White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. I'm looking forward, as always, to hearing your thoughts and taking your questions. Bring it on.


USA: Just like the press corps was wrong about not questioning the White House on its Iraq W.M.D. claims, the press and media is wrong to consider the President's policies have created a widespread march to freedom in the Middle East. It is window dressing for an age old story that has been happening since the time of the pharoahs. How can the press be so gullible?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I write about that a bit today.

But not everyone's describing it that way. And one of the things about Washington is that it is amazing how quickly these stories change course. One big news event and no one will remember what everyone was talking about today -- or rather, how they were talking about it.

You shouldn't be surprised when the press is gullible in the short run. That's a cost of doing business. Worry when it's gullible in the long run.


New York, N.Y.: I read your column daily and appreciate the research you do of the news on the White House. It would be nice to see you show articles from Red State newspapers that write some of the same content as the blue state sources you always cite (New York, Boston, Chicago). I realize you may need to dig a little deeper, but it could start to show that these states also have media that are interested in printing "reality based" news.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. One of the biggest surprises of this job has been realizing that most "red-state" papers typically run White House stories from the "blue state" media outlets! I would say that I most often quote from The Washington Post, the NY Times, The LA Times, The Wall St. Journal, and the Washington bureaus of Tribune, Knight-Ridder, Cox, AP, and Reuters. But that is where a huge proportion of the White House stories are generated, whether you're in a red state or a blue state.

How many of what you would consider "red state" papers regularly have their own staff-written stories about what's going on in the White House? I do go out and look fairly often.

If I'm missing any, boy do I want to know. Tell me. E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com!

And do you think they take a different tack?


Delmar, N.Y.: President Bush has been promoting his social security private/personal accounts proposal in various forums around the country and Vice President Cheney will soon be involved in similar activity. While advocating for a particular policy and engaging with the public is without question a legitimate role for the President and other members of his Administration to perform, I am troubled by the fact that access to these forums are limited and attendees are screened in advance to insure that the audience is entirely made up of supporters of the President. These are pure and simple campaign events and should not be paid for out of the public treasury. At times the lines between what constitutes legitimate government functions and events that are political are blurred and overlap. That is not the case here! Has the issue as to who pays for these events been raised?

In contrast, members of Congress recently held forums in their own districts, that were open to the general public, where they were exposed to a wide range of views on the topic of reforming social security, much of it very critical of the President's premise that the social security program is in crisis, "heading for collision with an iceberg" and that only private/personal accounts can save it. The President's (and soon to be followed by the Vice President's) road show is pure propaganda of the worst sort that one finds in non-Democratic regimes. Why doesn't anyone in the mainstream press bring this up?

Dan Froomkin: I've written about it repeatedly. See, for instance, my Feb. 8 column: Should Tax Dollars Fund Bush's Bubble? See also last Wednesday's column in which I link to an essay on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I also work) by government professor Jeffrey Tulis who argues that this is a shift in presidential practice of historic proportions.


Bankruptcy Bill: If they pass this they are morally bankrupt.

Any word on why the President supports this? I agree bankruptcy laws need some kind of change, but I'm more interested in seeing the predatory tactics of banks/credit cards changed, either instead of, or at the same time as...

Dan Froomkin: Of course the president supports it. See, for instance, today's New York Times story by Stephen Labaton, headlined: "Bankruptcy Bill Set for Passage; Victory for Bush"

Interestingly, the left-wing bloggers are apopleptic about this bill -- with most of their bile being spit towards the Democrats who aren't resisting it.


Potsdam, N.Y.: Any thoughts on why the "extradordinary rendition" practice of the CIA hasn't made any real waves in the media. My local paper just carried its first piece on the practice, and it centered around Secretary Gonzales' claim that the adminsitration has no knowledge of torture being used against those the CIA turns over to Egypt, Syria, etc. Can anyone seriously accept this claim at face value, given the State Department routinely is critical of these governments for their interrogation practices?

Dan Froomkin: Well, wearing my NiemanWatchdog.org media-critic hat, I'll tell you my quick answer:

Because the nation's newspapers and networks have failed to make torture a "beat." We run one-day reaction pieces when some news breaks, rather than investigating and probing and pushing, day after day, into what I think is one of the most important stories imaginable.


Chicago, Ill.: Just a brief correction to New York's statement: The Chicago Tribune is, for all intents and purposes, a red-state paper. Its primary audience is suburbanites and the editorial board are all hard-core Bush apologists. Every couple of days they run something defending some aspect of Bush's policy and wildly overstating some perceived misstep by the Democrats in an attempt to manufacture "balance." Not that I'm bitter about that.

Dan Froomkin: We don't do bitter here on "White House Talk."



Providence, R.I.: Have day passes for the White House briefing been issued to any questionable "journalists" other than Gannon/Guckert?

Dan Froomkin: You betcha! I wrote about that a bit in my Feb. 15 column. Several other folks chose to back into the Guckert/Gannon story that way; see my Feb. 25 column.


Kansas City, Mo.: Wasn't Bush originally against the recent Iraqi elections? Just as wasn't he against setting up Homeland Security, the original immediate tax cut?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. Or rather, he didn't want to have them so soon. What's your point?


Ellicott City, Md.: So why would Bolton want the job to work at a place he so despises?

Dan Froomkin: Why do so many bloggers want to work at the New York Times?

No, seriously, that's a fine question. I hope it's asked.


Baltimore, Md.: Dan,
Why don't you apply for a day pass to the White House briefing room (or several of them) and attempt to get some of your fantastic questions answered (not that S. McClellan would actually give you a straight answer)?

Dan Froomkin: Several questions in this vein today. Thanks.

The Washington Post newspaper has its own excellent White House correspondents, and that's their job.

My job, which is technically for the Web site, is, as I see it, a bit more meta. I write about and comment on the reportage, rather than do much of it myself.

I have made it over to the White House briefing room several times, on a day pass, to see what's going on and to get to know the correspondents. I'm sure I'll be over there again soon.

But at this point, at least, I don't think it's my job to ask my questions directly. And, as you suggested, they wouldn't get substantively answered, anyway, so what's the point? Wouldn't it just be grandstanding?

As the the whole Guckert/Gannon mess was unfolding, it hit me that the test of a "real" journalist in the briefing room is not so much who they work for or what their background is, but whether or not they are asking a question for which they really desire an answer?

Or are they just asking a question to hear themselves talk?

I don't want to find myself in the latter category.


Rockville, Md.: There has been a lot of discussion on how passive or aggressive the WH press has been in dealing with this Administration. There have been some, like the Post's Howard Kurtz, that have said that those complaining about the passivity of the press with regards to this Administration are looking for the press to advocate anti-administration views. But I disagree. I think what people ar elooking for is more of the exchange you reported between Scott McClellan and John Roberts in your March 8 column. Roberts was clearly not going to give in on his attempt to get a clear "yes" or "no" question without a fight. The fact that he did not get a clear answer after struggling mightily is newsworthy. I think there are just a lot of people out there that want to see the press corps not give in so easily and continue to press the Administration spokespeople, at least as hard as John Roberts did the other day. Effort is almost as important as results. Do you agree or disagree?

Dan Froomkin: Well, frankly, I'd like to see results.

I loved the Roberts exchange, which is why I quoted it in yesterday's column -- and I regularly quote others like it.

But you could also argue it's just narcissistic grandstanding. Because the reality is, pretty much most of the time, Scott doesn't answer questions -- in fact doesn't say much of anything new at all.

What the press corps needs to do -- and I am wracking my brain on some way to usefully add to the current raging discourse on this very issue -- is dramatically change the current paradigm, which they have tacitly accepted, and which is that they don't get answers -- from Scott, or anyone else in the White House.

One possible solution, which I have repeatedly suggested, is that when they don't get answers, they should report that they didn't get answers. (You'll notice, for instance, that no one, including Roberts, even mentioned that big fat waste of time... except me.)


Shepherd Park, Washington, D.C.: Dan,

When I read in your Monday column about Secretary Snow's description of the Social Security private accounts as "government-subsidized personal savings accounts outside the existing system," my thought was that we already have them. They are called IRA accounts.

Is there a significant difference between Bush's 'reform,' especially if it is an add-on, and IRA accounts?

Dan Froomkin: Think of "add-on" (not that it will ever happen) as being a lot like the federal Thrift Saving Plan that Bush often, misleadingly, likens to his "carve-out" proposal. The way the TSP works -- I think -- is that in addition to paying Social Security payroll taxes, workers can put aside some of their (pretax?) paycheck without opening an account at a brokerage and having to do much paperwork and dealing with management fees, etc. etc.

So it's more like a 401(K) than an IRA?

By which I mean: Good question. I'm going to go read Steve Barr and report back in a few days.


Burke, Va.: What should be done if the source lies to you?

Dan Froomkin: I think this is an excellent question -- and one which Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum recently raised.

My personal feeling: They lie to you, you out 'em. If the agreement is that they confide in you in return for confidentiality -- because that results in a more informed public -- deal's off if they're actually just trying to spread disinformation.

That said, I have noticed that editors often have a pretty high threshold before being comfortable calling something a "lie".


New York, N.Y.: If red state readers get their news from the same outlets as us blue state readers, then are you saying that red state papers print a different slant on the same news? Or, do red state readers disregard what they read and believe what they choose to believe? Cuz if it's all the same, it would be a good balance for your column.

Dan Froomkin: To the extent that I understand your question, it fascinates me and I can't answer it.

I'm willing to propose, as a thesis, that red-state and blue-state people don't see fundamentally different newspaper news stories -- at least not yet.

But they may see radically different editorials and opinions, may listen to different talk-radio hosts, may watch different cable news channels -- and may not read those newspaper stories as much.

But I should raise that question with someone like Jay Rosen.


Leesburg, Va.: Why isn't more being said, especially on the network news programs and front page on the major newspapers, about the restrictions being placed on the ticket distribution for President Bush's Social Security talks? Surely the fact that our President is using tax dollars to promote his program but not granting tickets to anyone who doesn't agree with him or is a member of the Republican party, is a story worthy of coverage! This past week we learned that some of the people chosen to appear on stage to "chat" with the President are members of a Republican advocacy group interviewed and cleared ahead of time! To hear the Administration tell it, though, these are "average citizens" the President claims to be interviewing. Maybe if more people learned how the President was stacking the deck at these meetings, they might take more interest in learning what his proposal is, and why it has to be carefully shielded from dissent.

Dan Froomkin: Well, again, I can't really answer why others aren't writing whole stories just about that. I am.

But that said, a nod to the fact that the audiences are made up of screened supporters, and that the panelists are picked and prepped, is showing up somewhere in most news stories these days.


Arlington, Va.: I'm interested in the current administration's diversionary phrases, in talking with the press. A quick cull of march 8th's press briefing (in which the questions are significantly more pointed and agressive than I've grown acoustumed to) has all the classics:
"The President looks forward to..."
"We're working very closely with..."
"our views...are very well known..."
"...we are continuing to work with the international community..."
"The President expressed those views earlier today, and those are what his views are"
"We're going to continue to work closely with..."
"That's what our view is, and that remains our view..."
"we have a longstanding position when it comes to... And our view has not changed..."

Granted, there is a certain inherent verbal jujitsu required, in the political arena. Listening to President Kennedy's speeches, he too was a master of it. How effectively do you feel that today's press is responding to/ circumventing/challenging the verbal tactics coming out of the White House?

Dan Froomkin: Those aren't diversionary phrases. Those are the meaningless words padding the diversionary phrases that punctuate the hoary soundbytes from the approved phrasebook that obfuscate the lack of any substantial response to our questions.


Washington, D.C.: Seems to me that its a naive assumption that just because a country adopts a more democratic system that all of a sudden they will embrace the U.S. Does the White House just assume this? They are free to elect leaders that hate us more. Aren't they?

Dan Froomkin: Well yes, and some Bush critics are holding this out as a possible future "gotcha." But I give Bush some credit for not worrying about that right now and sticking to his pro-democracy guns. If he's saying being democratic is more important than being pro-American, that's actually pretty bold.

But there are still lots of questions.

Would an anti-American democracy be more or less likely to breed terrorists than, say, a pro-American dictatorship?

What does the Oklahoma City bombing say about terrorists and democracies?

And, most significantly in my mind, what if a democracy chooses to viciously oppress its minorities?


Ellicott city, Md.: What if instead of questions the White House press were to make statements and say "is this the case, I am going to print it if it is so". So if Scott doesn't deny it, then they can assume they are right.

Dan Froomkin: Well, typically, we don't like playing tricks like that. But maybe it's time.

In my Feb. 11 column, I noted another one of those Abbot and Costello-like exchanges with McClellan, this one about whether or not Bush was willing to consider increasing the cap on Social Security payroll taxes.

Most people seemed to think that McClellan hadn't said one way or the other, in spite of all their efforts. But the New York Times reported, definitively, that he had rejected raising the cap.

A few days later, as I reported in my Feb. 16 column, Bush finally said that the cap was indeed on the table.

I wondered if there was any cause and effect there.


Re: White House Briefing Room: Following this up, the most devastating thing a reporter can do is to do what you do: print what McLellan (or Bush) actually says. The rambling incoherence, the obvious evasiveness, nothing could be more truthful...and unflattering.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, I guess. But I'm not exactly seeing a popular movement demanding that Scott McClellan answer a question.


Fairfax, Va.: I'd like to commend you in your online writings; in particular, linking to your information source within sentences. It's the "straight from the horse's mouth" approach, and I'd like to see more of it.

The reason why I'd like to see more of it is because it seems that we are living in a Disinformation Age where conclusions (truthful or not) are drawn first and positive evidence is gathered to bolster them, and negative evidence is ignored. A few primary examples are the WMDs case in Iraq, the COX2 inhibitors, and the Social Security crisis. Statistics can be found to support any position, quotes can be taken out of context, and news outlets are biased.

With all of this disinformation, how do you see restoring information integrity?

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks, and thanks for the tough question.

My little contribution to restoring the integrity of information (and the press's role in that) is precisely what you see. I believe in linking to alternate sources of information, competing views and -- most importantly -- original documents.

I've been a believer in that ever since I moved from print to the Web almost 10 years ago, and I'm proud to be doing it now, in an area of great importance.

Frankly, I would like to see more people doing it, I think it would be good for the industry -- and yes, for the public.


Easton, Md.: What would happen if major networks and newspapers simply stopped covering all of the dog and pony shows that White House stages?

Dan Froomkin: Well, he is the president of the United States.

We'd look stupid!

But here's what we could do: Write about what didn't happen, what wasn't said, and who wasn't there. We could write about how extensively the event was staged and what lengths they went to in order to avoid news in general and conflict in particular. We could actually lead with that, rather than twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to find news where there weren't none. Something like that.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Do you have any idea what President Bush's fallback position will be if (when?) his Social Security reform proposals fail? (Yes, I know that he hasn't made any specific proposal, but we all know the rough elements of the kind of reform that the White House wants.)

Dan Froomkin: That's a tough one. Because I think Karl Rove is much more interested in diverting Social Security payroll tax money into private accounts (and in so doing, creating a larger class of people invested in the corporate bottom-line and more likely to vote Republican) than he is in fixing a financing problem that may or may not occur decades from now. By that logic, just doing the latter is not a fallback, it's a failure.


Bubble Watch: Dan, you reported "The White House will distribute the tickets to...groups...that have an interest in Bush's remarks."

On the one hand, what U.S. resident doesn't have an interest in any remarks Bush may make?

On the other hand, is it actually illegal/unconstitutional for the president to limit who he speaks to about policy proposals?

Dan Froomkin: That was, of course, a euphemism. They want people who are supportive of Bush, not just interested.

Is it illegal? Well, I don't think so -- but there are some limits on the ability of the executive branch to spend tax money lobbying, for instance. Certainly worth looking into.

And unconsitutional? I doubt it -- but the Tulis essay I mentioned above started me thinking about how central to American constitutional democracy it is that the president, once the election is over, is the president of all the people -- and that this might tend to erode that perception.


Granger, Ind.: Hi Dan,

Read you daily and miss ytou when you're away.

I know you've dealt with this before, but can you shed any insight as to the silence regarding the Valerie Plane affair? What's going on?

Also, why go after Miller and Cooper? Wasn't it Novak who leaked the Plame's info in the first place? Shouldn't he be the one sent to jail?


Dan Froomkin: It wouldn't be a "White House Talk" without a Valerie Plame question!

I don't know!

It ain't news, but Law professor Randall D. Eliason writes in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the prosecution in the Valerie Plame case is just doing its job.

And he answers your (obviously good) question about Novak thusly:

"Some question why the prosecutor is going after [Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine] and not [Robert D.] Novak. But because of grand jury secrecy, we don't know exactly what has happened with Novak, because he's not saying. Novak may be cooperating; he may have taken the Fifth, or the prosecutor may be waiting until near the end of the investigation before seeking to question him. Regardless, it is safe to assume that Novak is not being ignored."


Washington, D.C.: "And, most significantly in my mind, what if a democracy chooses to viciously oppress its minorities?"

Welcome to the House of Representatives, Dan!

Dan Froomkin: Well, to be honest, I meant jailing and raping and killing them, rather than just not listening to them. But your point is well taken.


Alexandria, Va.: Why is the mainstream media virtually ignoring the Gannon/Guckert scandal? This story is more than "just a hooker in the briefing room"... there are connects to Plame and national security!

Dan Froomkin: First of all, some big-media reporters have written about it at some length, including The Post's Howard Kurtz.

But big-media types also sometimes really bristle at what they consider "tin-foil hat" hysteria -- like the utterly unfounded conviction, for instance, that there is a "Plame connection."

It has been pretty conclusively established that the only "Plame connection" is that Guckert/Gannon read a Wall Street Journal article about Plame, and asked her husband, Joe Wilson, about it. That ain't a national security breach.


San Antonio, Tex.: "But I'm not exactly seeing a popular movement demanding that Scott McClellan answer a question."

If there were this popular movement to see questions answered--honestly--by Bush, Condi, Cheney and the other minions, including McClellan, where, oh where, do you see it originating?

Dan Froomkin: Right here, baby!


Gaithersburg, Md.: Has anyone ever tried to ask McLellan as obtuse, obfuscatory and non-substantive a question as the resposes he provides? (Feed him his own dog food, no offense to dog food mfrs.)

Something like, "Scott, to follow up on your previous answer, the president's views being well known, and understanding that we are working together with our allies on a number of these fronts, can we say that it is finally time to put aside partisan differences, take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and, in conclusion, would that be the administrations stance on this and some other issues, tangential nonetheless, as a matter of policy or in practical terms?"

How about a whole briefing of such questions?

Dan Froomkin: Get a daypass, pal.


San Antonio, Tex.: "Worry when it's gullible in the long run."

Dan, can you cite some recent examples of when the press has been horribly gullible in the long run? Fun at Harvard this past weekend? Most significant outcome of the gathering?

Dan Froomkin: The run-up to war in Iraq is such a spectacular example, that it's almost hard to think of any other.

But how about: Iran-Contra. As I recall, the alternative press was all over that story for ages before the MSM weighed in.

In both cases, obvious mistake: Taking the White House on face value.

And the Harvard conference was great. We pretty much all agreed that the news Web sites had better embrace and start to actually incorporate and utilize citizens media as part of their news gathering and disseminating process -- or sit by and watch Craigslist, Yahoo or Google eat their lunch. But that's a topic for an entirely different Live Online!


Clemson, S.C.: Dan,

The TSP is the federal equivalent of a 401(k) plan, and it is paid through pre-tax dollars.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for all the wonderful questions. Another thing that came up at the Harvard conference I was at last week was that washingtonpost.com's Live Onlines continue to be one of the industry's finest examples of true interactivity (and transparency).

And one big reason for that is the value contributed by intelligent, informed readers through their excellent questions and comments. So take a bow. And see you in two weeks.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive