MEDIA CRITICISM:

Sun Fails to Ask Essential Question in its Coverage of Bush at Hardware Megastore

by Alice Cherbonnier

Editor's note: Also read Public Citizen's comment.

Readers will note that this writer has not named the megastore. This is a cute ploy, because we all know that store’s name. How could we not? It was reported everywhere by our docile media—and thereby gained immense valuable free publicity.
Seldom has there been a clearer case for the need for inquisitive journalists and journalistic integrity than in the Case of the Site of Bush's Economic Talk.

George W. Bush was in Baltimore on Friday, Dec. 5 to (1) preside at a fundraising luncheon for his re-election campaign, which netted a reported $1 million; and (2) deliver a boosterism speech on the US economy at a hardware megastore in southwestern Baltimore County.

We won't get into the obvious questions that remain unanswered despite The Sun's Dec. 6 mega-coverage of the presidential visit. These include: How much of the day's expenses were charged off to the public? Is the boosterism of the US economy a diversion to keep the public from focusing on the situation in Iraq? Is the economy really recovering? How much ad revenue does Home Depot generate for the nation's media? What was the value of all the mentions of this hardware megastore throughout the US and the world, in conjunction with the Bush self-congratulaory pronouncements about the economy?

No, let's cut to the chase and ask the Big Question that Sun writers failed to ask in four stories about Bush's visit that were published on Dec. 6. And that question is: Why was this hardware megastore selected as the site for Bush's economic address?

Readers will note that this writer has not named the megastore. This is a cute ploy, because we all know that store's name. How could we not? It was reported everywhere by our docile media-and thereby gained immense valuable free publicity.

The Sun mentioned the store's name five times in its 77-inch (with pictures) front page lead story, "Bush extols cuts, surging U.S. economy," plus two more times in the caption of the huge accompanying picture, which showed Bush with three businesspeople on one side, and four megastore employees, including the CEO, on the other--their orange aprons an additional clue to the store's identity. Plus the picture showed the backdrop behind Bush, with "Strengthening America's Economy" in the same stencil-style capital letters as the store's logo, which was hanging above the backdrop; though the latter was not wholly visible, enough letters are showing in the Sun's photo that you'd have to be brain-dead not to get the message. Not to mention that the accent color all over the picture is-orange.

Then there was a second story, "Job growth called key to re-election for Bush," which provided 32 more column inches of coverage, including a close-up of Bush that is virtually identical to the pose of Bush shown in the previously mentioned picture. This time the hardware megastore was mentioned seven times (including once in the subhead).

A third story-the sort that's called a "softball" or "throwaway"-devotes 19 more column inches to the Bush visit, mentioning the name of that store 10 more times. This was all in the context of ruminating over whether the store is in Halethorpe, Lansdowne or Arbutus. Its title: "Where was the president? No one knows for certain." Like, who cares?

There are over a million reasons for the inclusion of the orange store for the Bush presentation, and they’re all green.

In an attempt to show balance, the Sun covered local opinion about the visit-in a backhanded and inadequate way, in "Bush visit draws mix of protest, support." The day's events, we are told, "turned out far more admirers than detractors." The story helpfully repeats the information readers have already been told, that 550 people paid $2,000 apiece for roast beef sandwiches at the Bush fundraiser at the Hyatt. The story's first quote is fullsome praise for Bush from a T. Rowe Price vice president "without his overcoat." We are privileged to be informed that at the luncheon he "skipped the food and drank a Diet Pepsi." There is no mention of what, if any, refreshments were consumed by the "few dozen" protesters outside in the snow. but at least the accompanying photo tells the tale: people in overcoats are lined up along Light Street at the Inner Harbor, holding up signs that together read, in all caps, "Bush lies." Later in the story we are informed of a researcher from Legg Mason (praise for Bush) "who had little more than a sweater vest keeping him warm on his short walk." (Warning: Don't try to visualize this.) An "event volunteer" described as a substitute teacher denied the luncheon was just for "wealthy special-interest types," in the writer's words; he claimed "people without money can get in"-presumably if they could pony-up $2,000, that is, but who knows? There was no follow-up question. Even in this pathetic tangential story, the name of that hardware megastore is mentioned four times.

So let's add that up, everybody: 29 mentions of the store, plus images.

Again, I ask: why this particular store? None of the Sun's coverage explains it.

Well, it's really easy to find a connection between George W. Bush and (drum roll here, because I'm now going to say the name of the hardware superstore for emphasis) Home Depot. The heavy lifting for journalists was done by a subsidiary of Public Citizen called WhiteHouseforSale.com. This outfit helpfully blitzed the media with a press release referring to the site selection mystery and carried this subhead: "Bush Rewards Generous GOP Donor with Visit to Maryland Store on Friday; Energy Bill Includes $48 Million Tax Break for the Giant Retailer."

Didn't see that in the Sun, did you? Didn't hear that on local TV or radio!

The release goes on to say, "Research by Public Citizen suggests the president's visit is yet another way to reward the nation's second-largest retailer for its generosity to the Bush campaign and the Republican Party. Home Depot employees and their families have given $1.5 million to the GOP since 1999, according to data provided to Public Citizen by the Center for Responsive Politics.

"During that time, no candidate has benefited from Home Depot's largesse more than Bush. The total includes $907,950 in mostly 'soft money' donations to the Republican National Committee before such giving was outlawed by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). So far this year, Home Depot employees and the company political action committee have contributed $31,000 to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign."

There's a whole lot more information about the Bush/HD connection at whitehouseforsale.org. Do not fail to check it out. There's even a nice tidbit about a big bone Ehrlich threw to HD.

Oh, all right, I'll throw it in: "Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich-who is hosting Bush's Baltimore fundraiser-has his own history with H*** D****. Last May, he vetoed energy-efficiency legislation passed by wide margins in both houses of the state legislature after intense lobbying by the company....."

So you see, dear readers, there was no mystery at all as to why the site of Bush's speech was selected. The real mystery is why these hands-in-each-others'-pockets connections weren't reported in The Sun. We expect incompetence by our TV and radio talking heads; we expect better from what used to be called the Gray Lady on Calvert Street, but which is now being called other, less respectful, things.


ADDENDUM: The four stories highlighted here are only part of the Sun's extraordinary (as in, "over-the-top," not as in, "extremely well done") coverage of the Bush visit. Visit sunspot.net and search on "Home Depot" for more examples of how the game is being played these days. Another Sun suck-up story on Dec. 5, "Think the store carries PR tools?," gives the subject commercial enterprise up eight mentions--again with no reference to any possible quid pro quo regarding political contributions. Contrast this coverage to an AP story the paper published on Dec. 7, "Bush Touts His Role in Improving Economy", which shows appropriate restraint in its account of the Bush visit, mentioning the hardware megastore only once. Imagine that!


Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on December 7, 2003.