Ronald Kessler's House of Fluff
The formerly respected journalist brings his Bush hagiography skills to NewsMax, praising the White House and attacking its critics.
By Terry Krepel
NewsMax seemed to be pretty sure of what it was getting when it hired author Ronald Kessler as its chief Washington correspondent.
The June 5 NewsMax article announcing Kessler's hiring was a nice little Kabuki dance. Kessler "has a long history of combining quality work and balanced journalism," NewsMax CEO Christopher Ruddy stated -- even though he had bashed Kessler in a 2002 column for not aggressively investigating his favorite subject, Bill Clinton:
This week I heard author Ron Kessler say the FBI "disintegrated" under former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
Kessler, for his part, professed his love for his new employer:
"Since I first learned about NewsMax, I’ve admired how, in order to tell the truth about subjects ranging from politics to medicine, it presents factual material that the rest of the media ignore," Mr. Kessler said. "I’m proud to be associated with an operation that practices journalism honestly and fairly."
Anyone who claims to practice "balanced journalism" ought to know that NewsMax has no interest in practicing journalism "honestly and fairly," with a long record of distortions, bias and outright lies to prove it.
Kessler has a pedigree as an actual journalist, with reporting stints at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post; NewsMax states that he has won "16 major awards, including prestigious George Polk prizes for national reporting and community service." But he has apparently given up straight journalism to become the Bush administration hagiographer. As Kessler's NewsMax bio shows, his last two books treat the administration with kid gloves: "A Matter of Character," which "contrasts the respectful way George and Laura Bush treat Secret Service agents, military aides, and maids and butlers with the imperious, nasty way previous White House occupants Bill and Hillary Clinton treated them," and "Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady," which is "[t]he only book to be written about Laura Bush with White House cooperation," which gives you an idea about its tone.
Another clue to the book's tone is NewsMax's fawning coverage of it in April, before Kessler officially joined NewsMax. An April 4 article by Jim Myers showed that, as in his previous Bush book, painting "an extremely unflattering portrait of the Clintons" was the order of the day; the anecdote that the Clintons allegedly "treated Secret Service agents and household help with disdain" is repeated. The article revived largely debunked charges of White House vandalism by members of the Clinton administration before George W. Bush took office.
Myers recounted the allegations as an example of "the Clintons' real irreverence for the White House," as opposed to the Bushes' purported reverence. He details the allegations made by then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer of the alleged damage in the White House and the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building before noting three paragraphs later that "The final, official report from the Government Accounting Office, released on June 11, 2002, did not confirm all of Fleischer's allegations." In fact, as the GAO report found (as indicated by the list of items Myers provided), the most serious of Fleischer's allegations were never confirmed and, in fact, not much different from the condition of the White House when Clinton took over in 1993 from George H.W. Bush. Additionally, as was noted at the time, most of the vandalism allegations were made anonymously and never backed up with solid evidence.
This is the kind of coverage NewsMax wants -- and, conveniently, the kind of coverage Kessler brings. Nearly all of the 15 articles Kessler has written for NewsMax since officially beginning his NewsMax stint (not counting a May 1 article promoting his Laura Bush book) either praise the Bush administration and its policies or attack what he considers the administration's enemies.
High on that enemies list is Sen. John McCain. In a June 27 article, Kessler featured the response of conservative activist Grover Norquist to a report by the McCain-led Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Norquist attacked McCain as "dishonest" and "delusional" and accused him of "lying" about the report's conclusion that Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform, served as a front to launder payments made to Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition honcho (and, most recently, failed lieutenant governor candidate in Georgia), for his Jack Abramoff-connected lobbying work. Kessler did not allow McCain to respond to Norquist's attacks. A July 10 article continued Kessler's fealty toward Norquist by touting his weekly Washington meetings with bigwigs -- and taking care not to mention Norquist's ethical woes.
Another target has been the media. A June 21 article quotes Eric Dezenhall, "the most prominent crisis manager in the country" (not to mention "a former press aide to Ronald Reagan") as saying that the media have become overrun with reporters with "political agendas or huge ambitions and an almost sexual desire to destroy a target."
While Kessler did not explicitly link coverage of Bush to that "almost sexual desire to destroy a target," he made up for it with a July 22 article purporting to describe "the media war against the Bush administration":
After 9/11, the media criticized George Bush and the government for not having done enough to prevent the attacks. Now the mainstream media have gone on to attack everything the government has done since then to make us safer.
The article wandered the familiar trail of conservative attacks on the media, from defending the reference to the infamous "16 words" about Iraq allegedly trying to purchase yellowcake uranium in Africa to bashing The New York Times for "exposing legitimate programs that are necessary to hunt down terrorists."
Kessler also smacked the media for claiming that "one of the Bush administration's main justifications for the war in Iraq" was a solid link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda -- "Bush had never said that Saddam and al-Qaida were working together as partners," he wrote, ignoring that Vice President Dick Cheney had promoted a purported meeting between 9-11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in 2001 as evidence of such a link -- then, conversely, smacking it around again for burying the news of "numerous contacts" between al-Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq.
Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame were also on Kessler's target list, claiming in a June 20 article that they had "undermined the integrity of the CIA's clandestine program to collect intelligence using covert officers" by appearing in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine after Plame's outing as a CIA operative by columnist Robert Novak. But Kessler failed to note that Plame's work as a CIA operative was effectively ended by Novak's outing, so there was no real reason for her not to appear in Vanity Fair (with her face obscured, by the way).
On the flip side, Kessler was dolloping praise on the administration and its friends. Besides Norquist, those getting the fluff treatment from Kessler include Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman ("widely admired within Republican Party circles for his effective, low-profile leadership"), the Bush twins ("Barbara is considered the artistic member of the Bush family"), Karl Rove (" Those who wonder if Karl Rove has lost his touch need look no further than the Republican strategy of forcing Democrats to go on the record about setting a date for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq"), Kessler has also touted the Republicans' success in fund-raising.
The lead object of Kessler's praise is, of course, the president himself. A June 19 article touted how "Bush acts like the Harvard Business School graduate he is, soliciting different views, then making up his mind." But Kessler also noted that his own "view of the president is a positive one," adding: "Having written extensively about the CIA and FBI in my books, I recognized how much Bush was doing to fight terrorism after 9/11." Kessler lamented "the antipathy of the mainstream media to Bush" but happily noted that "snarling reporters have become tamed" by the appointment of Tony Snow as White House press secretary. Because of the "inside information" Snow is willing to dole out to the media, Kessler wrote, "they will think twice before engaging in Bush-bashing."
A June 14 piece went even fluffier on Bush, noting that "Many of the president's friends wish he would find another sport besides bicycling" and describing a bicycle-themed birthday cake he had received.
Such unquestioned praise of Bush -- and attacks on his critics -- is what Kessler has brought to NewsMax. And his unambiguous bias is exactly what NewsMax seems to think journalists should have.