Summer 2004

A Matter of Faith: The White House and the Press

Journalists’ focus ‘on religion and the presidency was unusual for an “objective” news media that usually relies on empirical evidence ….’

By David Domke

President George W. Bush delivered the 2003 State of the Union address before Congress and a national television audience estimated to be more than 60 million. He emphasized goals and accomplishments of his administration as well as challenges posed by terrorism and other perceived threats. In particular, Bush devoted a bit more than half of the address to the administration’s campaign against terrorism and his focus on confronting Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

Near the end of the address, the President turned to discussion of the nation’s character and its purpose in the world. He declared that: “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” He then added: “We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone. We do not know—we do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history. May He guide us now.”

Four days later, on the morning of February 1st, the space shuttle Columbia exploded, killing all seven crew members. The President spoke to the nation from the White House that afternoon. Included in his comments were these words: “In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’ The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth. Yet we can pray that all are safely home.”

The explicitly religious language in these two addresses, combined with the administration’s push for war in the Middle East (the Holy Land’s region), prompted a spate of popular analyses of Bush’s religious faith. For example, Newsweek devoted its March 10, 2003 cover to “Bush & God,” The Washington Post took up the topic with stories and columns, and New York Times’s columnists and guest writers weighed in. To focus on religion and the presidency was unusual for an “objective” news media that usually relies on empirical evidence and verifiable opinion claims by sources—elements often missing from matters of religion and faith.

Yet in their coverage of this issue, the press missed the deeper story. While Bush’s overtly religious language, what scholar Martin E. Marty termed “God talk” in one of the Newsweek articles, was manifest, the more important and far less obvious matter was that the administration converged a religious fundamentalist worldview with its political language. This political fundamentalism was used to offer familiarity, comfort and a nation-affirming moral vision to the American public in the aftermath of September 11th.

Analyzing News Media Response

Between September 2001 and the President’s speech declaring “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003, I examined the response of mainstream U.S. news media to characteristics of the Bush administration’s political fundamentalism. Specifically, I analyzed how the press responded to each of Bush’s national addresses (15 in 20 months, a remarkable pace) and the administration’s push for key policies and goals in its struggle against terrorism, including passage of the USA Patriot Act in autumn 2001, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in summer and autumn 2002, and congressional and U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq in autumn 2002. I examined news stories and editorials in 20 leading and geographically diverse U.S. mainstream newspapers and content on evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.

My analysis revealed that the news media consistently amplified the words and ideas of the President and other administration leaders. And they did this by echoing throughout their coverage similar claims made by multiple administration members, thereby having the administration’s perspectives establish the terms of public discourse. In particular, four key fundamentalist messages by the administration were uncritically given voice in this news coverage:

  1. Binary, zero-sum conceptions of the political landscape, most notably good vs. evil and security vs. peril.

  2. Calls for immediate action by Congress and the United Nations on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation’s “calling” and “mission” against terrorism.

  3. Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.

  4. Claims that dissent from the administration was unpatriotic and a threat to the nation.

These messages were rooted in a religiously conservative worldview, yet they were often framed—by the administration and, in turn, the news media—to emphasize a sense of nationalism. This explicit emphasis on American identity, with omnipresent use of words such as freedom, made the administra-tion’s fundamentalist approach attractive or at least palatable to the U.S. press and public in the wake of the terrorist attacks when Americans were trying to understand why so many others hated them. For example, only two of more than 300 editorials that I analyzed in response to the President’s national addresses criticized the administration’s description of the campaign against terrorism as a monumental struggle of good vs. evil—with the United States clearly on the side of angels. With so many around the globe expressing a different view during these 20 months, by uncritically echoing these fundamentalist messages within these editorials, the press failed its readers.

The Press in Times of Crisis

Anecdotal and systematic evidence suggest that news organizations consistently treat presidential administrations favorably in times of external threats to the nation. However, the Bush administration benefited from a U.S. news media that gave it the benefit of the doubt in a manner unprecedented in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. The typically inquisitive approach of journalists toward government was dropped—at least for a period of time.

CBS News anchor Dan Rather made this shift in journalistic sensibilities explicit in a September 22, 2001, interview on “CNN Tonight,” in which he said: “I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriotic American. And, therefore, I am willing to give the government, the President, and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning. I’m going to fulfill my role as a journalist and that is ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questions. But I have no excuse for, particularly when there is a national crisis such as this, as saying—you know, the President says do your job, whatever you are and whomever you are, Mr. and Mrs. America. I’m going to do my job as a journalist, but at the same time I will give them the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible in this kind of crisis, emergency situation.”

Such a nationalistic reaction by the mainstream press in the immediate aftermath of September 11th pleased significant segments of the public, whose impression of news media became more favorable in the days following the attacks.

The press’s favorable response to the fundmentalism-cum-nationalism offered by the administration continued for months as leading news outlets offered special “America Challenged” sections and sprouted flag-waving television network logos. This process was facilitated by the commercial success of unabashedly pro-American Fox News Channel. Fox’s viewership rose significantly after September 11th. It ended 2002 ahead of CNN in the ratings competition and received the highest ratings in its history during the Iraq War in spring 2003. Other news media took notice and became further hesitant to question the administration. CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, for example, said in September 2003: “I think the press was muzzled, and I think the press self-muzzled. I’m sorry to say but certainly television and, perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News. And it did, in fact, put a climate of fear and self-censorship, in my view, in terms of—of the kind of broadcast work we did.”

What pleased the public in the aftermath of September 11th and ultimately drew audiences to the more nationalistic news outlets is not always what is best for democracy, however. This deference to the administration and echoing of the administration’s messages left the American public without a critical outsider’s eye from autumn of 2001 until the spring of 2003.

To be clear, the U.S. news media did not emphasize the administration’s messages to the same extent as the White House did during this time. Such an equation would imply that the commercial, independent news media merely served as mouthpieces, and that is not the case. Disagreement with the administration sometimes appeared in news stories—either as a presentation of different factual information or of divergent observations by other sources—and in newspaper editorials. Coverage also included occasional strong criticisms of government policy, in particular in regard to the administration’s diplomatic failures in early 2003.

The chief failure of members of the press is that they didn’t adequately cover the deeply religious motivations of the administration’s actions and, as a result, too rarely questioned the administration’s discourses—of good vs. evil and security vs. peril, for example. Rarely did they highlight in their reporting administration pushes for immediate action on policies in order to fulfill a divine mission, or about the “God-decreed” universality of freedom and liberty, or the administration’s emphasis on unity over dissent. Once these fundamentalist discourses became consistently amplified—but not analyzed—in leading press outlets, the administration gained the rhetorical high ground, and that went far in determining policy decisions.

But democracy doesn’t function when a free press is beholden to those in power because it is by dominating the news discourse that public opinion is controlled. When the press echoes government leaders, and almost no one else, they are not acting as a neutral press.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press exists and has been upheld by many courts as a safeguard against the corrosive tendencies of power. The press are expected to provide a bulwark against governmental oppression, rather than serve as a buttress to it. Never is this more necessary than in times of crisis. Yet the evidence after September 11th (and, indeed, throughout American history) suggests that during times of crisis the press become most likely to echo the perspectives of governmental leadership.

This pattern must not continue. U.S. democratic ideals will have the opportunity to be fully realized only when journalists sustain consistent checks on the absolute power of government during—and not solely after—times of national crisis.

David Domke, a former journalist, heads the journalism program at the University of Washington. His research focuses on the relationships among political leaders, news coverage, and public opinion in the United States. This article is adapted from the book “God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the Echoing Press,” to be released in July 2004 by Pluto Press (www.press.umich.edu).


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