You want a quick and easy introduction to media bias? Just look at the reception given to author Ron Suskind when he appeared on NBC's "Today" show recently to promote his new book, "Confidence Men," which is critical of President Obama -- and then compare it to the reception Suskind received in 2004 when he appeared on "Today" to tout another book, "The Price of Loyalty," which was critical of President George W. Bush.
Start with the new book. The newsworthy bits in "Confidence Men" are well known: Suskind reports the Obama White House is tough on women, with former aide Anita Dunn calling it "a genuinely hostile workplace to women." Suskind also says Obama's top economic advisers had so little regard for the president that former National Economic Council chief Larry Summers said, "There's no adult in charge." And Suskind writes that on at least one occasion, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ignored a clear directive from the president.
A lot of that is small-scale Washington chatter. The bigger picture from the book is one of a president not up to the job during perilous economic times. And that's not an image the White House wants to encourage with the 2012 re-election effort under way. So White House officials pushed back hard -- with a big assist from "Today."
Among the less substantive criticisms of the book, White House press secretary Jay Carney has suggested that Suskind lifted a small passage from Wikipedia. So with all the other issues that might be discussed, "Today" anchor Ann Curry began the interview with this: "Did you or did you not lift that passage from Wikipedia?"
Of course not, Suskind said. (Comparing the texts, no fair-minded reader would convict him of the charge.) Suskind tried to be dismissive, saying that "after a week, that's all (the White House) came up with."
"Well, they've actually come up with more," Curry responded. "So let me get to it."
Curry noted that Dunn has denied making the "hostile workplace" comment and demanded: "Did you take liberties with that quote?" No, Suskind said, adding that he actually played the audio of Dunn's (accurately quoted) words to a Washington Post reporter.
Curry then questioned the "no adult in charge" quote.
"Did Summers believe the president was in over his head or didn't he?" Curry demanded.
That's what he said, replied Suskind, noting that many people in the Obama White House cooperated with the book.
"They say they cooperated with you because they were concerned about the direction you were taking," Curry shot back. "They wanted to make sure that you got it right."
On the Geithner story, Curry demanded: "Did Geithner ignore the president, or didn't he?" He did, Suskind said.
Curry still wasn't finished, forcing Suskind to defend the kind of trivial mistakes that appear in many books. Curry noted that "Confidence Men" refers to CNBC reporter Erin Burnett as "Erin Burkett," and that it also says the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 378 points on Feb. 10, 2009, when it in fact dropped 382 points. "So do you agree," Curry said to Suskind, "that if you cannot get these details right, then the broader analysis ... that you put forth in this book ... has got to be questioned?"
The White House couldn't have written the script better itself.
Now compare that to Suskind's appearance on "Today" back on Jan. 12, 2004, to promote his book "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill." Written with O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary turned Bush critic, the book was at least as strong an indictment of the Bush White House as "Confidence Men" is of the Obama White House.
But what a different reception Suskind received on "Today." Then-anchor Katie Couric's first substantive question was, "What, in your view, are the bombshells here?" Another Couric question: "There was apparently ... no debate in the White House ... It was all based on ideology or sort of political expediency?" And then, noting that the Bush White House disputed the book, Couric asked, "(O'Neill) had an unbelievable amount of documentation to back up some of his claims ... correct?" Suskind knocked each softball out of the park.
Why the difference? Was Ron Suskind a great reporter in 2004 and a terrible one in 2011? Or is it OK with "Today" to criticize Bush but not OK to criticize Obama? It sure looks like the latter.