President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin may have finally found something in common.
Anyone who tuned in to last week's diplomatic talks between the two world leaders at the Eastern European "oasis" of Bratislava, Slovakia, would have probably noticed the cold, sober tone with which both men conducted themselves, due in large part to the long history of disagreement between the two nations in most areas of global policy. However, in his now-customary efforts to advocate the proliferation of American democracy throughout the world, Bush may have accidentally stumbled upon one area of domestic policy in which Russia and America actually bear striking similarities - "freedom" of the press.
On Thursday, Bush offered a vague attack on the democratic values of Putin's state when he said, "Democracies have certain things in common. They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition." All gripes over proper definitions of democracy aside, though, these hypocritical comments did at least prompt a Russian journalist to ask Putin why he didn't challenge Bush and "talk a lot about violations of the rights of journalists in the United States, about the fact that some journalists have been fired."
How, then, did our noble president respond to this attack on the integrity of the democratic ideals of his proud nation? As far as I'm concerned, he lied. "I don't know what journalists you are referring to," he said, then turned toward the American reporters in the audience and disrespectfully joked, "Any of you still have your jobs?"
I guess he was lucky that Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judy Miller of The New York Times were not in the audience. Thanks to conservative pundit Robert Novak and a Justice Department infringement upon freedom of the press, they certainly don't still have their jobs. I guess he was lucky that Mary Mapes of CBS News was not present either. This hero of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal is now collecting unemployment checks because she and Dan Rather questioned the president's dubious military history. Without a doubt, these were the journalists to whom the Russian reporter was referring, and unless Bush hasn't been keeping up on the news in his own country, I'm pretty sure he was aware of this, too.
It's unfortunate, though, that the criticisms of Putin's direct control over the Russian news were not met with a similar question about the White House's authoritarian involvement in the American media. Perhaps this would have helped strengthen ties and further peace between the two world leaders, because it certainly would have highlighted an issue in which they have something in common. While Putin puppeteers news organizations like Channel One, Russia TV and NTV, Bush controls a few media marionettes of his own - namely Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, "Jeff Gannon" and probably a few more to be named later.
In case you have forgotten, Williams is the syndicated columnist and television commentator who was bribed $240,000 by Bush's Department of Education to promote the president's learning initiatives to the public. Likewise, Gallagher is the syndicated columnist who was bribed $21,500 by Bush's Department of Health and Human Services to endorse the president's traditional-marriage proposals. Finally, "Gannon" is the alias-using, softball-tossing conservative "reporter" who was repeatedly admitted entrance into White House press briefings under a false name so that he could ask Bush easy questions that would not challenge the poor president's Yale-educated intellect. If you ask me, this kind of authoritarian media manipulation would be enough to get even Stalin, Castro and Mussolini to admit, "This Bush guy is GOOD!"
How, then, can the president of the United States of America justify dropping bombs around the world over innocent civilians in the name of democracy? He himself admitted that the key to a democratic state is the preservation of "a free press," yet while he was busy dipping the fingers of free Iraqi voters in purple ink, he was also restricting the freedoms of American voters by regulating what was printed in the black ink of their newspapers.
And there you have it. Only in America could a man wage a war in the name of democracy abroad while simultaneously waging a war against democracy at home ... and get away with it. Kim Jong-Il of North Korea never had the world's respect because of the nonexistent free media of his home country. Putin continues to lose the same respect because his iron fist is squeezing tighter and tighter around the last remaining vestiges of free and independent news in Russia. And Bush? He was rewarded with a resounding reelection victory and an overwhelming mandate for a second term in office.
Or at least that's what I heard on Fox News.
Joey Falco is a sophomore American Studies major. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.