Walking the freezing streets of Washington, D.C., at 5 a.m. on the morning of the inauguration, you could already feel the excitement. In a sense, it's understandable that so many in the press went overboard in their coverage Tuesday: History was made before our eyes. I didn't mind it, really. But what is offensive was the constant refrain that "America comes together" during inaugurations. This is a line applied to Democrats. Republicans are not awarded that courtesy by the press.
The most obvious contrast comes from the Associated Press. On Jan. 12, 2001, the AP headline was "Texans' inaugural ball will be definitive Texas excess." Reporter Suzanne Gamboa asserted: "It would be redundant to say this party put on by Texans is big, but is it big enough to meet the definition of Texas excess? You bet." The AP noted $1.75 million in corporate sponsorships, and trotted out the usual "watchdog groups" to lament the lobbyist access through excess.
On Jan. 13, 2005, AP's Will Lester disparaged the "lavish" Bush inauguration, creatively listing how much could be purchased with the millions wasted on the ceremonies: 200 armored Humvees with the best armor for troops in Iraq, vaccinations and preventive health care for 22 million children in regions devastated by the tsunami, even a down payment on the nation's deficit, "which hit a record-breaking $412 billion last year."
Lester added that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (the man who would soon hire disgraced Dan Rather for his HDNet channel) insisted President Bush should cancel all his parties and festivities to set an example. Democratic congressmen Anthony Weiner and Jim McDermott were highlighted for urging Bush in a letter that he imitate FDR's 1945 inaugural, where he served guests "cold chicken salad and plain pound cake."
But on Jan. 13, 2009, with deficit estimates passing over the trillion-dollar mark, the AP urged that "excess" was mandatory for an inauguration they finally felt was worth celebrating. They wrote of no attempts to ask liberal Democrats if they would now urge Obama to stick to cold chicken salad and pound cake.
AP's Laurie Kellman was aware that the economy was in crisis, but breezily suggested "glitzing it up" was a must. "So you're attending an inaugural ball saluting the historic election of Barack Obama in the worst economic climate in three generations. Can you get away with glitzing it up and still be appropriate, not to mention comfortable and financially viable? To quote the man of the hour: Yes, you can. Veteran ballgoers say you should. And fashionistas insist that you must."
A few days after the Media Research Center marked this incredibly stark contrast in AP attitudes in defining what is "news," AP issued a new story by Matt Apuzzo that acknowledged the contrast between Obama's parties and the economic gloom. Apuzzo reprised the 2005 comments of Reps. Weiner and McDermott, and then passed along that Obama's inauguration committee says it is mindful of the times and is not worried people will see the four days of festivities as excessive.
Former ABC reporter Linda Douglass, the Obama transition spokeswoman, elaborated that Team Obama would "keep costs down by having the same decorations at each of the 10 balls, eliminating floral arrangements and negotiating prices on food." A spokesman for Rep. McDermott saluted Obama's team for "trying to be reflective of the climate." This time, the Politico newspaper reported that former Congressman Tom DeLay suggested Obama could have the simple chicken dinner, but he didn't make this AP story. There were no critical conservatives or Republicans or even Naderite "watchdog groups" to add any vinegar to this attempt by the nation's preeminent wire service to temper their biases.
A few reporters eventually offered a traditional "watchdog group" story. On the morning of Jan. 20, ABC's Brian Ross found the Naderites at Public Citizen and declared, "even in the middle of a brutal recession, there's been no shortage of wealthy Americans ready to pay for the most expensive inaugural ever." (This is hardly as sour a report as ABC's successful search in 2005 for a Iraq-related military funeral that the late Peter Jennings could highlight on the Inauguration Day evening news.)
Aside from the cost, the media treated the Obama inauguration as a historic and inspiring occasion in a president of a different color, a ceiling broken, and the arrival of a new role model for black youth. It certainly was. But once the pomp and parades are over, the media's dramatic double standard in reporting these events -- depending on which party's taking power -- cannot be forgotten.
For the record, the "lavish" Bush inaugural cost $43 million. Final tallies are not complete, but according to some sources, like the Guardian newspaper, the Obama inaugural will cost more than $150 million.