming a guitar, and again bragging about Iraq and touting his failed domestic policies.

During Bush’s first visit to the disaster area, he made inappropriate jokes about how he knew New Orleans during his party days all too well and joked that he hoped to visit Republican Senator Trent Lott’s new house upon hearing that his beachfront estate was destroyed. In a fateful comment, Bush told his hapless FEMA director Michael Brown on camera: “You are doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Bush’s first visit to the area kept him away from New Orleans and isolated from angry people who would confront him. His visit to the heavily damaged city of Biloxi, Mississippi was preceded by a team that cleared rubble and corpses from the route that the president would take, leaving the rest of the city in ruin. The same day, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Bush remarked, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” at a time when the media had circulated copious reports of previous warnings by scientists, journalists, and government officials concerning dangers of the levees breaching and catastrophic flooding in the city of New Orleans, much of which was dangerously below sea level.

Bush’s response to the catastrophe revealed all the weaknesses of the Bush presidency: immature frat-boy, good-old boy behavior and banter; political cronyism; a bubble of isolation by sycophantic advisors; an arrogant out-of-touchness with the realities of the sufferings his policies had unleashed; a general incompetence; and belief that image-making can compensate for the lack of public policy.

But the media spectacle of the hurricane, which dominated the US cable news channels and was heavily covered on the US network news, showed images of unbelievable suffering and destruction, depicting thousands of people without food and water, and images of unimaginable loss and death in a city that had descended into anarchy and looked like a Third World disaster area with no relief in sight. Images of the poor, sick, and largely black population left behind provide rare media images of what Michael Harrington described as “the other America,” and the media engaged in rare serious discussions of race and class as they tried to describe and make sense of the disaster. As John Powers put it:

“Suddenly, the Others were right in front of our noses, and the major media — predominantly white and pretty well-off — were talking about race and class. Newspapers ran front-page articles noting that nearly six million people have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office — a nifty 20 percent increase to accompany the greatest tax cuts in world history. Feisty columnists rightly fulminated that, even as tens of thousands suffered in hellish conditions, the buses first rescued people inside the Hyatt Hotel. Of course, such bigotry was already inscribed in the very layout of New Orleans. One reason the Superdome became a de facto island is that, like the city’s prosperous business district, it was carefully constructed so it would be easy to protect from the disenfranchised (30 percent of New Orleans lives below the poverty line).”

Usually the media exaggerate the danger of hurricanes, put their talking heads on the scene, and then exploit human suffering by showing images of destruction and death. While there was an exploitative dimension to the Katrina coverage, it was clear that this was a major story and disaster and media figures and crews did risk their lives to cover the story. Moreover, many reporters and talking heads were genuinely indignant when federal relief failed to come day after day, and for the first time in recent memory seriously criticized the Bush administration and Bush himself, while sharply questioning officials of the administration when they tried to minimize the damage or deflect blame. As Mick Farren put it:

“In the disaster that was New Orleans, TV news and Harry Connick were the first responders. It may well have been a news generation’s finest hour. Reporters who had been spun or embedded for most of their careers faced towering disaster and intimacy with death, and told the tale with a horrified honesty. When anchors like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper waded in the water, dirty and soaked in sweat, it transcended showboating. It was the story getting out. Okay, so Geraldo Rivera made an asshole of himself, but I will never forget the eloquent shell shock of NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado after he discovered the horror at the Convention Center.

“That CNN could function where FEMA feared to tread undercut most federal excuses and potential perjuries. Journalists who could see the bodies refused to accept ‘factuality’ from Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, or even George Bush. Ted Koppel and Paula Zahn all but screamed ‘bullshit!’ at them on camera.”

The rightwing Republican attack machine first blamed the New Orleans poor for not leaving and then descending into barbarism, but it came out quickly that there were tens of thousands who were so poor they had no transportation, money, or anyplace to go, and many had to care for sick and infirm friends, relatives, or beloved pets. Moreover, the poor were abandoned for days without any food, water, or public assistance. The rightwing attack machine then targeted local officials for the crisis, but intense media focus soon attached major blame for the criminally inadequate public response on Bush administration FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was revealed that Brown, who had no real experience with disaster management, had received his job because he was college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, the first FEMA director and one of the major Texas architects of Bush’s election successes, known as the “enforcer” because of his fierce loyalty to Bush and tough Texas behavior and demeanor.

FEMA Director Michael Brown

FEMA Director Michael Brown

Meanwhile, Internet sources and Time magazine revealed that Brown had fudged his vita, claiming in testimony to Congress that he had been a manager of local emergency services when he had only had a low-level position. He had claimed he was a professor at a college where he was a student and generally had padded his c.v. Stories also circulated that in his previous job he had helped run Arabian horse shows, but had been dismissed for incompetence. After these reports, it was a matter of time until Bush first sent him back to Washington, relieving him of his duties, and allowing him to resign a couple of days later.

The media then had a field day scapegoating the hapless Brown who admittedly was a poster boy for Bush administration incompetent political appointees. But the top echelons of FEMA were full of Bush appointees who had fumbled and stumbled during the first crucial days of disaster relief and who were unqualified to deal with the tremendous challenges confronting the country. Moreover, Brown was blamed for a statement that he did not know there were tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center without food, water, or protection after pictures of their plight had circulated through the media. In fact, Michael Chertoff, head of the cabinet level Department of Homeland Security, also made such statements and the federal non-response could easily be blamed on his ineptness and failure to coordinate disaster response efforts.

Media images of the refugees left on their own in New Orleans and the surrounding area were largely poor and black, leading to charges that the Bush administration were blind to the suffering of the poor and people of color. While there was a fierce debate as to whether the federal response would or would not have been more vigorous if the victims were largely white or middle class people, readers of Yahoo news recognized that racism was blatantly obvious in captions to two pictures circulating, one of whites wading through water and described as “carrying food,” while another picture showing blacks with armloads of food described as “looters.” During NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief Rapper Kanye West declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and asserted that America is set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” West sharply criticized Bush’s domestic priorities and Iraq policy before NBC was able to cut away to a smiling Chris Tucker.

Bush’s presidential ratings continued to plunge as day after day there were pictures of incredible suffering, devastation, and death, and discussions of the utterly inadequate federal, local, and state response. While the U.S. corporate media had failed to critically discuss the failings of George W. Bush in either the 2000 or 2004 elections and had white-washed his failed presidency, for the first time one saw sustained criticism of the Bush administration on the U.S. cable TV news networks. The network correspondents on the ground were appalled by the magnitude of the devastation and paucity of the federal response and presented images of the horrific spectacle day after day, including voices from the area critical of the Bush administration. Even media correspondents who had been completely supportive of Bush’s policies began to express doubts and intense public interest in the tragedy ensured maximum coverage and continued critical discussion.

The Bush administration went on an offensive, sending Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and other high officials to the disaster area, but the stark spectacle of suffering undercut whatever rhetoric the Bush team produced. It was widely reported that Condoleezza Rice was on a shopping spree in New York buying $5000 plus pairs of shoes when the spectacle unfolded on TV and her first press conference during the disaster showed her giddy and bubbly, impervious to the suffering; to improve her image, she was sent to her home-state Alabama where photographers dutifully snapped her helping organize relief packages for flood victims.

While the Bush administration tried to emphasize positive features of the relief effort, the images of continued devastation and the slow initial response undercut efforts to convey an image that the Bushites were in charge and dealing with the problem. It remains to be seen how the politics of hurricane spectacles will be played out and whether Bush will weather the storms of criticism unleashed, what the role of the media will be, and how the public will respond to the disasters and Bush’s response. The spectacles of Iraq, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and the specter of crony capitalism in its aftermath, and on-going Republican party scandals involving leaders of the House and Senate and key figures in Bush’s and Cheney’s staff may raise the specter of impeachment–or once again, the Bush administration may survive the ever-erupting media spectacles of scandal that have characterized the regime.

Notes

W. David Jenkins III, “Georgie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” September 17, 2005, at www.smirkingchimp.com.

John Powers, “Week of the Living Death,” LA Weekly, September 9-15, 2005, at www.laweekly.com.

Mick Farren, “Post-Storm Watch,” Citybeat, September 22-28, 2005, at www.lacitybeat.com.

Mark Benjamin, “The crony who prospered. Joe Allbaugh was George W. Bush’s good ol’ boy in Texas. He hired his good friend Mike Brown to run FEMA. Now Brownie’s gone and Allbaugh is living large.” Salon, September 16, 2005, at www.salon.com.

Allbaugh was known as Bush’s enforcer during his stint as Texas governor, allegedly being in charge of sanitizing the records of Bush’s National Guard service that suggested he had gone AWOL and not completely his military service; see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Mark Benjamin, “Brownout!” Salon, September 11, 2005, at www.salon.com.

See Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young, and Shannon McCaffrey, “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows,” Knight-Ridder News Service, September 13, 2005. The report indicates that Chertoff, not FEMA Director Michael Brown, was in charge of disaster response and delayed federal action. Chertoff was a lawyer and Republican partisan who participated in the Whitewater crusade against Bill Clinton and had no experience in either national security or disaster response when Bush made him head of the Department of Homeland Security.

On the issue of race and the history of New Orleans, see Mike Davis, “The Struggle Over the Future of New Orleans,” Socialist Worker, September 21, 2005, collected online at www.zmag.org.

NBC circulated a disclaimer after the show saying that West did not speak for the network and departed from his prepared speech, and also cut the clip from a West coast broadcast three hours later, but the video circulated over the Internet and was immediately incorporated into rap songs and anti-Bush websites; see the video clip at politicalhumor.about.com/ (accessed September 23, 2005) and see Chris Lee, “Playback Time. Two Rappers Use Kanye West’s Anti-Bush Quote to Launch a Mashed-up Web Smash,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2005: E1.

On the specter of impeachment, see Bernard Weiner, ”’Suppose…’: Arguments for an Impeachment Resolution,” September 28, 2005 at www.smirkingchimp.com and Robert Parry, “Can Bush Be Ousted?”, October 1, 2005, at consortiumnews.com.

Links
U.S. Census
FEMA
Public Enemy

Image Credits:

1. Terra Daily

2. FEMA Director Michael Brown

Please feel free to comment.




The Media and Death: The Case of Terri Schiavo and the Pope

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Usually death is an extremely private and intimate affair, taboo to scrutiny by the broadcast media. To be sure, television pays homage to the death of important figures, especially those in the entertainment industry, that gives it an opportunity for self-promotion. But rarely before March 2005 did television go on a death watch and trace intimate medical, personal, and social details of an individual person’s final days and death until the very opposite cases of Terri Schiavo and the Pope.[1]

For fifteen years, Schiavo had been in a deep coma following a stroke, and after much litigation between the husband and the family, doctors and the courts agreed that Terri had no chance of recovery, was in a “persistently vegetative state” with severe brain damage, and that her husband had the right to take her off of life-support systems according to her stated expression that she would not want to live hooked up to machines. Schiavo’s family battled the husband and, twice, got the courts and, in 2003, Jeb Bush to return her to feeding-tube machines after judicial decisions ruled that she could be taken off.

When the Florida judiciary ruled on February 25, 2005 that Schiavo could be taken off of life support, once again her parents appealed and after being turned down by all courts up to the Supremes, Congress passed an emergency bill that would allow Schiavo’s parents to petition the federal courts to reinstate her feeding tube, and George W. Bush rushed back to Washington from vacation on his Texas ranch to sign the bill. This extraordinary measure in effect asserted the authority of the state over private affairs such as medical care and decisions about life and death, as well as putting the federal government over the judiciary.

But the courts again immediately ruled against this intervention, including the Supreme Court that denied the parents’ appeal, judging that Florida law dictated that the appropriate court had ruled in support of the husband’s right to terminate his wife in accordance with her wishes. The hypocrisy of George W. Bush and the Republican establishment on the Terry Schiavo case was truly incredible: although he claims to be “pro-life,” Bush carried out a record 152 executions when Governor of Texas, barely bothering to review the cases because he “trusted the courts.” He signed a bill as Texas Governor in 1999 that gave hospitals the right to pre-emptively take patients off of life-support systems when they could not pay their bills.[2] Further, the Texas Congressman Tom Delay who was most militant in attacking the courts and assailing the “murder” of Terri Schiavo had pulled the plug on his own father when he was seriously injured and faced a life on a medical-support machine.[3]

Although the Schiavo case was probably the most reviewed case in recent history by doctors and the courts, the Republican right and their Christian evangelical allies jumped in to exploit the issue with many fanatic “right to life” advocates spreading false medical information, defaming the husband carrying out his wife’s wishes, and creating a quasi-fascist mob scene, fuelled by intense media coverage, that caused multiple threats against the husband’s life and the judge who ruled in his favor. On Fox television, there were fake medical experts who said that they had personally observed “life” in Schiavo and that she had responded to her parents; the Senate majority leader, medical doctor Bill Frist, declared that upon watching a video tape he was convinced she was conscious and might recover; an assorted array of ideologues and quacks were marched out to the approving Fox news hosts, including psychic John Edwards whose TV show had failed, intoning that Schiavo was conscious, did not want to be taken off of life support, and that doing so was murder; and her parents claimed that Terri had communicated to them “I want to live.”

The dissemination of pure falsehoods about the Terry Schiavo case provides another example of how the rightwing and their media apparatus spread untruths with impunity in a new post-factual situation.[4] Another bevy of commentators vilified the husband who ordered the termination of her life-support system and judges who ruled that this was his legal right and the rational thing to do after the intense medical scrutiny and multiple court hearings.[5] As critic Sam Parry indicated, it was truly frightening to see the rightwing media machine on cable television, Talk Radio, the Internet, and the press use the Schiavo case to push their rightwing antiabortion and anti-right to die “Culture of Life” agenda, while attacking “liberal” judges, politicians, and values.[6] The case showed the power of the right to dominate the media agenda and relentlessly use it to promote its agenda.

But polls indicated that up to 80% of those queried reacted against the Republican intervention and Bush’s approval record dropped a record seven points in one week to an all-time low of 45% and the Republican establishment backed off of the case. This example provides another case of what I call reversal of the spectacle where a media spectacle concocted to push through a specific agenda flip-flops into its opposite as did the rightwing attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, or Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” spectacle to prematurely declare victory in Iraq.[7] Of course, the spectacle itself is always subject to contestation and reversal and in the long-run the right may well be able to exploit the Terri Schiavo case to promote its “Culture of Life” agenda but for the moment there appears to be a backlash against rightwing extremism and attempts of the religious right to promote their agenda.

Yet while reaction against the rightwing mob and Bush manipulation of crucial matters of life and death has been encouraging, the wave of irrationalism, hypocrisy, mob thuggery, and constant noise of the rightwing Republican media echo chamber has been highly disturbing. The spectacle of Schiavo slowly dying was extremely gruesome and macabre, while the constant media exposure of this event showed the ghoulish extremes that the media would go to in order to attract audiences and the ways that small groups of rightwing fanatics are able to drive the media agenda.

While dying is the most personal of all individual and family events, and people caught up in the drama should have their privacy, the media spectacle relentlessly focused on every twist and turn of the Schiavo case, at the same time when the Pope was in a terminal condition and the media also engaged in an intense death watch over his condition until his death shortly after Schiavo died on March 31.

Although the Terri Schiavo spectacle was horrific, it had the positive consequences of raising important issues of life and death, including what constitutes a life worth living, what are the conditions of a dignified death, how does one deal with intense suffering and hopeless medical conditions, and who has power over life and death decisions. Many people reflected on these issues and were educated on the importance of families and doctors discussing the need for a living will to document one’s personal decision. Yet crucial issues of life and death were rarely debated on network television and the gruesome Terri Schiavo spectacle showed the corporate media at their worst sending hordes of reporters on a death watch in Florida after the courts ruled that she should be taken off life-support systems. Until her death at the end of March, there were hours of daily coverage of the ordeal and numerous pictures of the poor woman on life support, being visited by her parents who were complicit in the media spectacle, and allied with rightwing extremists like antiabortion fanatic Randall Terry who was an official spokesperson for the family. Randall Terry had for years threatened women going into clinics getting abortions, and organized mobs to picket and sometimes assault abortion clinics and doctors. This extremist had been frequently arrested and jailed for his fanaticism, his followers had bombed and burned abortion clinics and killed doctors who performed abortion and yet there he was, everyday on mainstream television, spouting his extremist views and exploiting the grief of a tragic case of a young woman dying.[8]

In fact, there were only a small number of protestors actually at the hospice where Schiavo was dying, but the media intensely focused on the demonstrations and privileged the voices and messages of the demonstrators and Schiavo family. Protests, by contrast, against Bush administration Iraq policies were ignored by the mainstream media. Corporate television also failed to note that many of the same rightwing extremists, who railed against “judicially-sanctioned murders” and denied the hard fought struggles for a right to end one’s life with dignity and according to conditions of one’s own choosing, does not care about state executions, the killing of over 100,000 civilians in Iraq, or other government-sponsored torture and murder. Yet they went into hysteria over a poor hopelessly vegetative and dying woman and continued to threaten those who sanctioned the act, with Tom DeLay railing that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”

The invasion of Terry Schiavo’s privacy and dignity by the rapacious media and exploitative politicians was astonishing. While there was a gender issue involved in the case with the old Southern ideology of saving innocent white girls from vile forces, male politicians and the media were exploiting Schiavo for their own ends. Tom DeLay and rightwing Congressman debated summoning Schiavo to Washington and bringing her to Congress to “save” her from the doctors and the courts. There were reports that Jeb Bush had ordered Florida state troopers to seize her and carry her away a la Elian Gonzalez, but that this had been prevented by local law enforcement officials who refused them entry.[9] It’s also symptomatic that in his intervention in the case, George W. Bush said that the government should help the weakest and least powerful members of society. This is highly paternalistic, as it advocates acting on behalf of the “victim,” rather than empowering the oppressed and is also hypocritical since the Bush administration has cut back in its budget on programs that help the poor, children, the elderly, women, and various oppressed groups.

Terry Schiavo
Terry Schiavo

Thus the highly personal and complex question of rights for life and death were hi-jacked by extremist and opportunistic politicians who poisoned a serious debate with their venom and hypocrisy since DeLay had ordered the termination of his own father’s life and Bush had signed a bill legislating that the state could take patients off of life support systems if you could not pay for further life support (this is state-sanctioned murder!). The media allowed rightwing extremists to define the terms of debate and to advocate their fanatic positions, making a vulgar spectacle of the whole sad affair.

While the Schiavo death watch was gruesome and exploitative, the Pope’s death was presented by the mainstream media as ennobling and celebatory, in the most sustained advertisement for conservative Catholic religious ideology in memory. The Pope’s decision to leave the hospital for his Papal Chambers was praised as a choice of a dignified death of his own choosing. During his last days, every medical announcement was accompanied by a theological message: the Pope was greatly suffering, as Jesus did; the suffering Pope was pleased to hear read documents of the stages of Christ’s Passion, thus equating the Pope with Jesus, as Catholic doctrine propagated; a Vatican spokesman announced that the “Pope’s faith is so strong and full, and the experience of God so intensively lived, that he, in these hours of suffering already sees and already touches Christ”; and just before John Paul II died, the Vatican announced that the Pope was serene in the face of death knowing that he was soon going to join his Heavenly Father, propagating the Christian myth of the afterlife. Finally, when he died on April 2, 2005, the Pope was said to have exhibited great courage in the face of death and showed how to die a good death, having served his Church faithfully, he was ready to pass on with dignity to the next stage.

The Pope’s death was a major media spectacle and great P.R. for a beleaguered and declining Catholic Church. Thousands rushed into Vatican Square to mourn the Pope’s death and celebrate his life. The US TV networks had their anchors and top reporters on the scene and ran repeatedly prepared footage on the Pope’s exemplary life. Catholic officials were interviewed in-depth on the Pope’s life and significance, and ordinary people were brought on camera to testify of their love for the Pope.

On his Sunday morning ABC Talk show, George Stephanopoulos intoned that John Paul was “the most famous Pope the world has ever seen” and many programs featured George W. Bush’s praise of the Pope as a champion of the “march of freedom” and “Word of God,” covertly identifying the Pope with his own self-image. On CBS’s 60 Minutes there were homages to the Pope and one official said that only two Popes, Leo and Gregory in the fifth and sixth centuries, were deemed “the Great” and that there was talk of bestowing this honor on Pope John Paul; many programs discussed the probability of a fast-track to Sainthood for the deceased Pope. There were repeated references on all the networks concerning the great “charisma” of Pope John Paul, but the accompanying footage showed him tonelessly reading precanned speeches in a barely understandable English and I rarely saw any TV footage of John Paul speaking spontaneously. But despite the absence of confirming TV footage, commentators repeatedly extolled John Paul’s eloquence, charisma, and greatness.

Hence, just as rightwing religious extremists used the mainstream corporate media to promote their “Culture of Life” ideology during the Terri Schiavo affair, so too did the media allow the Catholic Church to promote a conservative version of its theology and elevate its spokesperson to Divinity and Greatness. Although George Stephanopoulos had the temerity to question Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law concerning whether or not the Pope was quick and decisive enough concerning the Church sexual abuse scandal, Cardinal Law quickly brushed off the question and few commentators raised the embarrassing issue in their discussions of John Paul’s Papacy.[10] Likewise, while there were copious references to his theological conservativism and general anti-modernity stance, there were few discussions of how many Catholics neglected his teaching on the prohibition of birth control and abortion, his polemics against homosexuality, or the role of women in the Church.[11]

On the other hand, while there was much praise of Pope John Paul’s admirable concern for the oppressed and marginalized, poverty, and world peace, there was little on his strong opposition to the death penalty or his principled opposition to Bush Senior and Junior’s Iraq interventions. In fact, the term “culture of life” was introduced by Pope John Paul II in a 1995 text “The Gospel of Life” which included polemics against capital punishment, gun culture, and war, as well as against abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and genetic engineering of humans. The Bush administration and religious right have appropriated the latter part of John Paul’s teaching, but not the first part that conflicts with their rightwing political agenda.

Bush’s conservative project was to enlist Catholic support in alliance with part of the Pope’s agenda and he used the notion “culture of life” as a political mantra to appeal to Catholics as well his evangelical Christian base. It worked in the 2004 election as Bush received 54% of the Catholic vote, the first time that a majority of Catholics voted against Democrats and a Catholic candidate. The mainstream corporate media aided the Bush agenda in the Schiavo spectacle and presentation of the Pope’s last days, death, and funeral by failing to note contradictions between John Paul’s concept of the “culture of life” and the Bush administration and US conservative position. Thus, both the Schiavo and Pope’s death coverage were driven by the ideological conservativism that is emerging as the hegemonic discourse of the corporate media, especially television.

Notes

[1] Media representations of the massive Asian Tsunami of December 2004 broke a taboo against the depiction of dead bodies. While US corporate media coverage of Iraq rarely depicted dead bodies of either Iraqis or US soldiers, and when they did there was massive rightwing protest, the Tsunami coverage showed masses of dead bodies, floating in water, heaped up on land, or buried in mass graves. Yet most of these victims were anonymous, so I am arguing that the Schiavo and Pope John Paul II cases broke taboos against showing intimate processes of death and dying.

[2] During the period of the intense Schiavo death watch, a young African American boy of six months was taken off of his life support system when a hospital and court ruled that despite the mother’s wish to keep the boy alive, the hospital had the right to pull the plug according to the Advance Directives Act signed into law in 1999 by then governor George W. Bush which said that hospitals could take patients off of life support systems if they could not pay and their condition was deemed hopeless. Young Sun Hudson suffered from dwarfism and underdeveloped lungs and his mother hoped that his lungs might develop. See Leonard Pitts Jr., “‘No One Noticed when Little Sun Died,” Hearld News, April 9, 2005.

[3] Walter F. Roche Jr. and Sam Howe Verhovek, “DeLay’s Own Tragic Crossroads. Family of the lawmaker involved in the Schiavo case decided in ’88 to let his comatose father die.” March 27, 2005 at The LA Times.

[4] On Bushspeak and the institutionalization by the rightwing of the politics of lying, see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2005 discussed in a previous Flow column.

[5] While mainstream television was dominated by the rightwing “Culture of Life” discourse and often the vehicle of outright lies on the Schiavo case, the Internet documented her medical and personal history in detail. While there were, of course, websites spreading the rightwing spin, promoted by her parents (see [The Foundation Site]), there were also well-documented sites detailing her case history and containing key medical documents; see Schiavo Timeline; Tale-of-Two-Scans; & Abstract Appeal. Time magazine also had a good detailed analysis in their April 4, 2005 of Schiavo’s hopeless medical condition.

[6] Sam Parry, “Terri Schiavo and the right-wing machine”, April 1, 2005. Parry also notes the hypocrisy of Bush’s active involvement in the Schiavo case and failure to comment on the March Red Lake Inadian reservation “Minnesota school shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people, the worst such incident since the Columbine massacre in 1999. The apparent logic behind Bush’s differing reactions was that the Schiavo case was a cause celebre for Bush’s Christian conservative base, while the Minnesota school shooting carried the risk of reviving demands for tighter gun control, which might offend another powerful Bush constituency, the gun lobby.”

[7] See Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, op. cit.

[8] On extremist Randall Terry’s bizarre life and return to media prominence in the Schiavo case, see Tina Susman, “Crusading Once Again,” Newsday, April 3, 2005.

[9] See Carol Marbin Miller, Police showdown over Shiavo averted,” Miami Herald, March 25, 2005.

[10] American Politics Journal 4/5/03 — Papal Pap noted that Cardinal Law did “as much as he inhumanly could to sweep hundreds of instances of crime by pedophile priests in his diocese under the rug. Remember the notorious child abuser Father John Geoghan? Geoghan operated in Law’s diocese — and some of Geoghan’s victims have accused Law of having known he was a child abuser as early as 1984 (Boston Phoenix). Cardinal Law later presided over one of the major funeral masses for the Pope leading to sharp critique by members of the Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests and Catholic liberals; see Larry B. Stmmer, “Bernard Law Given Prominent Funeral Role,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2005: A13 and “Advocacy Group Leaders to Protest Cardinal Law,” The Associated Press, April 9, 2005.

[11] For critiques of Pope John Paul II’s Papacy of the sort absent in the mainstream media, see Barry Healey, “Pope John Paul II, a reactionary in shepherd’s clothing” and Terry Eagleton, “A British Obituary of Pope John Paul II. The Pope has blood on his hands”.

Image Credits:
1. Pope John Paul II
2. Terry Schiavo

Links
Culture of Life Homepage
Terry Schiavo – Official Web Site
Make Them Accountable – Terri Schiavo

Please feel free to comment.




Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy

On March 10, 2004, when speaking to AFL-CIO union workers in Chicago, John Kerry said in what he thought was an off-mike comment: “Let me tell you — we’re just beginning to fight here. These guys are the most crooked, lying group of people I’ve ever seen.” Although Kerry was savaged by the Republican attack apparatus for this comment, in retrospect, he was quite correct. It is well documented that the Bush-Cheney administration has governed with lies and deception (Conason 2003; Corn 2003; Dean 2004; Waldman 2004). As I indicate in Kellner 2005 (Chapters 5 and 6), ‘Big, Bold, and Brazen Lies’ characterized the distinctive discourse and strategy of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.1

In a New York Times op-ed piece, “The Dishonesty Thing,” Paul Krugman wrote that the key election issue was a “pattern of lies… on policy issues, from global warming to the war in Iraq.” Krugman recounts how years ago when he began questioning Bush administration figures on tax cuts, the deficit, and other economic issues, he and other critics were denounced as “shrill.” Citing a variety of establishment economic figures and reports, Krugman says that these documents reveal that he and other Bush critics were right and that the Bush administration was lying about their economic policies, using “fuzzy math” and fake figures to clothe the dubious results of their policies. Worrying that Bush’s economic policies might create a disaster and that, so far, the Bush administration has not begun to indicate solutions for economic problems they’ve created, such as the skyrocketing deficit, Krugman concluded: “Some not usually shrill people think that Mr. Bush will simply refuse to face reality until it comes crashing in: Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, says there’s a 75 percent chance of a financial crisis in the next five years. Nobody knows what Mr. Bush would really do about taxes and spending in a second term. What we do know is that on this, as on many matters, he won’t tell the truth.”2

For Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Bush’s Big Lie was the war on Iraq, a disastrous policy that has now killed more than 1,000 young Americans and placed the United States in a Vietnamesque quagmire. Seething with anger, Herbert cited the previous day’s Times, which published photos of the first 1,000 who died: “They were sent off by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war. They fought bravely and died honorably. But as in Vietnam, no amount of valor or heroism can conceal the fact that they were sent off under false pretenses to fight a war that is unwinnable. How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?”3

In retrospect, the smears on Kerry by the Republican attack apparatus and Bush-Cheney’s systematic lying throughout the campaign represent a low point in U.S. electoral politics. The studies in Kellner 2005 suggest that the conjuncture of corporate media which privilege entertainment and spectacle, the rise of a rightwing Republican media attack apparatus, and the systematic deployment of a politics of lying by the Bush administration has produced a crisis of democracy in the United States. I suggest that three convergent trends have seriously undermined U.S. democracy: the corporate control of mainstream media, which biases dominant media toward conservativism and profit; an implosion of information and entertainment and rise of a culture of media spectacle, which makes politics a form of entertainment and spectacle; and the rise of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus, which systematically deploys lies and deception to advance the agenda of conservative groups and interests.

An ever-growing right-wing Republican media machine, ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the conservative press to the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox TV, talk radio, and the extreme right sector on the Internet, all disseminate propaganda of a scope and virulence never before seen in U.S. history.4 Expanding significantly since the 1980s, the Republican propaganda machine has cultivated a group of ideological storm troopers who loudly support Bush-Cheney policies and attack those who criticize them. These extremists are impervious to argument, ignore facts and analysis, and demonize as unpatriotic anyone who challenges Bush-Cheney policies. Groomed on Fox TV and right-wing talk radio, they verbally assault anyone who does not march in lockstep with the administration and wage ideological war against the heathens, liberals, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other dissenters. These rightwing ideological warriors allow no disparagement of Bush and Cheney and refuse civil dialogue, preferring denunciation and invective.

Although the mainstream corporate media are vilified as “liberal” by the right-wing attack machine, in fact, mainstream journalists are easily intimidated when the right-wing army e-mails, calls, writes, and harasses any corporate media source that goes too far in criticizing the Bush-Cheney regime. The mainstream corporate media are largely subservient to corporate interests, follow the sensation of the moment, and rarely engage in the sort of investigative journalism that was once the ideal and that now takes place largely in the alternative sphere. Corporate media increasingly promote entertainment over news and information, like the tabloids framed by codes of media spectacle (Kellner 2003).

As an example of Bush administration intimidation of corporate media, Ryan Lizza dissected the Bush-Cheney closing strategy and how they targeted for attack specific media that strongly criticized them:

The White House has always relied on the press to convey Bush’s message to readers and viewers in a relatively unmediated fashion. That has proved more difficult this year due to a surge in coverage that fact-checks what the candidates are saying. This development has hurt Bush more than Kerry because the president’s strategy is to destroy his opponent’s credibility, a tactic that, ironically enough, has relied disproportionately on false statements. The Bushies have become so frustrated by the fact-checking of the president’s statements that a spokesman told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, “The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country.”

In response to the media’s new obsession with truth-squading the candidates, the Republican National Committee’s opposition research department has started to do something remarkable: going negative on the press. “RNC Research Briefings,” e-mailed to hundreds of reporters, now regularly target members of the media. On October 6, the RNC put Hardball host Chris Matthews, a former staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in its sights. “Democrat Chris Matthews’ Selective ‘Analysis,'” read the headline on a three-page press release that accused Matthews of erroneously claiming Cheney had contradicted himself during the debate when he denied tying September 11 to Saddam Hussein. Accompanying the release, the RNC posted a video online attacking Matthews. A few days later, Republicans took issue with the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller’s accurate statement that, despite Bush’s claims, Kerry “essentially voted for one large tax increase, the Clinton tax bill of 1993.” “The New York Times Shades the Truth,” read the headline of a press release the RNC quickly put out. Next up was Ron Suskind, who wrote a critical piece in the New York Times Magazine. “Liberal Democrat Suskind Has Creativity but Not Facts,” the RNC noted. A few days later Paul Krugman became the RNC’s target. In Suskind’s and Krugman’s cases, the oppo was unusually personal and included unflattering pictures of the men, the kind that candidates dig up of their opponents, not of journalists.

The fact that the RNC is now devoting a good deal of its time to attacking reporters speaks volumes about how much Bush is relying on negative, unchecked distortions to secure a second term. And that means that, in its own way, the Ashley Faulkner ad — with its warm and fuzzy image of Bush — ultimately leaves voters with as false an impression as the Willie Horton ad did in 1988.5

The Bush administration had indeed been ruthless throughout their reign against media voices who had spoken out against them. Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and other Bush operatives had relentlessly browbeat any reporter who dared criticize the Bush administration. Few critics noticed that the Bush administration had carried through a paradigm shift in presidential and media politics. Previously, the media and the administration in power had engaged in a complex courtship ritual with both sides trying to seduce and manipulate the other. The mainstream media needed sources and material, and the administration needed the media to get across its messages.

All this had changed with the Bush administration, which viciously attacked any reporters who contested its statements or positions. If a media institution broadcast or published material deemed hostile by the Bush team, their shock troops bombarded the offending institution with e-mails, phones call, and letters, attacking them for exhibiting “bias” against Bush. This helps explain why the mainstream corporate media were so reluctant to contradict Bush campaign distortions and lies and why they did not do more serious investigative reporting into the scandalous backgrounds of Bush and Cheney and the striking failures of their administration. The cowardly mainstream media, for the most part concerned with reputation and profits, mainly submitted to the Bush-Cheney-Rove Gang coercion, and sacrificed their journalistic integrity by rarely refuting their lies except in the mildest possible terms. As a result, few administrations had ever so successfully controlled the media.

In addition to cultivating right-wing media that broadcast their messages of the day and intimidating the mainstream corporate media, the Bush administration has created fake media and bought conservative commentators to push their policies. During the 2004 debate on Medicare, the Bush administration created simulated video news releases (VNRs) featuring Karen Ryan “reporting” on Medicare; it later came out that Ryan was a U.S. government employee simulating a television reporter. The U.S. General Accounting Office ruled that the VNRs violated bans on government-funded “publicity and propaganda.”6

In 2005, it was revealed that the Bush administration paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind Act, and had paid two conservative commentators to promote its family policy.

But most astonishing of all, the Bush administration provided press credentials to a fake journalist who worked for Talon News service that was barely a front for conservative propaganda. The Bush White House provided a press pass to avowed conservative partisan “Jeff Gannon” who was a regular in the White House Briefing Room, where he was frequently called upon by Bush administration press secretary Scott McClellan whenever the questions from the press corps got too hot for comfort. After he manufactured quotes by Senators Clinton and Reid in White House press conferences, bloggers found out that his real name was “James Guckert” and that he also ran gay porn sites and worked as a gay escort. As another example of the collapse of the investigative functions of the mainstream media, although “Gannon” was a frequent presence lobbing softball questions in the White House briefing room, his press colleagues never questioned his credentials, leaving investigative reporting to bloggers that the mainstream media was apparently to lazy and incompetent to do themselves.

Over the past decade or more, the investigative function of traditional journalism has largely fallen to alternative media and the Internet. The only way that a democratic social order can be maintained is for the mainstream media to assume their democratic function of critically discussing all issues of public concern and social problems from a variety of viewpoints and fostering spirited public debate, accompanied by the development of vigorous and competent investigative and alternative media. The democratic imperative that the mainstream corporate press and broadcasting provide a variety of views on issues of public interest and controversy has been increasingly sacrificed, as has their responsibility to serve as a check against excessive government or corporate power and corruption.

Democracy, however, requires informed citizens and access to information and thus the viability of democracy is dependent on citizens seeking out crucial information, having the ability to access and appraise it, and to engage in public conversations about issues of importance. Democratic media reform and alternative media are thus crucial to revitalizing and even preserving the democratic project in the face of powerful corporate and political forces. How media can be democratized and what alternative media can be developed will of course be different in various parts of the world, but without democratic media politics and alternative media, democracy itself cannot survive in a vigorous form, nor will a wide range of social problems be engaged or even addressed.

Notes
This text is excerpted from Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy just published by Paradigm Press.
Paul Krugman, “The Dishonesty Thing,” New York Times 10 September 2004.
Bob Herbert, “How Many Deaths Will It Take?” New York Times 10 September 2004.
The rise and growing influence of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus has been well documented in Alterman (2000 and 2003); Brock (2004); Conason (2003); Miller (2004); and Waldman (2004). In Kellner 2005, I update and expand my critique of right-wing and corporate media and show how they have relentlessly promoted the agenda of the Bush administration.
Ryan Lizza, “Backward,” New Republic 01 November 1 2004.
See Laura Miller, “The 2004 Falsies Awards,” AlterNet, 30 December 2004.

References

Alterman, Eric. Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2000.

—. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Conason, Joe. Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003.

Corn, David. The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. New York: Crown, 2003.

Dean, John. Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm, 2005.

—. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Westview, 1990.

Miller, Mark Crispin. Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order. New York: Norton, 2004.

Waldman, Paul. Fraud. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Links
Douglas Kellner’s Home Page
Republican National Committee
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Fox News

Please feel free to comment.




Media Spectacle and the Wired Bush Controversy

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

During a media age, image and spectacle are of crucial importance in presidential campaigns. Media events like party conventions and daily photo opportunities are concocted to project positive images of the candidates and to construct daily messages to sell the candidate to the public. These events are supplemented by a full range of media advertising that often attempts both to project negative images of the oppositional candidate and positive images for the presidential aspirant that the ads seek to support. In an era of media spectacle, competing parties work hard to produce a presidential image and brand that can be successfully marketed to the public. In a forthcoming study of media spectacle and election 2004, a draft of which is available on my website, I sketch out some of the key structural elements of the media campaign spectacle, discussing primaries and conventions, advertising and spin, and the presidential debates, illustrating them with examples from the 2004 presidential election, which is emerging as one of the most highly contested and media-mediated in recent history.[1]

Election Spectacles and Resonant Images
The primary season requires that candidates raise tremendous amounts of money to finance travel through key campaign states, organize support groups in the area, and purchase television ads.[2] While the primaries involve numerous debates, media events, advertising, and then state-wide votes for delegates, usually a few definitive images emerge that define the various candidates, such as the negative image in 1972 of Democratic party candidate and frontrunner Edmund Muskie crying on the New Hampshire state capital steps while responding to a nasty newspaper attack on his wife, or front runner Gary Hart hitting the front pages with a sex scandal, replete with pictures, in the 1984 primaries. Michael Dukakis was arguably done in by images of him riding a tank and looking silly in an oversize helmet in the 1988 election, as well as being the subject of negative television ads that made him appear too liberal and soft on crime and defense. Bush senior, however, was undermined during the 1992 election with repeated images of his convention pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes” after he had raised taxes and doubled the national deficit.

Beyond political primaries, spectacles can make or break campaigns for the presidency as well. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s decisive seizing of a microphone in the New Hampshire debates and insistence that since he was paying for the debate, he would decide who would participate produced an oft-repeated image of Reagan as a strong leader; in 1984, his zinging of Walter Mondale during their presidential debates (“There you go again!”) and making light of his age arguably assured his re-election. By contrast, Al Gore’s sighs and swinging from aggressive to passive and back to aggressive behavior in the 2000 presidential debates probably lost support that might have been crucial to his election and have prevented the Bush Gang from stealing it.[3]

In the 2004, Democratic Party primary season, Howard Dean was for some time positively portrayed as the surprise insurgent candidate. An energetic Dean was shown nightly on television and he received affirmative publicity as front-runner in cover stories in the major national news magazines. Dean raised a record amount of money from Internet contributions and mobilized an army of young volunteers. As the time approached for the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, however, images of an angry Dean increased and intemperate remarks, or critical positions taken out of context, made Dean look like a fire-breathing radical.[4] While he received significantly more media coverage than any other Democratic Party candidate in 2003, Dean received almost totally negative coverage in 2004 and his campaign came to an abrupt halt the night of the Iowa primary. Coming in a distant third, Dean tried to energize his screaming, young supporters and to catch the crowd’s attention when he emitted a loud vocal utterance, which followed an energetic recitation of the states he would campaign in. Dean’s “scream” was perhaps the most-played image of the campaign season and effectively ended his campaign.

The Presidential Debates and Images of the Wired Bush
The Democrats went for “electability,” chose John Kerry, and anointed him at their convention spectacle. Unleashing an unparalleled barrage of negative advertising, including the Swift Boat campaign, the Republicans sought to impugn Kerry’s integrity, paint him as a hopeless flip-flopper, and finally as a tax-and-spend “Massachusetts liberal.” After dropping “Stronger, Safer” ads that were intended to re-elect George W. Bush, the Republicans deployed a wide repertoire of positive ads of Bush combined with negative ones of Kerry, culminating in the infamous pack of wolves that were intended to scare the nation into voting for Bush.

The Democrats and supporting 527 groups, in turn, produced a barrage of attack ads on Bush for his disastrous Iraq war, failure to get Osama bin Laden, and failed economic record. Both parties used their conventions to sell their candidates, and while the Democrats chose, perhaps unwisely, to go positive, the Republicans unleashed a unparalleled spectacle of mocking attacks on Kerry, including ritual “flip flop” displays and small purple band-aids to highlight the Swift Boat campaign message that Kerry exaggerated his war wounds and did not deserve a purple heart.

But it was the debates that provided a relatively direct confrontation of the candidates and that was probably the most revealing and perhaps important spectacle of the campaign. Television tends to exaggerate small defects and provides images of the candidates that their handlers might not wish to circulate. Al Gore was excoriated for his sighs during the first 2000 presidential debate and George W. Bush was taken apart for his petulant, testy, and often confused responses to Kerry’s sharp criticisms of his positions, and most commentators scored Kerry the decisive winner in all three debates.

But perhaps the most surprising television moment of the spectacle was revelations in the first debate that George W. Bush seemed to have a wire running up his back. One of the most intriguing stories concerned images circulated in regard to the mysterious bulge in Bush’s coat evident throughout the first debate. Speculation mushroomed over whether Bush was wired with Karl Rove feeding him answers, or if the wire malfunctioned or was jammed, causing Bush evident grief. John Reynolds in a commentary “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!” suggested that in the middle of an answer while the green light was still flashing Bush impatiently blurted out, “Now let me finish,” even though no one was seemingly interrupting him.[5] For Reynolds:

The ‘let me finish’ quip was clearly Bush talking to someone (probably Rove) in his earpiece- saying ‘let me finish’ (before you give me the next answer).

He blows it 60 seconds into his 90 second reply — so no warning lights had gone off and the moderator had not motioned for him to end as there was plenty of time left.

There is really no other plausible explanation for this huge blunder — who was he telling to ‘let him finish’? The voices in his head?

Is he talking to God again? Shouldn’t this be enough to warrant a major investigation of some sort — Bush is so incompetent he needs an earpiece to speak in public! (ibid).

Indymedia and other Internet sites circulated the images of the bulge and speculated that it was an electronic wire telling Bush what to say and a website quickly appeared collecting all the information and key stories on the phenomena at isbushwired.com. Once Salon broke the story on Friday,[6] all of the major Saturday newspapers had a story with lower-level Bush spokespeople saying it was “preposterous.”[7] The story persisted and on Sunday ABC’s morning show featured the images of Bush with the bulging coat that by now was blamed on his tailor. Yet the TV footage of the debate clearly showed what appeared to be a wire running along his back with a noticeable bulge around it.

Hence, when the third debate began on October 8 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, many were looking closely to see if there were any signs of a tell-tail wire on the back of Bush’s coat. While his shoulders and rump revealed rather strange tailoring, there was no evidence of a wire, as there was throughout the first debate, on Bush’s back until the end of the debate when he bounded on stage to meet with his and Kerry’s families. A picture in Salon suggested that a wire appeared to have popped out, as an astonished Kerry daughter looked at the strange hump in the back of Bush’s jacket.[8]

Speculations continued to fly over the Internet concerning whether Bush was wired, whether he had diabetes and the bulge was an insulin device, whether he had a heart attack (he had allegedly postponed his yearly physical this year), or whether the tell-tail bulge was just a flack jacket. Tailors weighed in and most said that the tell-tale bulges could not be explained by poor tailoring. The New York Times had an Op-Ed feature that showed pictures of New Yorkers walking down the street with big bulges in their clothes, but in these cases one could discern money-belts, shoulder pistols, flack jackets, and other devices. Critics like Dave Lindoff began looking at other tapes of the Bush presidency and finding evidence of a Wired Bush:

I just got a look at the full Fox tape of President Bush’s May ’04 joint news conference with French President Jaques Chirac. In that tape, as in several other tapes I’ve seen, Bush can be heard seemingly getting prompting from another voice. About 12 seconds into the piece, the leading voice says, “And I look forward to working to” Bush comes in with “And I look workin’…And I look forward to workin’ to.” The verbal slip-up makes it clear that this is no electronic echo or sound synchronization problem.

At another point, about one minute and sixteen seconds into the tape, the leading voice lets out a loud exhale of breath. Bush does not follow suit. There is no preceding voice when a reporter is heard asking a question. Also, at one minute and 28 seconds into this tape, Bush reaches up and manipulates something in his ear, at which point there is a static noise and the sound of a speaker acting up, until he removes his fingers from his ear.

There is no wire going up to his ear, indicating that the earpiece in his right ear is wireless.[9]

My own contribution to the Wired controversy emerged from a viewing of the extras on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (DVD) where one node appears at Bush’s press conference right after the 9/11 Hearings meeting between the president, Cheney and the 9/11 Commission. A subdued Bush swaggered out to the White House lawn to make a statement and meet with the press. After fumbling, he finds the words to describe the meeting and generally provided brief answers to reporters’ questions, often after a concentrated pause. As Bush turns around to return into the White House at the end one can clearly observe a bulging tell-tale sign in his jacket similar to the bulge observed during and after the first and third debates.

Of course, the bulge could have been a bullet-proof vest, but oddly the Bush handlers have not made the claim and in any case a flack jacket could easily hold and conceal a wiring device. A Wired Bush could explain his tendency to give answers in brief code words rather than sentences, although it is also possible that he is simply linguistically challenged. Wired or not, most commentators indicated that Kerry was the winner of the third debate on style and substance and that regarding the debates as a whole the Democrats scored a big grand slam over the inept Bush and the sinister Cheney. While Bush didn’t flub as bad as the first two debates, his performance was full of misstatements, evasions, and empty rhetoric. He smiled inappropriately both when he and Kerry were speaking and his eyes wildly blinked throughout. His painful attempt to smile was undermined by the right corner of his mouth turning down as though a botox injection had gone bad and blog commentators complained about spittle hanging over the corner of his mouth for much of the debate.[10]

Although John Stewart, Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, and other comedians continued to make Wired Bush jokes, the controversy was ignored by the mainstream media until Charles Gibson confronted Bush in a Good Morning America interview. In the summary of Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin:

As you recall, the bulge, most clearly photographed during Bush’s first debate, raised conspiracy theories that Bush was possibly getting audio cues over some sort of wireless device. This morning, in part two of his interview with Bush on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Charlie Gibson spit it out. Brandishing a copy of the photo, he asked:

“Final question. What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?”

Bush chuckled.

Bush: “Well, you know, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett have rigged up a sound system — ”

Gibson: “You’re getting in trouble — ”

Bush: “I don’t know what that is. I mean, it is, uh, it is, it’s a — I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Gibson: “It was the shirt?”

Bush: “Yeah, absolutely.”

Gibson: “There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was — ”

Bush: “How does an electrical — please explain to me how it works so maybe if I were ever to debate again I could figure it out. I guess the assumption was that if I was straying off course they would, kind of like a hunting dog, they would punch a buzzer and I would jerk back into place. I — it’s just absurd.”

So it’s the shirt? Sure doesn’t look like a shirt.[11]

Salon weighed in with another story on the mysterious bulge images as a NASA and Caltech scientist did an electronic enhancement of the images that clearly showed that something looking like a wire device was in the back of Bush’s jacket. In Kevin Berger’s summary:

George W. Bush tried to laugh off the bulge. “I don’t know what that is,” he said on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, referring to the infamous protrusion beneath his jacket during the presidential debates. “I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Dr. Robert M. Nelson, however, was not laughing. He knew the president was not telling the truth. And Nelson is neither conspiracy theorist nor midnight blogger. He’s a senior research scientist for NASA and for Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and an international authority on image analysis. Currently he’s engrossed in analyzing digital photos of Saturn’s moon Titan, determining its shape, whether it contains craters or canyons.

For the past week, while at home, using his own computers, and off the clock at Caltech and NASA, Nelson has been analyzing images of the president’s back during the debates. A professional physicist and photo analyst for more than 30 years, he speaks earnestly and thoughtfully about his subject. “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate,” he says. “This is not about a bad suit. And there’s no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt.”[12]

It remains to be seen if the Wired Bush controversy and photo widely circulates through the Internet during the last days of the campaign, makes it into the mainstream media, and has any effect on the election. Yet the phenomena reveals how television can scrutinize and capture minute details of behavior, personality tics, and focus attention on issues –- or ignore them. The Wired Bush controversy was clearly initially an Internet phenomenon that snuck into the margins of the mainstream media, but so far has not penetrated the center. Failure of the mainstream corporate media to not more seriously investigate the phenomenon shows the incompetency, cowardice, and pack journalism conformity of the mainstream media. And yet when the mainstream picks up on an issue, it can be devastating, as the Dean Scream spectacle proved for Howard Dean and the Watergate saga for Richard Nixon. Watergate was initially a highly marginal story, which briefly appeared before the 1972 election, and then returned to haunt Nixon and drive him from office after the election. And so marginal images and stories can proliferate and can generate unforeseen consequences and effects. In an age in which politics is mediated by media spectacle, those who live by the media can also die by it.

Notes
This text extracts from a forthcoming book to be published by Paradigm Press, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War, and Election Battles. Thanks to Dean Birkenkamp for support with this project, and to Rhonda Hammer and Richard Kahn for discussion and editing of the text. A draft of the text is available at my website.
By August 2004, a record billion dollars had been raised by both candidates, double the amount for the previous year. See Thomas B. Edsall, “Fundraising Doubles the Pace of 2000.” Washington Post, August 21, 2004: A01.
For details, see Douglas Kellner, Grand Theft 2000. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Many media pundits were cool for Dean from the beginning although he got much good press when the long-shot contender became a surprise front-runner. On the very negative coverage of the Dean campaign by the media punditry and corporate networks, see Peter Hart, “Target Dean. Re-establishing the establishment.” Extra! (March-April 2004: 13-18).
John Reynolds, “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!”.
Dave Lindorff, “Bush’s mystery bulge. The rumor is flying around the globe. Was the president wired during the first debate?” Salon, October 8, 2004.
See Mike Allen, “Bulge Under President’s Coat in First Debate Stirs Speculation,” Washington Post, October 9, 2004: A16.
Farhad Manjoo, “The bulge returns. As this screen shot from the Wednesday night debate indicates, the Bush mystery will not disappear.” Salon, October 13, 2004.
Tongue partly in cheek, the Salon writer noted: “Salon looked hard for evidence of the president’s mystery bulge this evening, but for much of the debate, on the ABC feed we screened, Bush’s back remained out of view. At the end, though, as the president crossed the stage to thank his opponent, we caught this glimpse of something strange pushing out of the commander in chief’s tailored coat. Is it part of an in-ear prompting device? Is it a back brace? Body armor? Confirmation that Bush is an alien? The mystery deepens … ” Earlier in the day, trying to make light of the whole affair, a Bush spokesman had said jokingly that the pictures of Bush’s humped back and mysterious bulge reveals that Bush is an alien.
Dave Lindoff, “At each ear a hearer: Bulletin on the Bush bulge,” Counterpunch, October 18, 2004.
See Ayelish McGarvey’s 01:54 a.m., October 13, 2004 commentary on the American Prospect webblog “Tapped” and the same day’s Salon “War Room ‘04” weblog.
Dan Froomkin, “Bush Tackles the ‘Bulge,'” Washington Post, October 26, 2004.
Kevin Berger, “NASA photo analyst: Bush wore a device during debate. Physicist says imaging techniques prove the president’s bulge was not caused by wrinkled clothing,” Salon, October 29, 2004.

Links
Salon article:Technical expert: Bush was wired
Wired Bush conspiracy site
Tom Watson’s Wired Bush comments

Please feel free to comment.