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

Written by Matt Taibbi on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


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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