About a week and a half ago, details of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's upcoming book revealed that he felt pressured into manipulating the infamous color-coded terror alert levels to support Bush's re-election efforts in 2004. Marc Ambinder wrote something at The Atlantic for which he was justifiably flamed:
Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence
He was justifiably criticized throughout the blogosphere for attacking "anti-Bush liberals'...gut hatred for Bush." Paul Krugman, for example, noted that author Ron Suskind:
" revealed many of the national-security scandals very early in the game -- and was discounted not because his reporting was weak, but because it was considered unreasonable to suggest that what was actually happening was indeed happening."
...by 2004 the Bush administration already had an extensive record in many areas where fact-checking was easy, from budget policy to environmental policy. And it was clear from any serious analysis of that record that the Bush people consistently relied on lies and misinformation to sell their policies, consistently abused power for political gain.
Media skepticism was, when it occurred at all, misplaced--it was aimed in the wrong direction. Bush's conclusions--not activists'--should have received greater skepticism, as they certainly merited it. Krugman notes that "it's really sad that those who missed the obvious, who failed to see what was right in front of their noses, still consider themselves superior to those who got it right." Ambinder wrote in a follow-up--something of a mea culpa--that "I still think that some journalists were right to be skeptical of the doubters at the time. I think that some journalists were correct to question how they arrived at the beliefs they arrived at:"
"Gut hatred" is way too strong a term -- it's the wrong term -- to describe why liberals doubted the fundamental capacity of the White House to be honest about anything. It was ideological and based on their intepretation of a pattern of facts that, in retrospect, seems much more reasonable than it did.
Later, Ambinder corrected the original story somewhat, but added the claim that "[m]any of the loudest voices were reflexively anti-Bush." Counting myself as one of those voices, I agree with Krugman's response that "reflexively" is another overstatement:
Bear in mind that by the time the terror alert controversy arose in 2004, we had already seen two tax cuts sold on massively, easily documented false pretenses; a war launched with constant innuendo about a Saddam-Osama link that was clearly false, and with claims about WMDs that were clearly shaky from the beginning and had proved to be entirely without foundation. We'd also seen vast, well-documented dishonesty and politicization on environmental policy. Oh, and Abu Ghraib was already public knowledge.
Given all that, it made complete sense to distrust anything the Bush administration said. That wasn't reflexive, it was rational.
As noted in great detail by MediaMatters, the media "dismissed Bush terror alert skeptics as paranoid conspiracy theorists" Media outlets were filled with assertions of "cynicism and paranoia," alleging belief in "conspiracy theories" that were supposedly "the height of paranoia," while Tucker Carlson claimed that "what [liberals] really need is psychological help." Those of us who pointed out the Bush administration's numerous lies were automatically dismissed at the time--and even accused of pathologies such as "Bush Derangement Syndrome" by the conservative pundits who rule the mainstream media op-ed pages.
If only we as a nation had been willing to face reality in 2004--or even better, in 2000--who knows how much better shape we'd be in now?