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Dowd spawns Bush media myth

The New York Times columnist's distorted quotation of President Bush has spread throughout the national and international press.
By Brendan Nyhan
May 22, 2003

An outrageous new falsehood is circulating about President Bush. Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd misrepresented a Bush statement to imply that he said the Al Qaeda terrorist network is "not a problem anymore," and the distorted quotation has since been repeated by MSNBC "Buchanan and Press" co-host Bill Press, CNN's Miles O'Brien and others, including numerous foreign press outlets. At a time when the New York Times is under fire for its conduct in the Jayson Blair scandal, Dowd's creation of an exploding media myth is cause for serious concern.

In her May 14 column (which was reprinted in newspapers around the country), Dowd wrote the following:

Busy chasing off Saddam, the president and vice president had told us that Al Qaeda was spent. "Al Qaeda is on the run," President Bush said last week. "That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated... They're not a problem anymore."

But as Andrew Sullivan pointed out on his website (and later in his Washington Times column), these quotes was taken wildly out of context from a May 5 speech in Arkansas in which Bush said this:

Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore.

Bush was obviously saying that the Al Qaeda operatives who "are either jailed or dead" are "not a problem anymore," not that Al Qaeda itself is "not a problem."

That didn't stop Press, who repeated Dowd's distorted quotation verbatim twice on the day it was published. During the 3 PM EST show, Press presented the quote to guest Christopher Whitcomb:

Chris, I want to read you something we were told last week. And I quote -- "Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. They're not a problem anymore. " That's what President Bush told the nation.

During the 6 PM show, Press added, "[Bush] said last week about the Al Qaeda, 'Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. They're not a problem any more.'"

CNN's Miles O'Brien also parroted the quotation that day in an interview on CNN's "Live From" (which was contested by his guest, Cliff May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies):

O'BRIEN: Cliff May, last week, the president said 'Al Qaeda is on the run. The group of terrorists who attacked our country [is] slowly but surely being decimated. They're not a problem anymore.' Maybe not so?
MAY: Well, I don't recall the president saying 'not a problem anymore.'

The next day, the Sacramento Bee denounced Bush in an editorial for his supposed "statement the other day -- a few days before terrorist bombs killed eight Americans and many others in Saudi Arabia -- that the al-Qaida terrorists 'are not a problem anymore.' They are." The Roanoke Times (Virginia) made a similar claim on the same day, quoting Bush as saying "Al-Qaida is on the run.... They're not a problem, anymore" but claiming that "the Riyadh bombings - which killed at least 20 people, including at least seven Americans - suggest otherwise."

On Monday, Press was back to repeating the claim during an exchange with co-host Pat Buchanan on the 6 PM show:

PRESS: But here is the thing. I mean, look, the president last week said al Qaeda is on the run. They're basically not a problem anymore. We don't have...
(CROSSTALK)
BUCHANAN: He didn't say they're not a problem.
PRESS: I'm paraphrasing, but he said -- he made people believe that that was history, and then we have Riyadh, then we have morocco. We still got stuff in Israel.

Press then repeated it again during Tuesday's show:

PRESS: Here's what's phony, Pat. What's phony is for the president to say that al Qaeda is on the run, they're not a problem anymore. Those guys (UNINTELLIGIBLE) locked up. The fact is the al Qaeda went underground, they're stronger than ever. They're still out there, and we went off on a distraction in Iraq instead of taking care of the war on terror...

The same night, Fox News "Hannity and Colmes" co-host Alan Colmes presented video of the full quotation, but still claimed Bush was suggesting Al Qaeda itself is "not a problem anymore":

BUSH: Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case they are not a problem anymore.
COLMES: But they are a problem. They were a problem in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, they're a problem in Morocco. And the president says they are not a problem anymore and it turns out they still are a problem.

As blogger Henry Hanks points out, Begala did the same thing as Colmes on "Crossfire" Tuesday, presenting the full quote and then misrepresenting it:

BUSH: Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they are not a problem anymore.
BEGALA: Not a problem anymore. Congressman King, is our president ignorant or is he misleading us?

This falsehood has also been repeated in a wide array of foreign news reports and op-eds: The Straits Times of Singapore (5/15), The Irish Times (5/16), The Sydney Morning Herald (5/17) and Courier Mail (5/18) in Australia, Toronto Star in Canada (5/18), Gulf News of the United Arab Emirates (5/19), Canada's National Post (5/20) and Winnipeg Sun/Edmonton Sun (5/21) and, finally, The Irish Times again (5/21).

Critics have every right to object to Bush's statement if they believe it mischaracterizes the threat from Al Qaeda. But they also have a responsibility to accurately represent what the President actually said, rather than repeating Dowd's distorted quotation. The New York Times - and the other outlets that have disseminated the myth - should let their readers know the full context of Bush's statement. The rapid spread of this myth is yet another sad commentary on the state of American political journalism.

Update (5/23 12:58 PM): A number of readers have objected to my interpretation of Bush's quote. Let me elaborate further. First, if Bush had really said that Al Qaeda is "not a problem anymore," it would have been huge news around the country, but it received little attention until Dowd's column. The reason is that "In either case" clearly refers to the top operatives who are either "jailed or dead." It logically follows that "they're not a problem anymore" refers to those operatives, who are in one of two conditions -- in jail or dead.

In addition, Bush has repeatedly used the "not a problem" formulation and the similar "no longer a problem" phrase over the past year to refer to Al Qaeda terrorists who have been captured or detained rather than the group as a whole:

I bet you we've hauled in a couple of thousand of these killers. They're detained, they're no longer a problem. And like number weren't as lucky, thanks to the United States military. (October 8, 2002)
A couple of thousand of them have been hauled in and they're no longer a problem. Like number met a different fate, and I can assure you they're not a problem. (October 31, 2002)
We're on an international manhunt, one at a time. A couple of thousand have been hauled in; a couple of thousand met their fate a different way. They're not a problem. (November 2, 2002)
We're working with friends and allies around the world. And we're hauling them in, one by one. Some have met their fate by sudden justice; some are now answering questions at Guantanamo Bay. In either case, they're no longer a problem to the United States of America and our friends. (January 3, 2003)
All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. (January 28, 2003)
So far, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Just about that number met a different kind of fate. They're not a problem anymore. (February 13, 2003)

Correction (5/25 12:56 PM): The quote from Dowd has been corrected to the ellipsis she used in her original Times column. I originally drew the quotation from the International Herald Tribune's reprint of her article, which turned out to break the quote up with "he added" in place of her original ellipsis. For the same reason, I have changed the link above to a Salt Lake Tribune reprint that presents the quote unaltered. My point, of course, stands in its entirety. Also, Timeswatch.com ran an item on the distorted quotation on the same day as Andrew Sullivan. Because I don't know who published first, I have deleted that word from my description of Sullivan's critique.

Update (5/28 12:19 PM): Dowd presents the full quote today in her column in an accurate context. Also, New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets reports that he sent in her original, distorted quotation to the Times and that spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the paper is "looking into" the matter.

Update (6/4 2:21 PM): A Times spokeswoman told the New York Daily News recently that "It was Ms. Dowd's decision" to present Bush's full quote. "Her intention was not to distort the meaning of the quote," the spokeswoman said. She had received a couple of complaints and was happy to put in the entire quote to satisfy readers who felt it was too truncated." Meanwhile, the Roanoke Times, Sacramento Bee and MSNBC blogger Eric Alterman have issued corrections for using Dowd's distorted quotation, and a Texas newspaper has dropped her column.

Update (6/16 11:13 PM): The Orange County Register and Orlando Sentinel have also run corrections of Dowd's quotation. In addition, in an editorial in its June 9 issue, The Nation repeats the misleading "not a problem anymore" quote, writing that "Weeks ago, flush with military success in Iraq, Bush proclaimed Al Qaeda to be 'on the run' and 'not a problem anymore.'"

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