September 29, 2003

Quien es Más Macho: Bush or The Press?

American Journalism Review has a long piece in its new issue that asks: Are the News Media Soft on Bush?

The answers seems to be: Some are, some aren't, more probably should be but the Bushies have them bamboozled. Here's the lead-in:

"That much- ballyhooed 'liberal press' hasn’t been nearly as tough on President Bush as it was on his predecessor. One key reason: Bush’s controversies have involved policy rather than personal peccadilloes, and the media have a much bigger appetite for the latter."

Notably, the piece opens with the infamous March 6, 2003, press conference, the one at which the president made his case against Saddam Hussein and "weapons of terror" while a docile White House press corps lobbed softballs up at the presidential podium.

It was, as AJR quotes New York Press writer Matt Taibbi, "a mini-Alamo for American journalism." Or as Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales commented: The "lethargy was contagious; correspondents were almost as logy as Bush was. Nobody even bothered to ask a question about Osama bin Laden." I called it an "embarrassing acquiescence by the White House press corps to the Bush administration's conversion of the First Amendment into a prep school code of conduct." [ Read: Flogging a Dead Corpse and White House Press Corpse ]

Deep in the AJR piece, Sam Donaldson, the retired ABC newsman best known for his obnoxious style of persistent questioning, offers advice on how the press corps can awake from its coma. Reporter Rachel Smolkin writes:

"Because Bush is so successful at stiff-arming the press corps, Donaldson suggests that reporters ask direct questions and eschew multipart queries. 'Like the old World War II torpedo language, it's got to be hot, straight and true' so the viewer or reader will realize when Bush dodges a question. Donaldson also advises reporters to 'remember that this is not a social occasion' and skip comments such as 'Thank you for taking the question' or 'Good evening, sir.' 'You can be respectful, but when called upon, you rise and ask a direct question,' Donaldson says. Still, he emphasizes there is only so much reporters can do. 'If he's not going to answer the question, he's not going to. ... You can't hog-tie him, throw him down and stand there and debate him.'"

Press conferences are generally a waste of time for reporters, but they are still valuable components of the democratic process. Having elected officials stand before the public, or in this case the journalistic representatives of the public, and answer questions is a good thing.

Bush has avoided this format at much as possible. (AJR reports he's held 58 press conferences; about half what his father or Bill Clinton held in the same time.) That's all the more reason for reporters to look for cracks in the façade when they have the opportunity to do so.

 American Journalism Review Are the News Media Soft on Bush?

Posted by Tim Porter at September 29, 2003 09:18 AM