Manipulating the media

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Mar 12 07:39:29 MST 2003

NY Observer
March 12, 2003|9:37 AM

Bush Eats the Press
by Michael Crowley

Sam Donaldson is long gone from the White House beat, but as he watched 
President George W. Bush’s prime-time press conference on Thursday, 
March 6, the wild-browed shouter they nicknamed "Leather Lungs" itched. 
Mr. Donaldson—who, for all his booming caricature, didn’t hesitate to 
ask Ronald Reagan about Iran-contra or Bill Clinton about Juanita 
Broaddrick—winced as he saw deferential reporters trying to question a 
scripted President in a rare, potentially historic media availability 
that sailed into autopilot as one of the all-time stage-managed White 
House electronic events.

"People ask me, ‘Do you wish you were back at the White House?’" Mr. 
Donaldson said. "And I say, ‘No, not really.’" But, said Mr. Donaldson, 
inflating his supersized larynx up to indignant, mega-bass proportions, 
"there are moments like Thursday night when—yeah—I want to be there!"

It wasn’t just Sam. Somewhere Mike Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s media-fixing 
P.R. king, was smiling. But reporters on-site were alternately 
flabbergasted, flailing and embarrassed by the experience. None seemed 
to have the legs to get into the game. Mr. Bush ran out the clock on his 
hour of prime time, using it with the focus of Jimmy Dean selling 
sausage, snubbing tough reporters while calling on buddies, issuing 
one-size-fits-all talking points to all comers, giving the answers he 
wanted to the questions he didn’t. He even openly taunted one 
correspondent, CNN’s John King, for daring to ask a multi-part question.

"I don’t think he was sufficiently challenged," said ABC News White 
House correspondent Terry Moran. He said Mr. Bush’s hyper-management 
left the press corps "looking like zombies."

Mr. Bush worked from a podium-pasted pre-determined list of acceptable 
reporters to call upon. USA Today’s Larry McQuillan, on the White House 
beat since Jimmy Carter, said Mr. Bush’s homeroom-proctor sheet of 
preferred questioners managed to insult those didn’t appear on it—and 
make those who did seem like Karl Rove’s brown-nosers, the camp kids who 
got the best desserts. "The process in some ways demeaned the reporters 
who were called on as much as those who weren’t," Mr. McQuillan said.

"They completely played us," added a correspondent for a major daily 
newspaper. "What’s the point of having a press conference if you’re not 
going to answer questions? It was calculated on so many different levels."

But to what extent where the reporters themselves to blame? Although 
some asked reasonably pointed questions, most did with a tone of extreme 
deference—"Mr. President, sir …. Thank you, sir …. Mr. President, good 
evening"—that suggested a skittishness, to which they will admit, about 
being seen as unpatriotic or disrespectful of a commander in chief on 
the eve of war. Few made any effort to follow up their questions after 
Mr. Bush’s recitation of arguments that were more speech-like than 
extemporaneous: Saddam Hussein is a threat to America, Iraq has not 
disarmed, Sept. 11 must never happen again.

It was a missed opportunity. From the media’s perspective, the purpose 
of a press conference is to hold a President accountable, to see him 
work on his feet, to understand his priorities, to give viewers insight 
into his character, to make a little news, or to allow the President to 
speak to the people in a responsive and human voice that a formal 
address doesn’t allow.

That didn’t happen. On Thursday night, Mr. Bush reinforced an image of a 
scripted man on a tightrope who followed his handlers’ cue cards:

Here’s a synopsis of the event:

Question: Why not give Iraq more time to disarm?

Bush: "This issue has been before the Security Council … for 12 long years."

Question: Why don’t our allies want war?

Bush: "Saddam Hussein has had 12 years to disarm … Saddam Hussein is a 
threat … Sept. 11 changed the strategic thinking … Sept. 11 should say 
to the American people that we’re now a battlefield …. "

Question: Why has world opinion turned on you?

Bush: "Saddam Hussein is a threat … 12 years of denial and defiance …. "

Question: How is your faith guiding you?

Bush: " … the tragedy of September the 11th … the lesson of September 
the 11th …. "

Question: How much will war cost?

Bush: "Three thousand people died."

And so on. One suspects the reporters could have informed the President 
that his daughters had appeared on Girls Gone Wild! and still gotten 
some answer interchanging the lessons of 9/11 and Saddam’s years of 
defiance. Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart later called the 
event "a perfectly acceptable performance for a re-election press 



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