Today on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace made sure to devote plenty of time to covering President Obama’s “war on Fox News”; he even played a clip of Sean Connery as Jim Malone “The Untouchables” talking about “the Chicago way” of getting things done. Former Bush press secretary Dana Perino sharply criticized the Obama administration’s tactics and expressed absolute shock at the example the United States was setting for “the free press in emerging democracies,” comparing the criticisms of Fox News to when “Hugo Chavez shuts down television stations”:
PERINO: That was a coordinated, calculated attack. It was unbecoming. And if you look at some of the coverage of what mainstream media covers when, for example, somebody like a Hugo Chavez shuts down television stations, he calls them illegitimate.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this White House believes that they are going to come over here and shut down Fox News. But they are defining a narrative in their first year, and it’s going to be very hard to recover from it. [...]
Through our State Department, we are trying to help emerging democracies get journalists and government officials to talk to one another, because freedom of the press is essential to any democracy. Believe me, they are watching this, and they have — surely are raising questions.
The Obama administration, according to Reporters Without Borders, is actually setting quite a strong example of press freedom for the world. In 2008, the organization found that in terms of press freedom, the U.S. ranked 36th out of 173 countries. Its report singled out “wars carried out in the name of the fight against terrorism” as a cause for the steep decline in press freedoms around the world. Just one year later, the United States has jumped from 36th to 20th. “Barack Obama’s election as president and the fact that he has a less hawkish approach than his predecessor have had a lot to do with this,” concluded Reporters Without Borders.
So what type of example did the Bush administration set? A few lowlights:
– The Pentagon had a secret program to use retired military analysts to “generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.” Most of these analysts had “ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.” When the “message machine” became public, Perino defended the program as “absolutely appropriate.”
– The U.S. military was “secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.” The articles contained anonymous quotes from U.S. military officials — which may or may not have been authentic — and “read more like press releases than news stories.”
– The Education Department paid conservative pundit Armstrong Williams hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Even after the corruption was uncovered, the administration defended it as “a permissible use of taxpayer funds.”
– The Government Accountability Office found that the Bush administration violated anti-propaganda laws when it disguised two promotional ads — on federal drug policy and Medicare — as news reports. The “reports” aired on dozens of stations, and the GAO “faulted the administration for distributing seemingly independent, ready-to-air reports that did not inform viewers that they came from the government.”
Bush also called a New York Times reporter “a major league asshole” — and never apologized. In fact, Bush
never gave the NYT a single interview throughout his presidency. (Update: Bush gave the New York Times interviews in 2001, 2004, and 2005.) The White House frequently went after NBC News, and Perino has admitted that they essentially froze out MSNBC “towards the end.”
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