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So What Do You Do, Bill Press?

The columnist and former Crossfire host on media failures, the need for polemicists, and why his new Bush-bashing book is the best in the genre.

By Greg Lindsay - July 20, 2004

Bill Press knows why you don't hear what you don't want to hear. As the author of Spin This! and the former co-host of CNN's The Spin Room, Press charted how glossings-over, obfuscations, and non-denial denials often become the first drafts of history. And unlike certain populist liberals who can mow down conservative opponents, provided they're straw men, Press is used to climbing into the ring every day with conservative pit bull Pat Buchanan on Crossfire and later on MSNBC's Buchanan and Press. So his credentials are in order for writing yet another George W. Bush attack book, the unambiguously titled Bush Must Go, which he conceived as one-stop shopping for arguments against re-electing the sitting president. Press took some time recently to talk to about his book, red media vs. blue media, and why terrorists always seem to be on the prowl when Democrats are finally getting some good press.

Birthdate: April 8, 1940
Hometown: Delaware City, Delaware
First section of the Sunday Times: "Sunday Styles. I always read the wedding of the week first."

So how did you get to where you are?
I never went to journalism school, and I never trained as a journalist. I was just very lucky to arrive where I am. I studied for the seminary for 10 years after high school, then left the seminary and went to California and got involved in politics. I ended up being Governor Jerry Brown's policy director in Sacramento. At that point, I had sort of enough of politics and wanted to try my hand at media. This was 1980. With no TV, radio, or print experience, I applied for a position as a political commentator at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, and I got the job. So I worked in Los Angeles for roughly 15 years, doing talk radio and television commentary on the evening news. Then in 1996, Michael Kinsley left Crossfire, and I auditioned for that position on the left at Crossfire, and got the job. I moved to Washington, and did Crossfire for six years. I was fired by Walter Isaacson and moved over to MSNBC, where Pat Buchanan and I did Buchanan and Press for a year and a half, and now Pat and I are political commentators.

You recently made a rather remarkable statement on CNN's Reliable Sources while defending Michael Moore. You said "I'm here to defend the premise that the left can be as hard-hitting and sometimes as careless with the truth as the right." A few questions come to mind: Is defeating Bush in November a higher goal than the truth? Is Moore allowed some leeway because he's not a journalist per se? And what is the definition of a journalist these days?
The point I was making on Reliable Sources about the Michael Moore movie was that there is a huge double standard going on. There is a demand for absolute accuracy on the left, and no interest in accuracy on the right. I say that's not fair. I don't see anybody doing daily fact-checking. I never see Reliable Sources do a whole show to fact-check Rush Limbaugh, or fact-check Bill O'Reilly, or fact-check Sean Hannity. And they spew the same lies over and over and over again every day. I know because I've appeared on those shows. They've been doing it and getting away with it for years, and suddenly someone has come along on the left who is very effective, has a huge audience, and huge popularity—and it's not just the right wing that is claiming Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't kosher because he exaggerates here and there, but even mainstream media is piling on.

So I say, where were they? Where've they been for the last 15 years? I think you have to distinguish that from people like myself, who are journalists who have to be very careful with the truth. Well, journalists are those who practice journalism as a profession. There are reporters whose job it is merely to report the news, pure and simple. But there are commentators like myself who are hired to give their opinion on one side or the other, and then there are people like Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore, who are pure polemicists, and they're not expected to deal in the whole truth. Everybody knows that's who they are, and they can get away with a lot more than I could, or Bob Novak could, or Pat Buchanan could.

Why did you feel the need to write Bush Must Go when there are many Bush attack books out now? What was your initial aim, and who is the intended audience? It seems like you're preaching to the choir, like all the other authors.
Well, as I like to say, my book is the latest but the best of the Bush-bashing books. My idea to write this actually came about at the beginning of December, when I was hearing from a lot of people on the left, "I hate Bush; I can't stand the way he talks; I can't stand the way he walks," that sort of personal stuff. For me, politics is about policy, not personality. So I wanted to get beyond that almost infantile personal stuff and really lay out in one place as tight as I could from a policy point of view the reasons why I believe that George Bush has been a dangerous president and should not be re-elected. I went to the publishers and said I wanted to deliver a handbook for Campaign 2004 for Democrats and for uncommitted voters. I wanted to provide them with the arguments they need all in one place—a one-stop shop for why Bush must go.

Most people don't have access to the resources that I have. They may have heard something about the economy, they may have heard something about the environment, they may have heard something about weapons of mass destruction. But I wanted to put it all in one place for easy access, for people who needed information that they could take to their co-workers, or their family members, or their friends, and say this is why it's important to get rid of this guy. So it is a book meant for the choir. But it's also a book meant for those people—and maybe there are only 10 percent of them in this country—who are still on the fence and want to know just the facts about what Bush has done and what he hasn't done. I think that if people read the book they'll come to the conclusion that he has proven he's not up to the job. Or to put it more strongly, I think I prove that he's taken this country in some pretty dangerous directions.

Well, what should be the role of journalists right now? Do you think places like Fox News have abdicated their responsibilities as journalists and are presidential boosters, as their critics claim? And, if so, how should liberal journalists respond?
I believe these times demand of journalists to do their jobs, and I do not think they are doing their jobs. I don't expect any better of Fox News than a right-wing slant; that's who they are, they're proud of it, and everybody knows it. But I do expect The New York Times to do its job. I expect NBC, CBS, and ABC to do their jobs, and that means not just accepting whatever propaganda they get out of the White House—any White House, Democratic or Republican. They need to do their own due diligence and their own homework, to ascertain what the facts are and report the facts. They did not do that in the campaign of 2000, they've never done that with George W. Bush, and I think they have given a total across-the-board pass to George W. Bush and his administration. They simply reprint and repeat their lies without fact checking. They're partly responsible for taking us to war in Iraq because they didn't do their homework. In an election season or not, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, I don't care—the media's job is not to take sides. The media's job is to report the news and not just to repeat what's in a White House press release, or what the President says.

What do you think of efforts like Air America to build a separate-but-equal liberal media universe to oppose Fox News? The idea of Crossfire—that liberals and conservative can debate the issues of the day with civility and ideas—seems almost alien today.
I don't buy the premise that Americans just want right-wing opinion on right-wing talk radio and television. I do believe that there is an audience and a hunger for voices on the left and voices in the middle. You can't find that today on talk radio because frankly, most talk radio program directors are unwilling to put a liberal on the air. That has given birth to two efforts actually, and you mentioned one—Air America, with Al Franken, Janeane Garofolo, and company trying to create an entire liberal radio network. There's also a second effort called Democracy Radio, which is attempting to find good, strong liberal voices and put them on existing radio as part of a mix.

I think both are healthy and both are needed, and it's a tough go because it's expensive, but I think both will succeed. But it could lead to a situation where people just turn to the radio station or TV network that feeds them the political point of view that they want to hear, and they're never exposed to any other opinion. I fear that as well, and I hope that doesn't happen. I think the best solution is, again, to have your mainstream media that do nothing but report the news, and then to have on the opinion side —whether it's talk radio or talk TV—a good healthy mix of opinion. I think that's how democracy is best served.

Obviously you don't think it's particularly served well right now.
No. I don't believe the media are serving the public well today because I don't think the media are doing their job of being fiercely objective, doing their homework, and laying the facts on the table and letting the chips fall where they may. Inevitably—and I know this from my own work—they're going to be accused at one point of tilting to the left, at another point of tilting to the right, and that comes with the territory. They've got to just be strong and courageous and do their job and be willing to take the flak. It's when they start trimming their sails, which they're doing today, that they really abandon what their cause is, and that's when they're not serving journalism well. And I'm afraid that's where we are today. I'll give you one current example.

There's Tom Ridge out there again with another terrorism warning. Based on what? Based on nothing? Based simply on the fact that for two days, John Kerry and John Edwards were on the front page of every major newspaper, looking a lot better than Republicans thought they ever would. So I'm convinced without even doing the homework that the right changed the subject. The last time there was a terror warning—you can track them—happened to be when Abu Ghraib was in the headlines. So Ridge says, "I'm going to make this announcement," and the cable networks turn this whole operation over to him, with no critical commentary. OK, if they're going to cover it, then they ought to have somebody from the other side, saying "Let's look at this. What prompted this? And why is it that every time the Democrats seem to be making some good news, the administration tries to say 'The terrorists are coming! The terrorists are coming!'?" I didn't see anybody doing that. How many times did the administration pull that gag? It's same old trick, and the cable networks fall for it. They're not doing their job. So I've made my point.

Greg Lindsay is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He previously covered media from and Women's Wear Daily.

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