The Media and Bush
Will just one regular White House reporter let out a scream after yet another managed Bush news conference? Not literally, of course. But substantively to protest this recurrent orchestrated theater between the President, his coaches and the reporters, that results in one giant ditto hour of what Bush has been saying every day on his trips around the country before selected audiences.
The nationally televised April 28th press conference produced by all accounts little or no news. The questions were 100 percent predictable by Karl Rove, Bush’s taxpayer-salaried campaign architect in the White House. The reporters knew this and tried to compensate by quoting some facts designed to discomfort Bush, such as popular opposition to his social security plan, the increase in terrorism overseas, and the continued strength of the insurgency in Iraq. But the questions which followed were right down the middle of the plate to this man who made a fortune after taxpayers built his Texas Rangers baseball park in Arlington, Texas.
Why do reporters box themselves in this way? Why do they
fall right into the rigid formula that encases them? First of all, what
reporters are we talking about? The ones who are on Mr. Bush’s lectern
list that he calls on in order. These reporters represent the major
media companies, go to the White House daily and do not want to ruffle
feathers and be frozen out of stories or not be called on in the future.
As veteran ABC newsman, Jim Wooten, said on /Nightline /that
evening: “There is, of course, among these ladies and gentlemen, an
instinct for job protection. A clear understanding that if a question is
too hostile, it could be the last time they got to ask one.”
Ask Helen Thomas, who for many years, sat in the front row
and was called on first by previous Presidents. She irritated Bush about
her direct questions about his Middle East policies, among others, and
was banished to the back of the news conference room. No further questions.
Over twenty years ago, Helen Thomas, Sam Donaldson and other
leading White House correspondents came to a forum we sponsored to
discuss how Presidents choreograph and restrict reporters at news
conference. Their complaints, in retrospect, appear modest by today’s
draconian Bush grip. He has severely limited follow-up questions. He
will not allow free floating questions to be asked. And he never calls
on back bench reporters, like the late Sarah McClendon, who might ask
the impertinent question that is on the minds of millions of Americans
as Sarah did for decades.
But the mainstream reporters are not blameless either. They
come to these rare news conferences with a fixed determination to ask
their own prepared question. This individualism breaks any sequential
question following an absurd or evasive answer to a questioning by their
When Mr. Bush replied to a question about whether anything
will get done with Congress, he gave class action and bankruptcy
“reforms” as examples of bills he recently had signed into law. Bush got
away with calling those measures “reforms” when, in fact, they took away
existing rights of defrauded consumers and of Americans overwhelmed with
debt from a health crisis or job loss who want a chance to start over
without debt servitude. The next question was on an entirely different
While the reporters’ reluctance to jettison their prepared
question in order to nail down the President may be understandable, what
is astonishing is their unwillingness to stray from the predictable
subject matter and open up important issues for which Bush may not have
such ready, facile answers.
For example, the business media are full of stories about
corporate crimes and abuses, prosecutions and paybacks of a fraction of
the trillions drained or stolen from workers, pension funds and 401(k)s
in the past five years. Why not a question about the inadequate
corporate crime laws and enforcement budgets that the Bush
Administration does little or nothing to strengthen?
Or, why not a question coming off reports by US soldiers for
two years of inadequate equipment, including body and vehicle armor,
that has exposed them to death and severe injury, while billions of
dollars go to waste and corruption by Halliburton and other corporate
contractors? Just days before the news conference the /New York Times/
had a chilling page one story quoting Marines bitterly describing their
serious casualties due to lack of simple vehicle armor.
There is enough documentation of such failures to support
the troops to warrant negligent manslaughter charges against their
superiors. And George W. Bush, repeatedly informed about this problem
since April 2003, is the Commander in Chief.
Reporters asked about rising energy prices but were not
specific about Bush doing nothing about the notorious shrinking of
refinery capacity in this country, following two dozen closedowns of
refineries by oil companies. So Mr. Bush got away saying he could do
little about gas prices and shifting full responsibility to the price of
Many other subjects could have been raised — about failing
worker pensions, corporate welfare in the hundreds of billions of
dollars, consumers left defenseless against fraud and defective
products, frozen minimum wages, the neglect of reducing workplace
deaths, diseases and injuries, the growing peril of a virulent influenza
pandemic from the Far East, and on and on and on.
Until the regular White House reporters are replaced by
ten-year olds, steeped in current events, Mr. Bush can easily increase
the number of news conferences without breaking into a sweat. Maybe the
first people to whom these reporters and their editors (who refuse to
rotate them) should address probing questions to, are themselves.
By the way, does anyone doubt that informed pre-teens can
take politicians to the cleaners faster and better than most