CJR Daily Traces the Birth of a Narrative

Pundits and reporters are asking whether President Bush is at a "turning point" - and when a question gets asked often enough, before long the question mark is dropped entirely and a narrative is born.

Tide turning. On a roll.

Turning point. Resurgence.

Turnaround. Bounce.

Pendulum swinging. Bump.

However they choose to phrase it (and the above are all examples of how they have phrased it), cable news reporters and pundits are frantically asking themselves and each other whether President Bush is, or might soon be, experiencing a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes moment — based, it seems, on a confluence of recent “good news” moments for the administration (including, in chronological order, the killing of Zarqawi, the president’s surprise appearance in Iraq and Karl Rove dodging the bullet of indictment).

How are they answering themselves? It’s a mixed bag. But if a question gets asked often enough in the media, the answer begins to (almost) not matter. And before long the question mark is dropped entirely and a narrative is born.

Tuesday afternoon, CNN’s Kyra Phillips asked colleague Bill Schneider whether Bush might “get a lift from his surprise visit to Iraq,” noting, “there’s a big strategy going on here from talking about Al Zarqawi’s death to this surprise visit and you even mentioned Karl Rove’s speech, right?” Schneider, however, was skeptical: “The American people did not see the elimination of Al Zarqawi as a significant event or turning point in Iraq. The administration is saying we’re going to seize the moment on this and try to turn it into a turning point …”

By the time Paula Zahn Now aired Tuesday night, CNN’s on-screen caption, at least, seemed to signal less skepticism: “Bush Boost.” But reporter John Roberts still had doubts, which he expressed to Zahn with the help of a football analogy: “One Republican strategist I talked to today said this is the closest the administration has come in the last two years to being on a roll. They know it is not going last very long. The blush of the Zarqawi death is going to come off in a matter of weeks if not days, depending what happens in Iraq … It will be interesting to see if this is any more than a first down in this big game of football that they’re playing on the political gridiron here. A lot of people think that it is just that — it is not a Hail Mary pass that will get him into the end zone.”

Come Anderson Cooper 360 time, a question mark had mysteriously made its way on to CNN’s screen (caption: “Bush Bounce?”). At the start of the show Cooper mused, “The president makes a top secret trip to Iraq as his top advisor Karl Rove is cleared of any wrongdoing in the CIA leak case. Is this the beginning of a Bush bounce?” Later in the segment, that same pesky John Roberts weighed in with this: “The thing to remember, say partisans and analysts alike, is Zarqawi’s death was out of the White House’s control and that President Bush was simply the beneficiary of fortunate timing with this trip to Iraq. The political pendulum may have swung, they say, but there is every expectation that something else out of the White House’s control could easily swing it back.”

Cooper posed a similar question — “How optimistic is this White House that this trip to Baghdad, the [Zarqawi] death, could actually be the beginning of a bounce, of a turning point for them?” — to Suzanne Malveaux who cautioned that “it’s a little too soon to tell whether or not it’s a turning point …” Later in the show Cooper spoke to David Gergen about “the president’s fortunes” and Gergen was anything but cautious. “The president and his team are on a roll now and Karl Rove has now become part of that roll,” Gergen opined. Asked Cooper, “What do you make of this White House? Is this bump, Is this resurgence for real?” Replied Gergen: “I think it’s a White House with more discipline, more just sort of click and certainly better orchestration. They’re toned up, playing a higher level game than before and it’s showing up in all sorts of ways.”

What of Fox News?

Tuesday, Brigitte Quinn posed the following question to her Fox News Live guest, Rich Lowry of National Review: “Rich, this may be premature and we have only known about this trip for an hour but we do have this trip. We have the death of Zarqawi. This morning we also have the news that Karl Rove is off the hook and last week we had the Canadian terror arrests [Apparently the Bush administration should also be credited for that.] I mean, might we begin to see a turnaround for the Bush administration when you combine all those factors?” Lowrey replied, in part, that the “administration is hoping” so. Quinn’s other guest, the Hartford Courant’s David Lightman, dodged her speculative line of questioning about what this all might mean for Bush and for Republicans in November and said: “We in the media are always asked to look for trends and we’re always asked, gee, are the Democrats headed for a big victory in November? The answer we always give is it’s only June and next week — next month we’ll say it’s only July,” noting, “You can’t make sweeping conclusions about what’s going to happen in November.” Quinn’s reply? “It’ll never stop us from asking, though, David” — to which Lightman retorted, “Or us from writing.” No, it won’t.

Later on Tuesday, on Your World With Neil Cavuto (screen caption: “Is the Tide Turning for President Bush?”) Cavuto wondered: “The Baghdad trip coming on the same day that the trusted leader Karl Rove finding he is not being charged in the CIA case. People are feeling better about the war in Iraq and the president’s job performance. After all of this, is the tide turning to where the war in Iraq will be a victory for the administration?” Neither of Cavuto’s guests (God bless ‘em) even tried to answer his question, so later in the show he tried again with colleague Brit Hume: “For a president who gets a lot of flak about Iraq, does his being there today change the equation on Iraq?” Hume — no fool, he — preferred to ignore the question in favor of hyping “problems” in the Democratic party.

By Wednesday morning, Fox added an old standby of a twist to the “tide turning” discussion — the media’s “underreporting” of it. On Fox & Friends First, Alisyn Camerota said: “Well, first the death of Zarqawi and now a successful and surprise trip to Baghdad. It’s looking like a good week for the White House, but is the media missing the story?” (On-screen caption: “Are Positive White House Stories Under-Reported?”) Camerota’s colleague Peter Johnson chimed in with: “I read the New York Times this morning. … the editorial page said that President Bush’s historic trip yesterday was a publicity stunt. Am I getting it wrong, are they getting it wrong, what’s happening?” Answered “Fox contributor” Bill Sammon, “You know, you just can’t win for losing if you’re a conservative Republican president in this town, in this media environment …” Sammon added that he felt the Baghdad trip had a “higher purpose” than a publicity stunt but noted that it will have “political dividends” — such as “help[ing] to show the American people that for a change, you know, some things are going right in Iraq, and I think even the press has to acknowledge grudgingly that this has been a very, very good week for President Bush.”

We don’t know what Camerota, Johnson or Sammon have been reading, but how’s this for “acknowledgement”: “Spate of Good News Gives White House a Chance to Regroup” (the headline on A1 of Wednesday’s Washington Post)? Or, better still, this from A1 of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required): “Bush’s Visit to Baghdad Signifies Upturn in His Political Fortunes.”

And there it is, in the blink of an eye, so fast that you might have missed it: A narrative is born.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.