Shepherding the Press

bush’s relationship with the media


Bush opponents salivating at the prospect of Tim Russert grilling the president like a juicy piece of Texas steak were disappointed. David Corn of the Nation went so far as to revise his opinion of Russert as The Great Inquisitor of the Sunday Talk Shows. Russert, says Corn, did not make W. sweat. “Bush was able to reel off the same-old/same-old.” This was a bit unfair to Russert, whose interview seemed to stimulate more aggressive questioning by White House reporters this week about Bush’s wartime record.

Opportunities to subject this president to sustained questioning are few and far between; hence the attention generated by the Meet the Press interview. Arguably, the Bush White House has been more successful in taming, ignoring, and influencing the media than any other administration in modern history.

As Ken Auletta points out in the New Yorker, Bush Jr. has held 11 solo press conferences in contrast to Bill Clinton’s 38 during the same period in office. Both men trail George Sr., who held 71. You could argue that Bush is merely carrying on a trend, but, as Auletta argues, there are two ways in which this administration differs from its predecessors:

“They are more disciplined. They reject an assumption embraced by most reporters: that we are neutral and represent the public interest. Rather, they see the press as just another special interest. The discipline flows down from President Bush, who runs the White House like a C.E.O. and demands loyalty. This is a cohesive White House staff, dominated by people whose first loyalty is to Team Bush. When Bush leaves the White House, most of his aides will probably return to Texas. They are not Washington careerists, and thus they have less need to puff themselves up with the Washington press corps. In fact—and this leads to the second difference—from Bush on down, talking to the press off the record is generally frowned upon and equated with leaking, which is a deadly sin in the Bush White House (unless it is a leak manufactured to advance the President’s agenda).”

The symbiotic relationship between the White House and the press has been upset by a reduction in open forums in which the president can be questioned and a decrease in leaks (though not, of course, when those leaks directly serve the administration’s purposes, as in the case of Valerie Plame) — a time-honored method for presidents to test the public pulse on sensitive subjects. White House shepherding of the press has been taken for granted as this January 24, 2002 C.N.N. report illustrates:

“…Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan [now Press Secretary] said pool access to Bush’s meeting with congressional leaders had been canceled to make sure the president’s proposed $48 billion boost in defense spending dominated the day’s coverage. That was the news of the day, McClellan said, and reporters would not be given a chance to create a competing story by asking Bush any questions.”

Reporters should not be faulted for such restrictions, and nobody is suggesting that reporters do the job of the C.I.A. or U.N. weapon inspectors; but neither is the press obliged to take the government at its word. And given the limited access reporters get to Bush, it’s all the more important that they make the most of the opportunities given to them. It’s been noted that the press corps became perceptibly more subservient after 9/11, and hasn’t done as thorough a job as it should have. Helen Thomas, former White House correspondent for United Press International, who has covered presidents from J.F.K. to Bush Jr., has accused the current administration of secrecy and reporters of complacency. Speaking at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002, Thomas said:

“Everybody learned the lessons of Vietnam, including the Pentagon. In Vietnam, correspondents could go anywhere – just hop on a helicopter and report on the war. Now we don’t have that access. It’s total secrecy. The media overlords should be complaining about this. I do not absolve the press. We’ve rolled over and played dead, too…”

Wartime has always presented journalists with special dilemmas, and the “war on terror,” being open ended, compounds those dilemmas. The 9/11 attacks translated into a greater acceptance on the part of American public to trust the commander-in-chief and increased the risk for reporters who challenge him of appearing unpatriotic. The same press that during election time criticized Bush’s lack of foreign policy experience and widely questioned his intellectual abilities, suddenly grew more respectful.

From the skillful deployment of “embedded” reporters to the banning of cameras to document the return of “body bags” from Iraq, the present administration has built upon the successful public relations campaign that was the 1991 Gulf War.

The Straits Times argues that U.S. reporters have not only been less critical of the Bush administration than their foreign peers, but also less probing compared to their own coverage
of previous administrations:

“The affable Mr Bush is rarely hounded over the awful situation in Iraq the way that Mr Johnson habitually was over Vietnam. Nor is he roasted over his dissembling about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the way Mr Nixon was pounded relentlessly about his deceptions over the Watergate scandal…

That has been the brilliance of the White House manipulation of the press in the post-9/11 era. It has cowed journalists into treating the US President in a manner that would have been unthinkable under previous incumbents. For that it can only be praised. It has done an outstanding job.
The US press has not.”

Russert is one journalist. He should not be expected to do years’ worth of questioning by the Washington press corps in the course of one hour. We should not be disappointed that a Sunday morning failed to provide the answers to all the unanswered questions. Only a political environment in which the president isn’t allowed to duck or avoid legitimate questions every day can solve this problem.