Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
Bush at a press conference in which he called his opposition the ‘Democrat Party.’ (AP Photo)

Cranberg would penalize Bush for taunting

COMMENTARY | August 30, 2006

There’s no ‘Democrat’ party; the next time the president uses that terminology why doesn’t a reporter call him on it?

By Gilbert Cranberg

President Bush at his Aug. 21 press conference refused once again to call the opposition party by its proper name when he declared, “...there are a lot of people in the Democrat Party who believe that the best course of action is to leave Iraq before the job is done.” A lot of people, surely including the president, realize that there is no such organization as the “Democrat Party.” But as always when the president indulges in this word game, no one at the press conference had the presence of mind, or spine, to question him about it.

Why would the president want to make himself appear ignorant? Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker’s Aug. 7 & 14 Talk of the Town section had a plausible explanation. “Democrat Party,” wrote Hertzberg, “is a slur, or intended to be – a handy way to express contempt....an attempt to deny the enemy the positive connotations of its chosen appellation.”

Whatever Bush’s motive, his misnaming of the Democratic Party is a headache for the press. Its job is to quote accurately. If it reports, however, that Bush said the “Democrat Party” believes the U.S. should leave Iraq before the job is done, and nothing more, the press aids and abets the president’s sneer of the party. To put it another way, the press becomes Bush’s enabler.

On the other hand, it’s a no-no for journalists to clean-up quotes. If it did, and reported, inaccurately, that the president called it the Democratic Party, the press would have misled the public by failing to let readers know that Bush had engaged in what at least some of them would regard as sophomoric partisanship. In that case, the press could fairly be accused of partisanship itself by protecting the president from criticism.

The best solution is for Bush to quit his nonsensical references to “Democrat Party.” Hertzberg points out that when Senator Joseph McCarthy used it, even conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., (an admirer), rebuked him for “contorting the language.” It’s mystifying why Bush would want to tarnish the presidency by following in McCarthy’s footsteps. It’s especially inappropriate for the president to use the expression in dealing with the press. While his audience at a press conference is the country at large, when he holds a press conference his give-and-take is with the press and he engages directly with it. The press ought to be miffed that, when responding to press-conference questions, the president would inflict on them expressions more appropriate, if then, for a partisan campaign rally.

If the president does not cease and desist, he perhaps will do so if, the next time he trots out “Democrat Party,” a member of the press corps asks, “With all due respect Mr. President, why do you use that term when everybody knows that isn’t the party’s name? What are you trying to accomplish?”

In any event, the president is entitled to be reported exactly the way he chooses to speak. And if he regards it as his prerogative to continue to campaign against the “Democrat Party,” it is the press’s prerogative to quote him accurately and then add that the president’s reference to “Democrat Party” is widely understood to be meant as a taunt, insult or put-down.

Posted by OC Patriot -
09/03/2006, 10:29 PM

I suggest that you free yourself from the "niceties" of what you perceive as "objective" reporting. Saying, after the fact, that the President is taunting or denigrating the Democratic Party is judgment. The more this unprincipled man is called on his deliberate putdowns at the time they happen, the more he will toe the line and have to invent new putdowns or will play it much straighter because he wants to be perceived himself as being "fair" and "open" and straight forward", a regular guy. So I suggest you re-think being nice; in the game he plays, nice guys, honest guys, get swiftboated. Sorry, but you sound too gentlemanly, too old fashioned.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.