The Nuclear Briefing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; 12:21 PM

Simmering tensions between the White House and the media about such issues as credibility, accountability, and the appropriate role of the press burst into full boil yesterday as spokesman Scott McClellan took to his podium in the briefing room and proceeded to tell Newsweek magazine how it should do its job.

In one of the most belligerent briefings yet (here's the complete transcript) McClellan and the press corps traded shots in the wake of the news magazine's retraction of a report that a Pentagon investigation had confirmed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay threw a Koran in the toilet.

McClellan said that Newsweek should make further amends for its mistake "by talking about the way they got this wrong, and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran."

To which ABC News' Terry Moran replied: "With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?"

"Are you asking them to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?" asked New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller.

Bumiller also questioned McClellan's assertion that the Newsweek item was responsible for rioting deaths in Afghanistan, citing a conflicting assessment from Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

And reporters suggested that McClellan was being a bit hypocritical in his media criticism.

Here's Ken Herman of Cox News Service: "In context of the Newsweek situation, I think we hear the caution you're giving us about reporting things based on a single anonymous source. What, then, are we supposed to do with information that this White House gives us under the conditions that it comes from a single anonymous source?"

McClellan said he has recently reduced the use of the so-called "background briefings" -- but would not pledge to curtail them.

Herman's conclusion: "With all due respect, though, it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are okay and everyone else's aren't."

Not explicitly stated in the briefing room, but the buzz of the blogosphere, is what some consider the ironic nature of McClellan's position, given that the Bush White House has made considerably bigger and vastly more consequential mistakes than Newsweek ever has -- but hasn't exactly jumped to make amends itself.

And a big question in today's coverage is whether the White House is jumping all over Newsweek for purely political purposes.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The debate over a retracted Newsweek report broadened yesterday into an argument about media and government ethics, with the White House urging the magazine to help undo the harm to American interests and critics accusing the administration of trying to deflect attention from its own deceptions. . . .

"McClellan rejected such criticism in an interview, saying: 'We've taken steps to make sure we improve our intelligence gathering. This should not be used as a distraction from what occurred here. It gave an impression of our military that is wrong.'

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Republicans close to the White House said that although President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were genuinely angered by the Newsweek article, West Wing officials were also exploiting it in an effort to put a check on the press.

" 'There's no expectation that they're going to bring down Newsweek, but there is a feeling that there is no check on what you guys do,' said one outside Bush adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified as talking about possible motives of the White House.

" 'In the course of any administration,' he continued, 'you have three or four opportunities, at most, with a high-profile press mistake. And if you're going to make a point - and no White House is ever going to love the way it's covered - you have to highlight those places where there is a screw-up.' "

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that "the fallout from the magazine's mistake highlighted another issue - the struggle for credibility between journalists and the White House. . . .

"By pummeling Newsweek, administration officials got a chance to limit the damage to America's image abroad while also undermining the media's credibility at home. The furor over Newsweek's error comes at time when the media and the White House are on the defensive over credibility issues. . . .

"Bush administration officials, whose case and planning for war with Iraq and treatment of prisoners have been questioned by the news media, seized on Newsweek's foul-up as another example of the media's failings, the better to impugn the credibility of all its critics."

Wyatt Andrews reported last night on the CBS Evening News: "The White House suggestion to Newsweek was highly unusual and very specific: To atone for Newsweek's now-retracted report . . . White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the magazine should now report how the military values the Koran."

To which anchor Bob Schieffer expressed amazement: "I must say, I can never recall a White House telling a news organization to go report x, y or z. Can you ever remember anything like that?"

Wyatt: "I've thought about that, Bob. I cannot remember any circumstance like this from the White House podium. . . . I've never seen it."

Bill Straub writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "The White House is holding Newsweek magazine responsible for at least 17 deaths linked to rioting in Afghanistan over a report alleging American desecration of the Koran, even though a high military official has dismissed any such connection."

And almost lost in the shuffle is the allegation at the heart of the Newsweek item and the ensuing response: That American prison guards desecrated the Koran. Newsweek has retracted its assertion that the Pentagon confirmed that to be the case. But the allegations are still out there.

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "American and international media have widely reported similar allegations from detainees and others of desecration of the Muslim holy book for more than two years."

In fact, just yesterday, "several former detainees said they witnessed military police and guards at Guantanamo Bay throwing their copies of the Koran on the ground, stomping on them with their feet, and tossing them into buckets and areas used as latrines."

And James T. Madore writes in Newsday that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff is vowing to continue digging into the controversy.

" 'We are continuing to investigate what remains a very murky situation,' the prize-winning journalist told Newsday. 'It's not like us or them [the Pentagon] have gotten to the bottom of this.' "


MSNBC conveniently provides bookends to the raging controversy that this one press briefing in particular has set off in the intersecting worlds of media criticism, cable talk shows and the blogosphere.

Here's Keith Olbermann calling on Scott McClellan to resign: "The expiration on his carton full of blank-eyed bully-collaborator act passed this afternoon as he sat reeling off those holier-than-thou remarks."

And here's Joe Scarborough: "You know, I think that response from the press at the White House is absolutely remarkable. Acting as if it's the White House's fault that 17 people are dead because of 'Newsweek's reporting."

Meanwhile, blogger Holden of First Draft chronicles how McClellan has frequently insisted that he's not a media critic -- until now.

Today's Calendar

President Bush meets with the prime minister of Egypt in the Oval Office, attends the ceremonial swearing-in for the director and deputy director of national intelligence, then headlines the International Republican Institute Dinner.

The White House and the Nuclear Option

Ed Henry tells Judy Woodruff on CNN how the White House is approaching the whole filibuster issue: "The White House is still walking a very fine line on this nuclear option. On the one hand, officials reiterate[ed] today that President Bush does not want to get into the specifics, meddling on the specifics of Senate rules. That's something for lawmakers to work out. And yet, guess who came to the White House for lunch today? As you mentioned, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, two of the president's judicial nominees who are at the center of this Senate stalemate.

"Officials here tell us that they had lunch with White House counsel Harriet Miers, then dropped by the Oval Office for a brief meeting with the president himself. All of this a not-so-subtle reminder that while the White House claims it wants to stay out of it, on the other hand, the president very much wants to put pressure on Democrats to stop filibustering his judicial nominees. . . .

"The White House is walking that fine line, of course, because while these judicial nominees are key to the president's political base, a key part as well of his agenda, there's great concern here about what a so-called nuclear war would do. Would that blow up the Senate in terms of blocking the rest of the president's agenda?"

Laura Bush Watch

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Team Bush is again turning to its diplomatic ace-in-the-hole, announcing yesterday that First Lady Laura Bush will visit Egypt, Israel and Jordan to wage a Mideast charm offensive. . . .

"After her successful trip to Afghanistan this year and her recent laugh-out-loud speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, experts say sending the First Lady could be just the tonic for the White House's global image problems.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Without wading deeply into sensitive topics, Mrs. Bush has become an ambassador for American values before often-skeptical audiences.

"She won over many in France during a September 2003 visit in which French President Jacques Chirac famously kissed her hand.

"Her image-repair mission in the Middle East may be her most complicated yet."

Mandela Visit

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "President Bush yesterday buried the hatchet with Nelson Mandela by welcoming him to the White House for a friendly huddle, in which Mandela's bitter criticism of the Iraq war didn't come up.

"Bush 'expressed his appreciation for President Mandela's leadership and courage' as they discussed combating AIDS and forgiving African debt, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Iraq didn't come up in the 20-minute Oval Office meeting with the former South African president, which McClellan described as 'a very good discussion.' "

Raising Funds

Michael Janofsky writes in the New York Times: "The Republican Party raised more than $15 million on Tuesday night as President Bush joined party leaders at a downtown reception and basked in their ardent appreciation of his leadership. . . .

"Mr. Bush could hardly have appeared before a warmer audience, major party donors whose applause and whistles repeatedly interrupted his 25-minute speech."

Here's the transcript of his speech at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington.

"We are driving the debate on all key domestic and foreign policy issues. Because of our achievements, the American people see the Republican Party as the party of reform and optimism, the party of ideals and vision," Bush said.

"Many of the most fundamental systems -- the tax code, pension plans, health coverage, legal systems, and public education -- were created to meet the needs of an earlier time. In the next four years we'll reform these institutions to meet the needs of a new century."

And Bush told the Republicans: "Let me put it to you this way: I do not need a poll or a focus group to tell me where I need to lead this country."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "American support for President Bush's Iraq policies has fallen to its lowest level since March 2003, when Harris Interactive first measured public sentiment on this issue."

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports: "President Bush's overall job approval rating stands at 43%, down from 49% in late March. That equals the lowest mark in Bush's presidency (43% in April 2004)."

Space Watch

Tim Weiner writes in the New York Times: "The Air Force, saying it must secure space to protect the nation from attack, is seeking President Bush's approval of a national-security directive that could move the United States closer to fielding offensive and defensive space weapons, according to White House and Air Force officials.

"The proposed change would be a substantial shift in American policy. It would almost certainly be opposed by many American allies and potential enemies, who have said it may create an arms race in space. . . .

"A presidential directive is expected within weeks, said the senior administration official, who is involved with space policy and insisted that he not be identified because the directive is still under final review and the White House has not disclosed its details."

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