Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bush league

Today, in Salon.com's War Room blog, I read the following:
Is Bush back on the bottle?

Remember the bulge? Say hello to the binge.

Just about a year ago, we all poured our assumptions and fears about George W. Bush into a small lump of something or other that sat under his suit coat when he debated John Kerry. Was the bulge a portable defibrillator to save Bush from troubles with his heart? A listening device that had him connected to Karl Rove? After the election was over, the Secret Service leaked word that the bulge was actually a bulletproof vest, but White House Chief of Staff Andy Card specifically denied that possibility when we asked him about it at the time.

The truth is, we don't know what the bulge was, and it's possible that we never will. Which gets us right back to the binge. The National Enquirer is reporting that the president's troubles have literally driven him to drink. "Faced with the biggest crisis of his political life, President Bush has hit the bottle again," the Enquirer says.

As you might expect, the sourcing for the story is a little vague. In an odd sort of grammatical construction, the Enquirer says that "family sources have told" -- to whom, it doesn't say -- that the president was "caught by First Lady Laura downing a shot of booze" in Crawford, Texas, when "he learned of the hurricane disaster." "One insider" says that Bush "apparently" reached for a "Texas-sized shot of straight whiskey" when water flooded into New Orleans. Another "Washington source" says: "The sad fact is that he has been sneaking drinks for weeks now. Laura may have only just caught him -- but the word is his drinking has been going on for a while in the capital. He's been in a pressure cooker for months."

What does it all mean? Who knows? The National Enquirer ain't exactly the New York Times, but it isn't the Weekly World News, either. As Slate's Jack Shafer wrote last year in a piece titled "I Believe the National Enquirer," the tabloid usually gets its facts straight, even if it teases them into the most sensational story possible. But even Shafer warned against reading too much into Enquirer stories built around anonymous quotes, as this one is.

There's only one named source in the Enquirer piece, and it's Justin Frank, the Washington psychiatrist who wrote "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President." The Enquirer quotes Frank as saying, "I do think Bush is drinking again." But Frank has no firsthand knowledge of the matter, only supposition based on his own long-distance diagnosis and the same news the rest of us have seen. His conclusions lend a kind of "it makes sense to me" plausibility to the Bush-on-the-bottle story, but they're nothing that you could call proof. "Alcoholics who are not in any program, like the president, have a hard time when stress gets to be great," Frank says. "I think it's a concern that Bush disappears during times of stress. He spends so much time on his ranch [sic]. It's very frightening."

-- Tim Grieve
In response, I just sent this letter to Salon:

To the Editor:

Until the launch of your War Room blog during the 2004 Presidential campaign, I thought I knew what to expect from Salon: a decidedly liberal publication that nonetheless offers excellent reporting with uncompromising journalistic standards.

While Salon has, for the most part, continued to satisfy my expectations, there have been some exceptions, especially in War Room. Your recent speculative entry about George Bush's drinking habits was the most egregious violation of these standards.

How could a supposedly professional outfit like Salon print something that doesn't come remotely close to passing journalistic muster? While intriguing, the suggestion that George Bush is drinking again is an extremely serious charge. If you're going to print something so shocking, you better be damn sure it's true. Sure, Tim Grieve attempted to cover his tracks by telling us that the National Enquirer may not be trustworthy. (Who knew?!?!) And he says that the information may not be true. But it doesn't matter how many caveats you use; the bottom line is that you put it out there.

It's the sort of piece that I expect to see in an average liberal blog. But because War Room appears in a publication that claims to pride itself on its journalistic integrity, it had no business being published.

If I see anything like that in Salon again, I will have no choice but to cancel my subscription.

Sincerely,
Dan Eisner

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