Skip to comments.Bush to Press: "You're Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don't Accept That."
Posted on 04/27/2004 10:29:33 AM PDT by Thud
Bush to Press: "You're Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don't Accept That."
"In our system, the press has the role of..." Generations of journalists spoke confident sentences like that. The press is a vital check on power. It's quasi Constitutional. Bush, head of government, rejects this idea. That theory has gone down, he says. And you guys don't have that kind of muscle anymore.
Mr. Bush managed to once more beguile the reporters with his Texas Churchillian rhetoric about America's place in the world and his feelings about freedom. His non answers hung in the air, blocking the vision and hearing like swarms of black flies, confusing and distracting the press, which seemed gaga and unable to bat them away. Mr. Bush, prepared, saw the questions coming. Everybody did. When he didn't want to answer a question, he just moved to the next reporter, who generally felt honored to be called upon. Joe Hagan, New York Observer, April 24, 2004
Data point: I read that. Then I got an email from a PressThink reader, Harris Meyer, a Florida journalist asking how any pundit, "particularly a liberal talking head like Auletta," could, after watching Bush's April 13 press conference, conclude what Ken Auletta of the New Yorker concluded in an interview with WNYC's On the Media last weekend.
I guess I would have to say the press lost. The president holds the cards. First of all, he dominates almost half the press conference with a statement. And then he chooses not to answer the questions. Now if, if someone had asked him a question that threw him off stride and caused a headline that where he looked foolish, that would be one thing. But no one asked him that question. He did not behave foolishly. He's not, obviously, the most fluent, articulate speaker, but Bush did better than, say, he did at his last press conference, or better than he did on Meet the Press.
Meyer attached the transcript in his e mail, a second data point. I had intended to read it, when I had the chance, because I've written about Auletta, and tapped his reporting on the Bush view of the press. But then I realized as I scanned the text: I did that same interview with On the Media. It was recorded it on Thursday (April 15) at WNYC with host Bob Garfield, a voice in my ear from Washington.
The interview with Garfield (about ten minutes of Q and A) was blogging by radio. The occasion for it was something I posted at PressThink just before the news conference. There, I was trying to capture what was strange about this event: A Prime Time News Conference Before a Special Interest: Make Sense to You? So that's what we talked about. But the producers told me on Friday they had decided not to air the Q and A, which happens frequently, for all kinds of reasons. (Producers have to make their calls; a wise radio guest takes no offense.) Third data point: my almost interview, an incomplete act of blogging by radio.
Auletta was the right choice, anyway. Others have done the complaining. He's done the reporting on the subject, pushing further into the mind of the White House than anyone else. To me, and to most journalists, this gives him unique authority to speak. A good radio show is about that. Auletta, for example, can describe Bush at a barbeque for the press in August, where a reporter says to the president: is it really true you don't read us, don't even watch the news? Bush confirms it.
And the reporter then said: Well, how do you then know, Mr. President, what the public is thinking? And Bush, without missing a beat said: You're making a powerful assumption, young man. You're assuming that you represent the public. I don't accept that.
Which is a powerful statement. And if Bush believes it (a possibility not to be dismissed) then we must credit the president with an original idea, or the germ of one. Bush's people have developed it into a thesis, which they explained to Auletta, who told it to co host Brooke Gladstone:
That's his attitude. And when you ask the Bush people to explain that attitude, what they say is: We don't accept that you have a check and balance function. We think that you are in the game of "Gotcha." Oh, you're interested in headlines, and you're interested in conflict. You're not interested in having a serious discussion... and exploring things.
Further data point: The Bush Thesis. If Auletta's reporting is on, then Bush and his advisors have their own press think, which they are trying out as policy. Reporters do not represent the interests of a broader public. They aren't a pipeline to the people, because people see through the game of Gotcha. The press has forfeited, if it ever had, its quasi official role in the checks and balances of government. Here the Bush Thesis is bold. It says: there is no such role official or otherwise.
Generations of journalists have been taught to believe differently. Their sentences start like this, "In our system, the press has the role of..." and then they go on to describe journalists as a check on power, which is quasi Constitutional only because another part of the Constitution, the First Amendment, says you can't lesiglate the role of the press. The Bush Thesis takes the "quasi" part and pushes on it.
The thesis, in turn, is influencing policy: "why should we have to talk to you?" On the whole, Bush doesn't. In January, Auletta reported that Bush had held eleven solo press conferences while president. Over a comparable period, his father had done seventy one and Bill Clinton thirty eight. The White House line when these figures come up is that the president just does things differently. He'll meet reporters one on one, or answer questions in other venues. This defuses the issue. Meanwhile, a different line of argument is born. "Stiff 'em, they don't represent anyone. People are on to their game."
The "unrepresentative press" is a political conviction widely borne. Some of its strongest proponents are those who hold to the liberal media thesis. (Parts of which are more and more acknowledged in the media. See this from ABC's The Note.) It's also an attitude among the president's most conservative supporters many of whom don't trust the press for the same reason they don't trust teachers' unions and trial lawyers. To them, a decision to "stiff" reporters, a conniving special interest, is not only acceptable conduct by a sitting president, but a refreshing policy change and smart constituent politics.
For the conservative populist in the Bush base, the White House press is a liberal elite. If its currency is questions put to the CEO, then you can de fund the left by having the CEO not answer the reporters' questions on principle, as it were. (And no principle better explains the daily press briefings in the current White House.) Then there's the resentment out there among supporters of the war in Iraq, who believe the press committed an outrageous lapse by not covering what was going right, ignoring a great story about democracy and freedom, in effect playing Gotcha in a war zone. (Glenn Reynolds, for example, here and here.) They too might warm to the Bush Thesis, which has not only its logic but a constituency out there.
Previous presidents had the same resentments, of course, and drew cheers in parts of the electorate for voicing them. Previous presidents avoided the press, or routed around it with TV and photo ops. All presidents try to manipulate the news. It took until Bush the younger for the imaginative leap to be made: Attack the claim that any public interest at all is served by "meeting the press." Remove the press from the system of checks and balances. Deny that it's any "fourth branch of government" (Douglas Cater's idea, 1959.) Don't just work around a troublesome crew. Be bolder. Reject the reporters' claim to be channelling the public and its questions.
Not only that. In January, Auletta reported the following on the Bush Thesis: "the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders," an interest group "that's not nearly as powerful as it once was." Bush thinks the national news organizations don't have the influence Richard Nixon and other angry presidents saw in them. Here the Bush Thesis is like a mafia read, a Sopranos script: "You don't have that kind of muscle any more, so shut the f... up." He basically said that. I don't read you or watch your news. NPR? Sorry, I don't listen. Am I out of touch with the American people? Nah, not worried about it. Playing Gotcha when America's at war now that's out of touch! Fifth data point: at the top of the government, the press is seen as a declining power.
Among various puzzles in the cluster of ideas I have called the Thesis, there's: why did the Bush team feel comfortable placing hundreds of "special pleaders" with the tanks and troops invading Iraq? If the press doesn't represent anyone, then by what logic did the administration agree to embed reporters? Another analysis must have taken hold. Here are several possibilties:
"Feed the beast, or the beast will bite you by looking for news on its own, and watch out these days it can go live and unsupervised from the battlefield by satellite." If so, then the press still has muscle (in that situation) and the Sopranos boast is vain, delusional.
"We cannot afford to have Al Jazerra or other Arab television dominating the video and live coverage of the war." If that's true, then the press is a critical factor in the success of the American war effort, and the "special pleader" thesis looks ridiculous.
"Latent partriotism and the journalist's life and death dependence on the soldiers will bring us sympathetic coverage." In other words, the Gotcha nerve can be cut. Reporters in the embed program were doing "with ya" not "gotcha" journalism.
"Actually, all we want is the cameras; unfortunately, they come with journalists, but we can neutralize them and get the pictures we want onto TV screens." Here Sopranos logic holds, and the press is so powerless it can used as a front, laundering images for the Pentagon through the medium of news. (Or, you can set up your own transmission system for news from Iraq. See this from Mark Jurkowitz in the Boston Globe.)
No doubt there are other possibilities beyond these. Data point, number six: The administration doesn't always hold to the Bush Thesis.
By April, Bush was under pressure from the 09/11 commission to answer more questions and release information. The occupation of Iraq had taken a dangerous turn. Richard Clarke's book was causing a sensation in Washington. Approval ratings for the president's handling of the war had slipped some. The normal confidence and discipline of the Bush White House had turned into rigidity amid shifting events. And at a moment of political trouble, preparations for a prime time press conference began with Bush, Karl Rove and his advisors.
Data point: Bush with Rove's counsel decided to meet the press when the president was in some trouble. Why, if he believes what he said in the summer? "You're assuming that you represent the public. I don't accept that." Here, perhaps, the Bush Thesis weakened under the press of events. Or maybe not. Maybe it goes forward even in the exceptions.
In preparing for the ritual, the White House team anticipates the questions the president will face, reviews his answers, underlines things to be said at any opportunity emerging with The Talking Points. It's up to Bush to synthesize this advice, and get comfortable with the answers he will give. Data point: Perhaps 90 pecent of the questions will have been guessed by the time he strides in.
How is this even possible? Auletta has an interesting answer: Because meanwhile the press is getting its own talking points together: "They rehearse what is the question we're going to ask that will shake the president off his talking points, that will force him into a moment where he gives us a candid response, or he shows vulnerability that gives us a gotcha moment or a wow moment."
The president has his scripted points, the reporters theirs and neither will be moved off the script. The kind of question that cannot be predicted, of course, is one born live, a spontaneous response to something that happens at the press conference. Ted Koppel when he does Nightline prepares one question for each guest, the first one he will ask. Beyond that he wants everything to flow from what's said on air.
In the East Room ritual, with so much at stake (international embarrassment, for one) both parties cooperate to make sure the Koppel moment never happens. Data point: On April 13, they both read from their scripts. For the press, this meant: Were you at fault? Do you accept responsibility? Were there any mistakes? Going to apologize? "They repeated the question, because if the president was pre programmed, so too, many reporters are pre programmed," Aultetta said. Brooke Gladstone, (see my earlier interview with her) then asked "how did this play as a media event? Who won or who lost?" His answers:
If he had been knocked off stride he might have lost, but it didn't happen.
We know he's knocked off stride when there are headlines that make him look foolish, but they didn't happen either.
Why? Because Bush "did not behave foolishly," that's why. (Even though he was shaky at times.)
He "did better" than his one on one with NBC's Tim Russert, a performance so shaky it rattled the president's supporters.
Harris Meyer wants to know: how could Auletta, operating in the role of pundit, conclude these things? Well, in order to say who won a White House press conference, you need in hand, prior to an up or down verdict, some intelligible standard for political achievement in press conferencing. For his standard Auletta goes back to the "drama" of confrontation, ritualized by the script the predictable effort to knock the president off stride, the president's determination to stay in form.
You score the contest by whether the headlines say: Bush knocked off stride... If yes, they got to him. Press wins. If not, then he prevailed. No knock out, decision to Bush. So my answer to Harris is: don't look at the Auletta verdict, look at the standard that created the verdict, which is not his personal handiwork but a common style of reasoning in Washington journalism, punditry and the political class.
A typical example is this assessment from Adam Nagourney and Eric Litchblau in last Sunday's New York Times: "Evaluating the 9/11 Hearings' Winners and Losers." It's a news story about who came out looking good from the hearings, in the estimation of insiders and operatives. Thus Matt Bennett, a political consultant and Democrat, is quoted about commissioners Bob Kerrey and Richard Ben Veniste: "They were a little too combative, and it sort of came off as a nasty spat."
That very peculiar construction, "it came off as..." identifies the "who won?" style of Beltway thinking. Some of its virtues are to be empty of political content, (and thus applicable to whomever is in power) agnostic on questions of truth, exacting on matters of appearance, preoccupied with positioning and technique, and with how things look to a hypothetical observer who is never quite identified. "How will this play, politically?" is the same mindset speaking. Recognize it?
Come in with another standard, and the verdict changes. If transparency in government is the critical standard, and the press conference a means of achieving it, did Bush "win?" (I would say no.) If self expression for the president revealing what's in his gut, displaying his convictions is the standard, then the president probably achieved that. He won fuller expression as a man of resolve. If a clearer, fuller and more coherent explanation of policy is the right standard, and the press conference a kind of teaching platform that includes the press, then no one did very well.
To me what's amazing is how little is expected of Bush as an artful politician, even among his supporters. By taking a "buck stops here, you betcha I'm responsible" approach to the mistakes questions, he might have shown the mature, manly, quasi heroic virtues for which he and the Bush family are admired by many Americans. Not that it would have been easy, but the proper kind of apology to the families could have transformed the entire political dynamic around 09/11. But no one expects such things of Bush. (See blogger Rand Simberg on the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in reviews of Bush's performance.)
A more skilled politician could have re framed the June 30 date for passing "control" to the Iraqis and created room for himself, relaxing the pressure to phony up the import of the handover, which is now building as the press gets ready to observe progress on that date. Not even the minimal standard of appearing to answer questions you have actually skirted gets applied to Bush, for as Auletta observed he didn't answer some, zoned out on others, and evaded in a flagrant way yet still won the encounter. It's a mystery to me why Bush's political friends would be happy with any of this.
The idea of the press as the "fourth estate," which is the big idea Bush rejects, is usually traced to English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795 1881.) What Carlyle wrote puts a different light on Jeff Jarvis saying at Buzzmachine: send some bloggers to the White House press conference! I took him to mean that independent voices, writers representing no one but themselves and their public reputation, without rank or representation, should be in the mix with the press. Jeff meet Tom Carlyle, writing at a time when the press was newly arrived on the political stage:
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, .... Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ..... Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.
Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. There is still a reporters gallery, and it is still speaking the language of a Fourth Estate. But perhaps its weakness is in speaking a language Americans recognize as theirs. Bush is challenging the press: you don't speak to the nation, or for it, or with it. (See Hagan on this point.)
He cannot sustain this challenge all the time thus, the April 13 press conference, thus the embeds but it is a serious argument. Intellectually, it's almost a de certification move against the press corps. There's a constituency for this, and it picks up on long term trends that have weakened the national press, including a disconnect between Big Journalism and many Americans, and the rise of alternative media systems.
As a first step out of this trap, journalists need to ask themselves: how did we become so predictable? Is it possisble to go back, and pull the wire that made this so? The game of Gotcha does exist. Auletta, a liberal journalist, can recognize it as easily as Karl Rove. Knock him off stride. Get him off the talking points.
But instead of rolling our eyes, we ought to realize that Gotcha has been incorporated into a new thesis, now in power in the White House. Behold the basics of President Bush's press think. You don't represent the public. You're not a part of the checks and balances. I don't have to answer your questions. And you don't have that kind of muscle anymore.
I did excerpt - the follow-up and reader posts are about eight times as long as Rosen's original post, and just as informative.
How to spot press bias?
Here's an easy test: if there is a statement before a question, then the reporter is biased and has an agenda.
What's a "statement" before a question?
Here's an example: "Mr. President, with our troops bogged down on their attack towards Baghdad, and with our economy now sinking with out of control unemployment, and with our homeless now starving from so many government funds being diverted away from shelters, do you now think that it was wrong to unilaterally invade Iraq?"
The question is at the end, long after the "statement" was made. Notice that the biased reporters can't simply ask the question "Do you now think that it was wrong to unilaterally invade Iraq?"
Oh no. They have to first give their political spin on all of the bad in the world, from the most extreme, worst possible angles, and *then* they ask their question.
That's media bias.
We shouldn't be interviewing reporters. Journalists shouldn't be making statements prior to asking press conference questions, and Editorial boards should have as many die-hard Country Music listeners as they have Hip Hop and Madonna fans.
Who, What, Where, When, and How. Not "others think" or "some feel".