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Scare Tactics and Fluff

NewsMax's Ronald Kessler did what he could to help Republicans win the election -- sycophantically portraying his friends in the Bush administration, and demonizing Democrats and congressional pages.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 11/16/2006

Ronald Kessler's job at NewsMax isn't to report news; it's to make the Bush administration look good.

As ConWebWatch has previously detailed, Kessler has gone from being a respected journalist to becoming a Bush hagiographer, penning two books singing the praises of the president and his wife and, in June, signing on with NewsMax as its "chief Washington correspondent," in which his main function is to fluff the president and his advisers and to attack the administration's opponents, like John McCain and Democrats.

With the arrival of the election season, though, Kessler ratcheted up both his fluffing and his attacks.

In late July and early August, Kessler penned a three-part series featuring former White House chief of staff Andrew Card that touched upon three of Kessler's favorite subjects: Bush sycophancy (letting Card sympathetically portray the failed nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court), conservative attacks on the media (suggesting to Card that the New York Times "jeopardized Americans' safety" by "publishing stories on how the government tracks terrorists") and McCain's "notorious outbursts of anger" ("It was incidents of irrational behavior. ... I've never seen anyone act like that," he quotes Card as saying).

Kessler followed that up on Aug. 8 with a fawning feature on another Bush staffer, this time Clay Johnson III, "one of President Bush's closest friends." In it, Kessler touches on Bush's "trademark smirk or half smile, a gesture that many take as a sign of arrogance. But according to Johnson, "it's a manifestation of Bush's inability to act or pretend." More sycophancy was to come:

  • An Aug. 17 article gave the softball profile treatment to Kevin Sullivan, the new White House communications director; Kessler quoted Sullivan as saying about Bush, "The president has such great humanity, and he's so good with people, and the public doesn't see that enough."
  • A Sept. 11 article quoted Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, thusly: "The president, not just by his words but by his actions and his decisions, has made perfectly clear that first and foremost in his mind is personal commitment to protecting the American people -- even if it results in criticism of him personally." Kessler himself adds: "In effect, Bush operates as the CEO of the war on terror, pushing countries to cooperate, keeping track of terrorists, asking tough questions, and guiding the agencies responsible for combating terrorism."
  • A Sept. 18 article painted the Bush administration's faith-based funding initiative in glowing terms. Refuting claims by "the media" who "routinely portray Bush himself as a religious zealot," Kessler responded: "In fact, many of Bush's closest friends going back to Yale say he has never brought up religion with them. Bush talks about religion publicly only when asked questions by reporters." While Kessler featured Jim Towey, the current occupant of the White House's Faith-based and Community Initiatives office, but fails to mention the first person to hold that post, John DiIulio. That could be that after he resigned the post in 2002, he complained that the Bush White House cared much more about politics than policy, infamously calling it "the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

Kessler also slipped in yet another McCain-bashing article, claiming on Aug. 30 that McCain "had trouble controlling his anger long before he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam."

Related articles on ConWebWatch:

Ronald Kessler's House of Fluff

Mitt Romney's Fluffer

But as September turned to October, there came a one-two punch of bad news -- the Mark Foley scandal, in which the Republican congressman (and recipient of donations of cash and favorable press coverage from NewsMax CEO Christopher Ruddy) was accused of exchanging inappropriate and sexually explicit messages with current and former congressional pages, and the release of Bob Woodward's book "State of Denial," which is highly critical of the Bush administration's handling of terrorism and the Iraq war.

Kessler's retort to Woodward was simple enough -- an Oct. 2 article repeated Card's denial of Woodward's claim in his book that Card "and first lady Laura Bush tried to get Donald Rumsfeld fired as defense secretary."

The response to the Foley scandal was a little more complicated ... and deceptive. An Oct. 6 article featured his interview with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, but Hastert's claims were not countered -- even though they were incomplete or contradicted elsewhere. For instance Kessler wrote:

Hastert said he talked with former FBI Director Louis Freeh about heading the investigation into the page scandal, but Freeh said he would have to have the agreement of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"I ran that by her, and she just wasn't going to do anything," Hastert said.

But that's a misleading portrayal. In fact -- as NewsMax itself reported in a Oct. 6 article -- "Pelosi may have balked at Freeh having an investigative role in the scandal because many Democrats view him as a Republican ally." Freeh has given thousands of dollars in political contributions to Republicans, the article noted, and he attacked the Clinton administration in his 2005 book on his FBI service (a book NewsMax promoted). Kessler failed to mention Freeh's GOP ties as an explanation of why Pelosi allegedly "just wasn't going to do anything."

Kessler took it much further in an Oct. 11 article, in which he went into blame-the-victim mode by tarring the pages themselves. He recounted 30-year-old accusations describing alleged scandalous behavior of the pages in the 1970s -- sex, drugs, skinny-dipping, females undressing in front of open windows for the benefit of ogling Capitol Police officers, etc. While Kessler noted that "supervision of pages has cut down on the problems," he seemed to condone Foley behavior by stating that "there is no way ultimately to ensure that members of Congress will behave themselves with minors they encounter anywhere."

More Bush-fluffing followed, such as touting Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman's claim the GOP would retain control of both the House and the Senate in the November elections. But in apparent desperation as the elections approached and news for Republicans looked increasingly bad, Kessler used an Oct. 31 article to launch false and misleading attacks on Democrats:

  • Kessler wrote that "This year alone, the Democrats overwhelmingly voted five times to kill the Patriot Act." In fact, in the final vote on the reauthorization of the act in March, only nine Senate Democrats voted against it.
  • Kessler repeatedly portrayed Democrats as opposing the entire Patriot Act when, in fact, the vast majority opposed only specific provisions. As Rep. Jane Harman, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “We must extend it, mend it, but not end it.”
  • Kessler suggested that one Patriot Act provision that Democrats opposed was removal of the "wall" between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but he offers no examples of Democrats who specifically opposed that provision -- perhaps because there are none. In fact, Sen. Russ Feingold -- the only senator who voted against the original Patriot Act law in 2001 -- has said, "Nobody wants to put the wall back up."
  • Kessler wrote: "Under the Patriot Act, each roving wiretap, as they are called, has to be approved by a judge, so there is no question about infringing on civil liberties any more than when a judge approves a search of the house of a suspected child molester. Yet Democrats have portrayed the act as a monstrous invasion of rights." This, again, conflates questions about a specific provision to opposition to the entire Patriot Act. What Democrats actually opposed was a Bush administration proposal to make roving wiretaps permanent; the renewal put a four-year sunset provision on them.
  • Kessler also offered a strangely backhanded defense of the idea that we should unequivocally trust the FBI: "Since the days when J. Edgar Hoover ordered illegal wiretaps and improper surveillance, the FBI as an organization has not engaged in illegal conduct. If the FBI cannot be trusted to wiretap within the framework of the law, why trust agents to make arrests or carry weapons?" Doesn't the fact that the FBI has a history of engaging in "illegal wiretaps and improper surveillance" make it imperative that certain safeguards be in place, as opposed to Kessler's "go and sin no more" benediction?
  • Kessler wrote: "Democrats have also claimed that under another provision of the act, the FBI can use 'sneak and peek' tactics in libraries to probe people's reading habits without informing the targets until after a search."  Then, he claims that "the FBI has no interest in anyone's reading habits." Then why is he complaining about it? He should, therefore, have no problem with a provision in the renewal that offer more protections for library records. Further, the main issue regarding library searches had nothing to do with the "sneak and peek" tactics Kessler cites; they involve the fact that the original Patriot Act let libraries be served with National Security Letters, a type of subpoena that forces the party being subpoenaed into a non-disclosure agreement severely limiting their legal rights. The renewal eliminates libraries as a recipient of NSLs for library records (though not for Internet use of a library computer).

Kessler condensed his attack in a Nov. 2 article, claiming that "Democrats have sought to kill the USA Patriot Act, which FBI agents and CIA officers consider their single most important tool for hunting down terrorists and preventing another 9/11 attack."

And in a Nov. 6 article -- the final one before the Nov. 7 elections -- Kessler descended into pure, fact-free scare tactics:

If the Democrats win control of Congress and their rhetoric and votes are to be believed, they would adopt the Clinton administration's spineless approach to fighting terrorism.

They would gut the USA Patriot Act.

They would stop interception of calls from al-Qaida to and from the U.S.

They would end tracking of terrorists' financial transfers.

They would bestow legal rights on al-Qaida terrorists who are being interrogated about planned plots rights similar to those enjoyed by American citizens.

Finally, they would cut off funds to support the war effort in Iraq, handing al-Qaida a win in what the terrorists themselves have described as a crucial battleground in their effort to defeat America and impose their vision of radical Islam on the world.

The scare tactics didn't work: Democrats took control of both the House and Senate. So, Kessler's first post-election column on Nov. 8 went into damage-control -- and extreme sycophancy -- mode by comparing Bush to Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffett, and Harry Truman:

Like Warren Buffett, Bush keeps his eyes on the horizon. Buffett invests in companies he believes have long-term growth potential and holds on to those stocks regardless of short-term price fluctuations, negative media coverage, and downgrades by stock analysts. Today, Buffett is the second richest American with $40 billion in assets.

Bush isn't particularly interested in his place in history, either. Like any good CEO, he simply wants results and views challenges as opportunities. But he is also aware of how transitory opinion polls can be.

When Truman left office, his approval rating stood at 25 percent. Yet today, because of his firm approach to national security, Truman — whom the press portrayed as a simpleton — is viewed as one of the great presidents.

Similarly, the media have portrayed Bush as a buffoon, a religious fanatic, or a monster with the temerity to topple a man who had killed 300,000 people, not to mention liberating 50 million people.

In the same way, Democratic papers and critics disparaged Abraham Lincoln as a "dictator, ridiculed him as a baboon, damned him as stupid and incompetent . . ." according to Stephen B. Oates' book, "With Malice Toward None."

Note that Democrats get the blame for attacking Lincoln. But that's Ron Kessler for you -- defending Bush at all costs, attacking any perceived threat to Bush at all costs.

Truth and honesty, however, make up a good chunk of that cost.

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