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How to Stage a Controversy By: Matthew Continetti
Weekly Standard | Thursday, March 18, 2004


IT WAS THE WEEK of March 4, and the Bush reelection campaign was ready to go on the offensive. One campaign official told the New York Times that the president was "eager" to start the debate with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. Another, Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, said, "We have a whole series of things we're going to correct that have been said over the last six months." And the day before the ads premiered, Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, put it this way to CNN: "There's now about to be a two-way conversation. We're now going to talk about the clear choice that Americans will face on November 2, 2004."

Mehlman spoke too soon. What people ended up talking about after the Bush ads were unveiled was whether the president's campaign had "exploited" the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by using a couple of seconds of footage from that day in two of its three advertisements. That's because the news coverage of the official launch of George W. Bush's reelection campaign focused on the reactions to the ads of firefighters and 9/11 victims' families. These people, presented as a random assortment of individuals, were angry at the president for using the attacks supposedly as a political prop.

Democrats seized on the controversy. "This is just the latest example of the way this president has been a divider and not a uniter," Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign strategist, said on ABC. Devine's boss, John Kerry, told the New York Times, There are plenty of ways to convey the threat of terror without usurping what I think is a very sensitive memory in the American consciousness." Paul Begala, the CNN pundit and former Clinton adviser, put it bluntly: "The president's use of footage from September 11 in a partisan political commercial has provoked outrage from victims' families and from firefighters who say their brothers and sisters did not sacrifice and suffer for a cheap, cheesy, campaign ad."

This criticism caught the Bush campaign by surprise. On Friday, March 5, Karen Hughes, the Bush strategist, told the Early Show's Harry Smith, "with all due respect, . . . I just completely disagree" with those who thought the television ads were exploitative. Hughes's reason, expressed haltingly, was that "September 11 was not just a distant tragedy. It's a defining event for the future of our country." There were other reasons to be skeptical of the criticism as well, which Hughes neglected to mention. The images of Ground Zero amounted to only a few seconds in each ad. And soot-covered New York City firefighters roaming through the rubble of the World Trade Center were nothing new to American television.

Neither is it anything new, of course, when a small group of people with excellent public relations skills and a political axe to grind are able to manipulate an unskeptical media. Which seems to be what happened in the case of the Bush television ads. For much of the controversy can be traced directly to a press release issued by the Institute for Public Accuracy, or IPA, at a little after 2:00 P.M. on March 4.

The IPA is a five-person media clearinghouse located in the National Press Building. According to GuideStar, a website that tracks nonprofits, the group "promotes the inclusion of outlooks that usually get short shrift." It does this by issuing press releases. It has been issuing press releases since April 8, 1998. These go out to about 7,000 journalists and television producers. They promote speakers and experts whose outlooks are generally of a far-left bent. When I asked Sam Husseini, the IPA's communications director, whether the outfit was left-liberal, he told me, "I'm so far beyond labels, just give me the facts." But the IPA's facts are often questionable (mass starvation in Afghanistan, a massacre at the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, and so on), and their opinions are always hard-left. After the Clinton administration began its bombing of Kosovo in March 1999, the IPA promoted the antiwar punditry of Howard Zinn, the radical historian, who claimed Clinton had "deceived" the United States into war against Slobodan Milosevic. And when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the IPA turned reporters onto similar radical ideologues who opposed the war. Ditto with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The IPA release on March 4 was brief--under 500 words--and little more than a list. It highlighted three potential stories and sources for journalists. One was the upcoming trip to Afghanistan of a mother whose firefighter son was killed in the September 11 attacks. Another was an Afghan women's rights activist's comments on International Women's Day, which took place on March 8.

But the lead item was the Bush ads story, featured in the subject line of the email: "Firefighters and 9/11 Families on Bush Ads." Journalists were pointed in two directions. First, they were alerted that Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, was outraged at the Bush ads. As is typically the case with such press releases, a helpful quote from Schaitberger was included. "I'm disappointed but not surprised that the President would try to trade on the heroism of those firefighters in the September 11 attacks. The uses of 9/11 images are hypocrisy at its worst." Two email addresses were listed, as well as two contact numbers for Schaitberger, both in Washington, D.C., where the IAFF has its headquarters.

Second, the IPA press release directed reporters interested in the Bush campaign ads to Adele Welty, David Potorti, and Colleen Kelly, members of a group called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. All three had lost relatives in the September 11 attacks. All were promoting Adele's upcoming peace mission to Afghanistan. And all were also "available to comment on the Bush advertising campaign," with their phone numbers provided.

And comment they did. Sifting through the news coverage of the controversy over Bush's ads, one finds the same individuals--Schaitberger, Potorti, and Kelly--quoted again and again. Schaitberger and Kelly are both quoted in a Boston Globe story that ran on March 5. Schaitberger and Kelly Campbell, a spokeswoman for September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, were the sources for the Washington Post's account. Kelly, Potorti, and Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, are quoted in the AP dispatch on the Bush ads. Potorti is quoted in USA Today's story.

In fact, members of Peaceful Tomorrows are often quoted without any mention of their group affiliation. In what looks like an egregious case of lazy reporting, multiple news outlets treated members of Peaceful Tomorrows as if they were nonaffiliated people-on-the-street in order to make the controversy over the Bush ads seem widespread.

For example, in the March 5 Boston Globe story, Colleen Kelly is identified as the "New York area coordinator for Peaceful Tomorrows, an advocacy group formed by relatives of those killed on Sept. 11." But David Potorti, who is the group's codirector, is identified only as someone "whose brother was killed in the attacks on New York."

The same thing happens in the Associated Press's account, in which Potorti is identified as a political "independent from Cary, N.C." In fact, of all the major news outlets that quoted Potorti as a 9/11 family member upset at the Bush ad campaign, only USA Today identified him as a member of Peaceful Tomorrows.

The same rule applied to other members of Peaceful Tomorrows. Here is an excerpt from Paul Farhi's Washington Post story on March 5, which ran under the headline "Bush Ads Using 9/11 Images Stir Anger":

"The idea that President Bush would rally support around his campaign by using our loved ones in a way that is so shameful is hard for me to believe," said Rita Lasar, a New York resident whose brother, Abe Zelmanowitz, died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. "It's so hard for us to believe it's not obvious to everyone that Ground Zero shouldn't be used as a backdrop for a political campaign. We are incensed and hurt by what he is doing."

Kelly Campbell, co-director of a nonpartisan group called Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, acknowledged that some victims' relatives found the ads appropriate. "There's no consensus around this, but for the most part 9/11 families are very sensitive to someone using images of our loved one's death for their own ends," she said.

Notice that, while Campbell is identified as the codirector of Peaceful Tomorrows, Rita Lasar is quoted as if she'd been selected at random from a list of people who had lost relatives in the terror attacks. But two days later, in a CNN.com report on a press conference in New York City held by Peaceful Tomorrows and organized by the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org, Rita Lasar shows up again . . . this time, as one of the group's spokeswomen. "It's a deep hurt and sorrow that any politician, Democrat or Republican, would seek to gain advantage by using that site," she told CNN.

It is worth noting that Harold Schaitberger and other members of the International Association of Fire Fighters never said their criticism transcended partisan politics. This makes sense. Last fall, the union was one of the first to endorse John Kerry's presidential bid. But most news outlets that talked to Schaitberger mentioned the fact that he is a partisan Democrat only several paragraphs below the catchy headline (usually a variation on "Firefighters Angry at New Bush Ads") if at all. And no story mentioned that Schaitberger is one of eight national cochairs of John Kerry's campaign.

By contrast, the members of Peaceful Tomorrows did say that their outrage was bipartisan. "It's an insult to use the place where my brother died in an ad," David Potorti told the AP. "I would be just as outraged if any politician did this." Would he? Certainly NPR, which reported that Peaceful Tomorrows was an "officially nonpartisan" organization, thought so. As did the Washington Post, which also called Peaceful Tomorrows "nonpartisan." This was an exceedingly unhelpful and incomplete description. It's true that the group does not officially support Democrats or Republicans. But obviously relevant to its political identity is that it opposed any military response to the September 11 attacks, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere. And one question about the 9/11 survivor-critics of the Bush ads that reporters failed to investigate was: Who are these people?

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the day Jim Potorti died inside the World Trade Center, his brother David was living in Cary, North Carolina. David had moved there from California in order to pursue a master's degree in folklore. He was devastated by his brother's death. But what also disturbed him was the way in which the United States responded to the terrorist attacks. "While the humanity of the 9/11 victims--their names, faces, and stories--became better known," he wrote last year in an op-ed for New York Newsday, "our society seemed to care less and less about the traditions, histories, and humanity of other innocent victims." America was seized by "anger and intolerance"--the "very things that had led to my brother's murder."

He felt he had nothing left to lose. As the months passed, he read about various family members of 9/11 victims who were against war with the Taliban. He sought them out via email, and, in November 2001, invited some to join him on a peace march from the Pentagon to New York City. The march lasted several days. It was called the "Walk for Healing and Peace." It was sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, part of the Coalition for Peace and Justice, a collection of post-9/11 peace groups. The Fellowship of Reconciliation was controversial. It came under fire in the fall of 2001 for refusing to fly an American flag outside its offices in Upper Nyack, New York. The group chose to fly an "earth flag" instead.

Potorti was no stranger to activism. In 1997, living in Santa Monica, California, he joined The Oaks Project, a progressive organization devoted to organizing "people who feel disenfranchised by the two-party, big-money system." The Oaks Project was a creation of Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and presidential candidate. Potorti spent time gathering signatures for legislation nullifying parts of a utility deregulation bill. In his pre-9/11 days, Potorti was a frequent writer of letters to the editor. In one, he inveighed against "righteous conservatives." In another, he accused Republicans of ignoring the homeless and the unemployed.

As Potorti marched north as part of the "Walk for Healing and Peace," he got to know Amber Amundson, whose husband Craig had died on September 11, and Craig's brothers, Ryan and Barry. He also met Kelly Campbell, Craig Amundson's sister-in-law, who worked at a nonprofit in San Francisco. They all had backgrounds in progressive activism. And their status as relatives of those killed on 9/11 gave them special cachet among peace activists. When the "Walk for Healing and Peace" crossed into Manhattan, for instance, Potorti and the Amundsons led the march.

Within a few months, antiwar activism became Potorti's full-time job. In early 2002, with monetary support from the Fellowship for Reconciliation, he put his master's degree on hold to found September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. The group took its name from an utterance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s. It comprised only 13 people, among them the Amundsons and Kelly Campbell, who quit her job to work full-time with Potorti.

Funding was not a problem. Potorti says that the group's funding is "confidential." But a quick visit to several nonprofit websites shows that Peaceful Tomorrows receives money and support from a bevy of left-wing foundations. Among them is the Tides Center, which is a project of the Tides Foundation, which is a recipient of generous grants from the Heinz family endowments, one of which, at least, is chaired by Teresa Heinz, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. (Spokesmen for the Heinz endowments are quick to say that the money they provide to the Tides Foundation and Center is directed solely towards environmental projects in western Pennsylvania.) Peaceful Tomorrows is only one of many Tides Center projects. Others include the Ruckus Society, a radical antiglobalization group, and the Iraq Peace Fund, which provides support to such anti-Bush groups as MoveOn.org and Democracy Now.

Peaceful Tomorrows' activism took many forms. They sent representatives to Afghanistan to visit with survivors of U.S. bombing raids. They lobbied Congress for an Afghan Victims compensation fund. In the fall of 2002, they organized a "No More Victims Tour," in which members of the group traveled the country to protest U.S. military action abroad, accompanied by "Victims of terrorism and war--from Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, the Philippines and Japan." One stop on the "No More Victims Tour" was the European Social Forum, an annual meeting of antiglobalization groups held in 2002 in Florence, Italy. "The day that America began to bomb Afghanistan," Kelly told the Forum, as Christopher Caldwell reported in the November 25, 2002, issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, "I cried. Because I thought about how many hundreds of young men like my brother would be there. At that moment, I denounced my government, which does not represent me."

The members of the group also wrote letters to the editor. The New York Times published one from David Potorti on April 28, 2003:

Since the worst terrorist attack in American history, which took the life of my brother, occurred in New York on Sept. 11, it seems appropriate that President Bush will be making his re-election bid from that city at that time in 2004.

Perhaps the millions of unemployed Americans, veterans whose benefits have been threatened, families of dead civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, working people who lost their pensions to corporate fraud, and 41 million Americans without health insurance can come to town and join him in celebrating the other achievements of his first term.

Nonpartisan?

Indeed, Peaceful Tomorrows never pretended to shrink from involvement in politics. On September 25, 2002, group members held a joint press conference with congressman--and future Democratic presidential candidate--Dennis Kucinich. The conference was called to protest a potential invasion of Iraq. "I believe the best way to honor the dead is by seeking justice through nonviolent means, not by starting new wars," said Andrew Rice, a member of Peaceful Tomorrows whose brother died at the World Trade Center. A few months later, they once again attended a Capitol Hill press conference, this time along with Sheila Jackson Lee, the Democratic congresswoman from Texas.

At times the group displayed a striking naiveté. In January 2003, members visited Iraq. On a tour of Baghdad sponsored by Saddam Hussein's government, the group from Peaceful Tomorrows was taken to a shelter where Baathists claimed 200 civilians were killed during the 1991 Gulf War. Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Baathist Iraq, said that the trip was "a very important international development" helpful to Saddam's interests. The same people who now agitate against politicians' using September 11 for political gain played into the hands of a dictator using war ruins for political gain. When the group returned to the United States, they took part in a media blitz publicized by--guess who--the Institute for Public Accuracy. "There are cycles of violence that need to be broken," one member told Connie Chung. Colleen Kelly told the Voice of America, "The twisted steel and concrete visible there inside the shelter was very reminiscent of the wreckage of the World Trade Center. So there was a deep connection."

Peaceful Tomorrows, not to put too fine a point on it, is a group of left-wing antiwar activists. No one should have been the least bit surprised at their reaction to the Bush-Cheney ads.

WHAT WAS SURPRISING, however, was the Bush campaign's haphazard response to this orchestrated media firestorm. It's true that Karen Hughes and Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, defended the ads. And both former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Bernard Kerik, New York City's former police chief, went on the air to defend Bush. But the message coming from the campaign was mired in confusion, aides say. They were no longer playing offense. They were playing defense. And they had little idea how to make the case to the public that Bush had not "exploited" the terrorist attacks.

Consider the experience of Jimmy Boyle. A former president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a New York affiliate of Schaitberger's IAFF, Boyle lost his son at the World Trade Center on September 11. He is a New Yorker and lifelong Democrat who plans to vote for Bush in November. When he heard that 9/11 families were criticizing the president's campaign ads, he wanted to speak out in Bush's defense. He quickly wrote an "Open Letter to America," which he and 22 other family members of victims signed. He sent it to various New York media outlets on Saturday, March 6.

The letter was plainly heartfelt. "In the November election," it began, "we will have a clear choice laid before the American people. President Bush is rightly offering us that choice and the images of Sept. 11, although painful, are fundamental to that choice. The images in President Bush's campaign television ads are respectful of the memories of Sept. 11."

Boyle wanted to help defend the president. He contacted his congressman, Republican Peter King, in order to publicize the letter. King tried to put Boyle in touch with the Bushies. "I was struck at how difficult it was to make the connection. Jimmy did all the work," says someone close to Boyle. "When it comes to a controversy like this, you really need some fast turnaround." But no one from the Bush camp contacted Boyle.

Until, that is, Wednesday, March 10, late in the afternoon, when the campaign called to say it had found a way for Boyle to help. The next day, Bush traveled to Nassau County, on Long Island, to attend the unveiling of a 9/11 memorial. At the Thursday gathering, Bush shook hands with a crowd of people who had lost relatives in the terrorist attacks. One of the first he was introduced to was Jimmy Boyle.

It's a safe bet that there are thousands like Boyle, relatives of people murdered on 9/11 who supported the president during the wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. And it's a safe bet, further, that any one of those people, or any of the numerous 9/11 families groups, would have happily gone on record as having no objection to the Bush campaign's reelection ads. Indeed, reading the news coverage of the ads controversy, one finds, scattered among the quotes from Harold Schaitberger and the members of Peaceful Tomorrows, individuals who support Bush's campaign ads.

People like Debra Burlingame, whose brother had piloted the plane the terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. "I suspect that the real outrage over the ads has more to do with context than content," she wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week. "It's not the pictures that disturb [groups like Peaceful Tomorrows] so much as the person who is using them." Or Patricia Riley, whose sister died at the World Trade Center, and who told the Associated Press, "The president has every right to point to his leadership during that time." Or Ernest Strada, who told the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, at the Nassau County unveiling on March 11, "It's important that everybody in the country, led by the president, continue to remember what happened two and a half years ago." Milbank, in fact, found near unanimity among the people he interviewed at the unveiling. "Virtually all," he wrote, "said [Bush] was welcome here and welcome to use the attacks in his campaign."

So what went wrong here? Why the fuss over Bush's ads? How is it that so many journalists were willing to be led by the nose to write blatantly misleading stories, when the truth was so easy to ascertain? The simple answer is, well, they were being lazy and partisan. Plus, the straight story--"Peace Activists, Kerry Co-chair Criticize Bush Ads"--is a yawner.

On March 12, in an interview on National Public Radio, John Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, told Juan Williams about the challenges facing Democrats in the upcoming election. Cahill explained that Democrats are up against a disreputable Republican political machine that launches "scurrilous" attacks on its political foes. They are up against an "echo chamber,"which their opponents create by planting rumors on the Internet, getting them picked up by talk radio, and thus launching them into the political discussion at large.

Funny. Cahill might as well have been talking about the Institute forPublic Accuracy and the phony "controversy" it managed to generate over the Bush campaign's first round of television ads.

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.




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