Cage Match: Cleaning the Pool: The White House Press Corps Politely GHrabs its Ankles


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After watching George W. Bush’s press conference last Thursday night, I’m more convinced than ever: The entire White House press corps should be herded into a cargo plane, flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over the North Atlantic.


Any remaining staff at the Washington bureaus should be rounded up for summary justice. The Russians used to use bakery trucks, big gray panel trucks marked "Bread" on the sides; victims would be rounded up in the middle of the night and taken for one last ride through the darkened streets.


The war would almost be worth it just to see Wolf Blitzer pounding away at the inside of a Pepperidge Farm truck, tearfully confessing and vowing to "take it all back."


The Bush press conference to me was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function. Particularly revolting was the spectacle of the cream of the national press corps submitting politely to the indignity of obviously pre-approved questions, with Bush not even bothering to conceal that the affair was scripted.


Abandoning the time-honored pretense of spontaneity, Bush chose the order of questioners not by scanning the room and picking out raised hands, but by looking down and reading from a predetermined list. Reporters, nonetheless, raised their hands in between questions–as though hoping to suddenly catch the president’s attention.


In other words, not only were reporters going out of their way to make sure their softballs were pre-approved, but they even went so far as to act on Bush’s behalf, raising their hands and jockeying in their seats in order to better give the appearance of a spontaneous news conference.


Even Bush couldn’t ignore the absurdity of it all. In a remarkable exchange that somehow managed to avoid being commented upon in news accounts the next day, Bush chided CNN political correspondent John King when the latter overacted his part, too enthusiastically waving his hand when it apparently was, according to the script, his turn anyway.


KING: "Mr. President."


BUSH: "We’ll be there in a minute. King, John King. This is a scripted..."


A ripple of nervous laughter shot through the East Room. Moments later, the camera angle of the conference shifted to a side shot, revealing a ring of potted plants around the presidential podium. It would be hard to imagine an image that more perfectly describes American political journalism today: George Bush, surrounded by a row of potted plants, in turn surrounded by the White House press corps.


Newspapers the next day ignored the scripted-question issue completely. (King himself, incidentally, left it out of his CNN.com report.) Of the major news services and dailies, only one–the Washington Post–even parenthetically addressed the issue. Far down in Dana Millbank and Mike Allen’s conference summary, the paper euphemistically commented:


"The president followed a script of names in choosing which reporters could ask him a question, and he received generally friendly questioning." [Emphasis mine] "Generally friendly questioning" is an understatement if there ever was one. Take this offering by April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks:


"Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the UN, how is your faith guiding you?"


Great. In Bush’s first press conference since his decision to support a rollback of affirmative action, the first black reporter to get a crack at him–and this is what she comes up with? The journalistic equivalent of "Mr. President, you look great today. What’s your secret?"


Newspapers across North America scrambled to roll the highlight tape of Bush knocking Ryan’s question out of the park. The Boston Globe: "As Bush stood calmly at the presidential lectern, tears welled in his eyes when he was asked how his faith was guiding him…" The Globe and Mail: "With tears welling in his eyes, Mr. Bush said he prayed daily that war can be averted…"


Even worse were the qualitative assessments in the major dailies of Bush’s performance. As I watched the conference, I was sure I was witnessing, live, an historic political catastrophe. In his best moments Bush was deranged and uncommunicative, and in his worst moments, which were most of the press conference, he was swaying side to side like a punch-drunk fighter, at times slurring his words and seemingly clinging for dear life to the verbal oases of phrases like "total disarmament," "regime change," and "mass destruction."


He repeatedly declined to answer direct questions. At one point, when a reporter twice asked if Bush could consider the war a success if Saddam Hussein were not captured or killed, Bush answered: "Uh, we will be changing the regime of Iraq, for the good of the Iraqi people."


Yet the closest thing to a negative characterization of Bush’s performance in the major outlets was in David Sanger and Felicity Barringer’s New York Times report, which called Bush "sedate": "Mr. Bush, sounding sedate at a rare prime-time news conference, portrayed himself as the protector of the country..."


Apparently even this absurdly oblique description, which ran on the Times website hours after the press conference, was too much for the paper’s editors. Here is how that passage read by the time the papers hit the streets the next morning:


"Mr. Bush, at a rare prime-time press conference, portrayed himself as the protector of the country…"


Meanwhile, those aspects of Bush’s performance that the White House was clearly anxious to call attention to were reported enthusiastically. It was obvious that Bush had been coached to dispense with two of his favorite public speaking tricks–his perma-smirk and his finger-waving cowboy one-liners. Bush’s somber new "war is hell" act was much commented upon, without irony, in the post-mortems.


Appearing on Hardball after the press conference, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (one of the worst monsters of the business) gushed when asked if the Bush we’d just seen was really a "cowboy":


"If he’s a cowboy he’s the reluctant warrior, he’s Shane… because he has to, to protect his family."


Newsweek thinks Bush is Shane?


This was just Bush’s eighth press conference since taking office, and each one of them has been a travesty. In his first presser, on Feb. 22, 2001, a month after his controversial inauguration, he was not asked a single question about the election, Al Gore or the Supreme Court. On the other hand, he was asked five questions about Bill Clinton’s pardons.


Reporters argue that they have no choice. They’ll say they can’t protest or boycott the staged format, because they risk being stripped of their seat in the press pool. For the same reason, they say they can’t write anything too negative. They can’t write, for instance, "President Bush, looking like a demented retard on the eve of war…" That leaves them with the sole option of "working within the system" and, as they like to say, "trying to take our shots when we can."


But the White House press corps’ idea of "taking a shot" is David Sanger asking Bush what he thinks of British foreign minister Jack Straw saying that regime change was not necessarily a war goal. And then meekly sitting his ass back down when Bush ignores the question.


They can’t write what they think, and can’t ask real questions. What the hell are they doing there? If the answer is "their jobs," it’s about time we started wondering what that means.


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