March 10, 2003

White House Press Corpse

(I'm returning after a short break during which I died and was resurrected. Four words: Flu shot. Get one).

A byproduct of fever spikes and phlegm-laden lungs is an inability to concentrate on anything of substance, which is how I ended up watching President Bush's news conference last week - and saw the White House press corps perform its imitation of an ineffectual (and metaphorically mixed) hog-tied lapdog.

Bush, who hadn't held a prime-time news conference in 17 months, worked off a script drawn up by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, taking only a question each (no followups) from reporters designated by Fleischer and choosing not to see the raised hands of the scribblers from Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post, among others.

He even ignored 82-year-old Helen Thomas, who for the first time in her four decades covering the White House, received, as the Washington Times put it, her first "presidential snub." No wonder, given her tenacity in trying to draw some blood from the stone-cold Fleischer. [Read this exchange between them]

Worse, though, than the school-room behavior imposed on this supposed elite of American journalism was their obsequious acceptance of the regimen. They didn't resist, insist or persist. Instead they offered a pabulum of predictable questions that Bush easily deflected. It was a no-news conference.

If they had asked even one of the "13 Questions We Wish They'd Asked" posed by Editor & Publisher writer Ari Berman, the public would have been better served. My favorite:

7. Why have you threatened "retribution" against Mexico if it votes against our U.N. resolution? And do you think it is wise to warn that Mexicans could face the same reaction as the "backlash against the French" from our public (as you recently said) when this might be directed at some of the tens of millions of Hispanics living in the U.S.? [Read them all]

Ed Pillola, a columnist for Suburban Chicago Newspapers, has his own question: "So why is it that many of the questions at George Bush's press conference last week were as easy and smooth as custard-filled doughnuts?"

The Washington press "corpse" seems to have stopped breathing. They have become a Greek chorus in a tragedy written by the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the audience is the American public.

 USA Today Bush has media walking a fine line
 Editor & Publisher 13 Questions We Wish They'd Asked
 AlterNet Not All White House Reporters Are Pushovers
 Letters to Romenesko (scroll down) Why do WH reporters tolerate scripted sessions?

Posted by Tim Porter at March 10, 2003 06:55 PM

Great observations,Tim...great writing.

Posted by: deborah rabin on March 11, 2003 08:59 AM


I recall reading Mark Hertsgaard's "On Bended Knee" years ago, in which Ben Bradlee was quoted as saying something to the effect of, "We haven't yet figured out a way to tell readers when the president of the United States is lying."

Granted, "lying" raises Augustinian questions of intent. But competent White House correspondents at least ought to be able to inform their readers/viewers when the president makes a statement contrary to fact, when the president has a history and pattern of making statements contrary to fact and when the president refuses to correct himself when his errors of fact are brought to his attention or that of his staff.

And they ought to do it routinely.

Posted by: Lex on March 11, 2003 10:37 AM

They ought to, but they don't. In the current issue of The Atlantic, editor Michael Kelly quotes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on the difficulty, and reluctance, journalists -- who, you must remember, are as embedded (to use the current term) in the Washington establishment as the politicians and career civil servants they are covering -- have in breaking away from the pack.

Krugman: "It's a very uncomfortable thing to question the honesty and motives of your leaders. I'm saying that the men who are controlling our destiny are lying. Not many journalists or many people want to confront them."

Posted by: Tim Porter on March 11, 2003 10:48 AM

But you have to control all those bad journalists. They are, after all, completely biased against the Republicans.

Posted by: Tex on March 12, 2003 02:56 PM
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