WaPo, LA Times Leave President's Name Out of Somalia Pirate Stories

A search of Nexis between April 7 -- the day when pirates seized the U.S.-registered and American-crewed Maersk Alabama -- and today, April 10, shows that both the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times failed to even mention President Barack Obama in their stories on the ongoing hostage situation. The New York Times did, once, in a page A6 April 9 story by Mark Mazetti and Sharon Otterman, but it came 15 paragraphs into the 26-paragraph story and served to explain Obama's absence in the ongoing U.S. response:

At the White House, military and national security officials tracked the developments from the Situation Room, and they provided several briefings to President Obama and other administration officials throughout the day.

Mr. Obama first learned of the hijacking early on Wednesday morning after he returned to the White House from his overseas trip, and he later convened an interagency group on maritime safety, aides said. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said, ''Our top priority is the personal safety of the crew members on board.'' 

Basically, the nation's top three newspapers are letting President Obama off the hook from any scrutiny regarding his involvement or lack thereof in the ongoing hostage situation. 

So far, President Obama has refrained from making an official statement on the Maersk Alabama standoff. Yet his immediate predecessor in office took just one day before making an official statement on what proved to be his first major test of the George W. Bush presidency.

On April 1, 2001 -- late March 31 Washington, D.C. time -- a U.S. Navy plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Chinese-controlled Hainan Island, having been damage by a Chinese fighter jet over international waters. On  the morning of Monday, April 2, 2001, President Bush issued the following statement:

Late Saturday night in Washington, Sunday morning in China, a United States naval maritime patrol aircraft on a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the South China Sea collided with one of two Chinese fighters that were shadowing our plane. Both our aircraft and a Chinese aircraft were damaged in the collision. Our aircraft made an emergency landing at an airfield on China's Hainan Island.

We have been in contact with the Chinese government about this incident since Saturday night.  From our own information, we know that the United States naval plane landed safely.  Our embassy in Beijing has been told by the Chinese government that all 24 crew members are safe.

Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew, and the return of the aircraft without further damaging or tampering.  The first step should be immediate access by our embassy personnel to our crew members.  I am troubled by the lack of a timely Chinese response to our request for this access.

Our embassy officials are on the ground and prepared to visit the crew and aircraft as soon as the Chinese government allows them to do so.  And I call on the Chinese government to grant this access promptly.

Failure of the Chinese government to react promptly to our request is inconsistent with standard diplomatic practice, and with the expressed desire of both our countries for better relations.

Finally, we have offered to provide search and rescue assistance to help the Chinese government locate its missing aircraft and pilot.  Our military stands ready to help.

Thank you very much.

That standoff with Chinese officials lasted roughly 11 days, with the sailors returned to the United States on April 12. President Bush made a few other official statements in the intervening period.

Seven days into the surveillance plane incident, April 8, 2001, then-Washington Post staffer Mike Allen  gave readers a 1521-word article entitled, "Bush Seeks to Avert Repeat Of Carter's Hostage Crisis; Risk of PR Debacle Could Grow If China Standoff Drags On." Here's an excerpt via Nexis (emphases mine):

President Bush has adopted a low-key public stance toward the China crisis in part to prolong the nation's patience and avert a repetition of the "America Held Hostage" television coverage that tormented President Jimmy Carter, administration strategists said.

Bush has conferred on China with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice as early as 5:30 a.m. each day but has otherwise kept his normal schedule -- even throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game in Milwaukee Friday night -- and has sought to project a "calm and measured" tone, according to a source who often talks to him.

People who have attended White House strategy meetings on the crisis say Bush and his aides are quite conscious of the public-relations debacle that could result if Americans came to view the standoff with China as reminiscent of the 444-day siege at the U.S. Embassy in Iran at the end of Carter's term.

So far, the public has stayed behind Bush. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken on Thursday indicated that nearly two-thirds of Americans approve of his handling of the matter. And a senior administration official expressed satisfaction with TV's generally calm coverage, which has occasionally featured logos such as MSNBC's "Diplomatic Dogfight" but more often has taken a moderate tone, as in CBS News's "The China Challenge."

The longer the standoff continues, however, the greater the risk that public opinion will turn, members of Congress will clamor for retaliation against China, conservative Republicans will attack Bush for showing weakness, and divisions over the China policy within the administration will emerge.

Bush, who began the 12th week of his administration yesterday, could face what one Democrat called "the perfect political storm" -- a foreign policy crisis, an economic downturn and a rebuke by the Senate on the size of his tax cut. 

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.