What's a Press Corps to Do?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 18, 2005; 12:33 PM

What should the press corps do the next time the White House calls a background briefing and demands that no one identify the briefer by name?

Walk out en masse?

That's not likely to happen, members of an august panel at the National Press Club grudgingly acknowledged yesterday.

Well, how about if someone outed the briefer's identity to a blogger?

The panel was called "Confronting the Seduction of Secrecy: Toward Improved Access to Government Information on the Record," and it featured a head-table heavy with Washington bureau chiefs past and present as well as advocates for aggressive, accountability-oriented journalism.

There was much talk, on the one hand, about what panelists called the unprecedented secrecy with which the Bush administration operates; and on the other hand, about the need for reporters to occasionally grant confidentiality to sources who are taking a risk by exposing information that the public has a right to know.

But sticking in pretty much everyone's craw was the persistence of those maddening White House briefings where a senior administration official stands in front of an auditorium full of reporters, says nothing remotely controversial, and yet insists on being cloaked in anonymity.

From the reporters' perspective, there is no excuse for it. The anonymity doesn't engender frankness; all it does is hinder accountability and undermine journalistic credibility.

But what to do?

Bill Kovach, director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, described the short-lived revolt he tried to lead when he was Washington Bureau chief of the New York Times in the 1980s. "A few other reporters joined us at first when we asked briefings be kept open and left the room if they were not. But the support didn't last long," he said. "The main argument from other journalists was that they would surrender their independence if they took part in such group actions," he said.

But Kovach said that in this era of spin and misinformation, it's time to head to the ramparts again. "And maybe if we're lucky we can find that cooperation and collaboration are not threats to our independence but are the key to strengthen the value and the appeal of a journalism of verification to the American people."

Tom Curley, president and chief executive of the Associated Press, agreed: "We have to be able to walk out of the room when somebody goes off the record."

"It's easy to say that the Bush administration has taken secrecy to a new level. Because it has," said Knight-Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson, who is the president of the White House Correspondents Association. "But we've let them."

Hutcheson described his own personal walk-out from an anonymous briefing last term. It turned out to be a solo affair. No one followed him.

But just in the past few weeks, he said, the New York Times and the Associated Press in particular have aggressively and successfully pushed the White House press office to put background briefings on the record.

"If you push back you get results, and we need to push back collectively," Hutcheson said.

"Doing it all together seems absolutely key," said Geneva Overholser, a Missouri School of Journalism professor and former editor.

But a forceful diverging view came from someone who wasn't even there. Overholser read a message that had been sent to her from Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., an outspoken advocate of newsroom independence, who said, "We just don't believe in unified action. . . . We can't participate in the kind of discussion you are proposing."

That didn't dissuade Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, however.

If editors don't want to sign a group letter, fine, he said. But there are ways to act collectively without sacrificing independence. "Unified action can be having standards and holding your ground individually," he said.

Can Bloggers Help?

Alexander proposed one way out of this mess. Maybe the journalists in attendance should out the briefers to bloggers.

"I would love to be able to refer to a Web site" for that, Alexander said.

Overholser asked Slate media critic Jack Shafer why it hadn't happened. Shafer has openly encouraged reporters to e-mail him with a name.

Reporters who attend the events implicitly agree to the ground rules, much as they do when giving individual sources a pledge of confidentiality.

"I've been very disappointed. I've found out that reporters are much more honorable than I thought they would be," he said.

Shafer unleashed some other zingers as well, asking: "Why should someone who's giving a tongue-bath be granted anonymity?" There's more in his Slate articles yesterday and today.

Reporting on the Process

Several panelists said that another response to Bush's control of the press should be to report more about the process the White House is using to achieve it.

In other words: More stories about the endlessly repeated talking points, the merciless spin, the fake news, the screened audiences, and the increasingly sophisticated public relations apparatus.

I, of course, sat back in my chair in the audience and thought: Oh! Like White House Briefing!

Today's Calendar

President Bush is out barnstorming for his Social Security agenda again today, this time in Pensacola and Orlando.

Tamara Lytle writes for the Orlando Sentinel: "President Bush arrives in Orlando today with a tough challenge: selling a Social Security plan that becomes less popular the more he talks about it.

"Bush will visit elderly residents this afternoon at the Life Project Senior Development Center and then speak at the Lake Nona YMCA after a stop in Pensacola this morning."

The headline on Patrick Peterson's story in Florida Today says: "Floridians ready to quiz president."

It is, however, unlikely that they will get the chance. I've seen no sign that Bush plans to vary from his routine, which is talking before a screened audience -- and taking questions, if at all, only from the painstakingly prepped on-stage panelists.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey writes in Newsweek: "The White House last week scrapped plans to visit Sarasota, the home district of one of Bush's biggest supporters, GOP Rep. Katherine Harris. . . .

"Harris, now in her second congressional term, hasn't been wildly enthusiastic about Bush's Social Security reforms and, according to a spokesman, remains on the fence about private accounts."

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "In a new measure of the obstacles facing President Bush's effort to change the Social Security program, outside groups working to build support for his ideas are having to spend much of their money trying to buck up Republicans rather than converting Democrats."

The Plan! The Plan!

As I reported in my Wednesday column, when President Bush met with a roundtable of regional newspaper reporters this week, he expressed astonishment that people constantly refer to "Bush's plan" for Social Security. "I haven't laid out a plan," he said. "I've laid out some ideas that I think ought to be considered for a plan, and that's what's important for people to know."

Then at Wednesday's press conference, he insisted: "I have not laid out a plan yet, intentionally. I have laid out principles."

Wherever would the press get the impression that he has a plan?

Well, as The Washington Post's Al Kamen points out today: "Bush does indeed have a plan. It's right there in the middle of the White House Web site. It says 'The President's Plan.' Okay, so maybe it doesn't go into a whole lot of detail, but. . . . "

Thanks to White House Briefing reader Scott Barker for pointing that out.

About That Press Conference

Wednesday's press conference generated quite the range of stories with quite the range of leads. But many observers noted that Bush seemed very confident, and very in control.

Peter Wallsten wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush might be losing his battle to overhaul Social Security, as recent polls suggest. But on Wednesday he faced the nation with the confidence and serenity of a leader who increasingly saw himself on the right side of history.

"In his third news conference at the White House since the inauguration -- a departure from his first four years, when formal news conferences were relatively rare -- Bush fielded 48 minutes of questions on topics as diverse as Social Security, gasoline prices, steroids in baseball, same-sex marriage, the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

"At every turn, he insisted that time would bring success."

Wallsten writes that White House advisers and allies say Bush is ebullient and that one manifestation is his commitment to holding at least one news conference a month -- a pace he has kept since his reelection.

I'm not sure if Bush is ebullient, but it's quite clear that he has gotten adept at fielding questions without giving ground, making much news -- or, quite often, directly answering the questions he is being asked.

In other words: He's not afraid of the press corps anymore.

Over in USA Today, Mark Memmott noted New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's question to Bush as evidence that reporters aren't "shy about asking potentially controversial questions."

Here's the entire exchange:

"Q Paul Wolfowitz, who was the -- a chief architect of one of the most unpopular wars in our history --

"THE PRESIDENT: (Laughter.) That's an interesting start. (Laughter.)

"Q -- is your choice to be the President of the World Bank. What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the world?

"THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I think people -- I appreciate the world leaders taking my phone calls as I explained to them why I think Paul will be a strong President of the World Bank. I've said he's a man of good experiences. He helped manage a large organization. The World Bank is a large organization; the Pentagon is a large organization -- he's been involved in the management of that organization. He's a skilled diplomat, worked at the State Department in high positions. He was Ambassador to Indonesia where he did a very good job representing our country. And Paul is committed to development. He's a compassionate, decent man who will do a fine job in the World Bank. And that's why I called leaders of countries and that's why I put him up.

"I was pleased to see that Jim Wolfensohn, earlier today, made a very strong comment about Paul's candidacy. Jim Wolfensohn has done a fine job in leading the World Bank. He's represented the World Bank with a lot of class and a lot of dignity, and I think his comments are very important comments for -- for people to get to know Paul better before the -- before the vote is taken."

Memmot writes: "Bumiller says 'it's not my job to be popular, it's my job to get good answers from the president and generate some news.' Often, she says, she 'gets criticized for not being aggressive enough.' "

Note that Bush didn't directly answer her question, then moved on.

About That Ebullience

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "The American occupation remains highly controversial and divisive, and many of Bush's closest aides and friends believe the war is still the greatest potential threat to his legacy.

"But in the view of Bush's handlers, the Jan. 30 Iraqi elections, plus a general sense that democracy is also beginning to take tentative root in Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have lent a modest aura of optimism to the Iraqi enterprise."

And yet DeFrank quotes a wary "top Bush lieutenant" saying: "Iraq is not a drag at the moment. . . . There's been a good pro-Bush boomlet since the [Iraqi] elections. But it's still a political minus. People aren't going to relax about it until we start drawing down our troops."

Bill Sammon notes in the Washington Times: "For the first time in years, President Bush has fielded more questions on domestic policy than on foreign policy at a press conference -- which says a lot about the improving situation in Iraq. . . .

"From the president's perspective, those questions are preferable to ones about Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and mounting American casualties."

Budget Smackdown

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate last night dealt a slap to President Bush and the Republican leadership, approving a 2006 budget that would gut much of the GOP's deficit-reduction efforts by restoring requested cuts to Medicaid, education, community development and other programs.

"With their deficit-reduction targets disappearing, Senate Republicans also nearly doubled the budget plan's tax cuts to $134 billion over five years. The budget passed 51 to 49, with four Republicans voting no."

Weighing In on Schiavo

Bush released a statement last night about Terri Schiavo, clearly intended to show support for the congressional moves to prevent the Florida woman's husband from removing her feeding tubes.

Schiavo suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago and court-appointed doctors say she is in a persistent vegetative state. Her parents say she could get better.

Here's the statement: "The case of Terri Schiavo raises complex issues. Yet in instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life. Those who live at the mercy of others deserve our special care and concern. It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected -- and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities."

That last part is potentially provocative. Is he suggesting that those who support letting Schiavo die (because they believe she has no higher brain functions) are no different than people who favor euthanizing the disabled?

Gannon Watch

Scott Shepard wrote for Cox News yesterday: "The House Judiciary Committee rejected a request Wednesday to investigate whether the White House provided press room access to a reporter with questionable journalism credentials as part of its efforts to control media coverage of President Bush.

"The committee voted 21-10, along party lines, to deny the request to look into the circumstances of former Talon News White House correspondent James Guckert's almost daily access to the White House news briefings from 2003 until his resignation last month. Guckert was given the access even though the press galleries in Congress had rejected his request for similar access there."

A Troubled St. Patrick's Day

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush and members of Congress yesterday pledged their support for peace in Northern Ireland and for the family of slain Irishman Robert McCartney, calling for an end to violence by the Irish Republican Army and justice for McCartney, whose murder has been blamed on the IRA.

"This year's St. Patrick's Day celebration -- normally a festive, bipartisan affair open to all players in Irish politics -- had a somber, divisive tone that underscored the uncertain state of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Lawmakers sparred over how to deal with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, and the visit to the White House by McCartney's mourning family served as a reminder of the personal pain that the violence in Northern Ireland has wrought."

Milligan also notes that at the annual St. Patrick's Day lunch hosted by the speaker of the House, "Bush also referred to McCartney's 'three sisters' (he had five), a minor mistake that nonetheless made the president appear less than connected to the situation in Northern Ireland, said one lawmaker who attended the lunch."

Torture Watch

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "The CIA and the White House yesterday defended the practice of secretly transferring suspected terrorists to other countries, including some with poor human rights records, and reiterated that proper safeguards exist to ensure detainees are not tortured.

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not answer repeated questions about whether President Bush was aware of -- or believed or discounted -- assertions made recently by freed detainees that they were tortured by other governments after they were transferred abroad by the CIA. But he said the United States has 'an obligation not to render people to countries if we believe they're going to be tortured.' "

There were in fact two incredibly contentious exchanges with McClellan in yesterday's briefing, one about rendition, and the other about rising oil prices. Worth the read if you have the time and the patience.

Second Blogger in the House

The First Blogger in the White House, Garret Graff, reports that he has now been followed by a Second Blogger, an Eric Brewer from a site called BTC News.

Brewer actually got to see the president!

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