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Bush's Media Cherry Picking

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 1:18 PM

How much control should the White House have over who gets to interview President Bush? Specifically, should Bush be able to dictate which journalists at which outlets he talks to?

Those are among the questions raised by the White House's recent offer to let National Public Radio analyst Juan Williams interview Bush about race relations -- and NPR management's insistence that they should get to choose who conducted the interview.

The end result: Williams did the interview for his other employer -- Fox News.

Given how meticulously the White House picks and grooms Bush's audiences to avoid any unpleasantness, it should come as no surprise that the press office is very careful about who gets to interview Bush. It's certainly no secret that Bush has his favorite interlocutors. (Fox News host Neil Cavuto comes to mind.) And he habitually avoids potentially contentious sit-down interviews with journalists -- and entire news organizations, for that matter -- known for their accountability reporting.

NPR would qualify as one of those. Williams would not, having become in many cases an affable sounding board for conservative rhetoric. Somewhat tellingly, Williams served as Bill O'Reilly's sympathetic foil during the Fox News anchor's bizarre quasi-racist rant last week about his visit to a black restaurant and his observation that, to his apparent surprise, the patrons weren't running around screaming like addled rappers.

Would other news organizations allow the White House to determine who on their staffs would be allowed to interview the president? Would any responsible newspaper accept such conditions? I hardly think so.

And yet in some quarters, including Fox News and the right flank of the blogosphere, the outrage is being directed at NPR for having the audacity to turn down an interview with Bush under any circumstance.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "The White House reached out to National Public Radio over the weekend, offering analyst Juan Williams a presidential interview to mark yesterday's 50th anniversary of school desegregation in Little Rock.

"But NPR turned down the interview. . . .

"Williams said yesterday he was 'stunned' by NPR's decision. 'It makes no sense to me. President Bush has never given an interview in which he focused on race. . . . I was stunned by the decision to turn their backs on him and to turn their backs on me.'

"Ellen Weiss, NPR's vice president for news, said she 'felt strongly' that 'the White House shouldn't be selecting the person.' She said NPR told Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, that 'we're grateful for the opportunity to talk to the president but we wanted to determine who did the interview.' When the White House said the offer could not be transferred to one of NPR's program hosts, Weiss took a pass."

"Perino said she called Williams with the offer Saturday. . . . 'The president has talked with Juan before and we know him well. He's active in trying to keep good relations with us. . . . We could have done a print interview, but I felt I wanted people to hear the president's voice.'

"Williams called his bosses, who expressed concern that the only interview Bush has granted NPR during his tenure was also with Williams, in January.

"While it is not unusual for the White House to offer a presidential sitdown to a particular anchor or correspondent, Weiss noted that ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox have all had their anchors interview Bush and that NPR has been requesting such a session for seven years. . . .

"Williams, who is sometimes criticized by liberal groups, dismissed the notion that he was picked as a sympathetic interviewer, saying he often challenges the administration on 'Fox News Sunday.'"

The Interview

So how did it go? Here's the video and transcript of Bush's talk with Williams, taped on Monday. Williams was hardly an aggressive interviewer, asking predictable questions and not once bearing down or following up on Bush's answers -- the great advantage that a sit-down interview offers over a press conference.

Williams: "It's 50 years ago that events at Little Rock Central High School took palace as nine black children tried to enter that high school and federal troops had to be sent to protect them. Where do you think we are today in America in the fight for racial justice for all?"

Bush: "You know, we've obviously progressed, because it is accepted that black children and white children are going to go to school together."

Gee. That's going out on a limb.

Why wasn't Bush going to Little Rock for the anniversary? The president, who was off to the United Nations meeting in New York later that day, said, "I hope people understand that I have competing obligations. Certainly, my heart is in the right place."

And talk about softballs:

Williams: "Clinton used to say -- President Clinton-- that he had a Cabinet that looked like America. But, in fact, you've had a more diverse Cabinet, President Bush -- [Bush laughs] -- Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Elaine [Chao], Alberto Gonzales, Alphonso Jackson, Mel Martinez, Carlos Gutierrez, Norman Mineta. Were they the best people for the job, or did you select them to send a signal about the necessity of racial diversity?"

Bush: "You know, I've always tried to be an inclusive person without sacrificing excellence. And with these individuals you've named, I've been able to achieve sending a message that we're a diverse nation and that -- and at the same time I found people who can do the job."

Williams had only one question about the disastrously botched relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- widely seen as a metaphor for the administration's policy toward poor blacks. And Bush easily fended it off with his traditional talking points.

Here's possibly Williams's toughest exchange:

Williams: "Mr. President, Donovan McNabb, the Eagles quarterback, recently said that black quarterbacks are under more scrutiny than white quarterbacks. Do you think that's true in all American life?"....

Bush: "I'm sure there are cases where somebody feels like the criticism -- the harsh criticism comes because expectations, you know, aren't being met or because -- you know, let me just say, like, for example, Condi Rice. You know, she gets criticized. I don't think she would tell you that she's been criticized more than any other secretary of state because of her race. Maybe she would. I don't think so. I've never heard her complain about it."

At the end of the interview, Williams thanked Bush for his time.

Bush: "Yes, sir."

Williams: "Appreciate it."

Bush: "Good job."

Williams: "Thank you."

In His Own Words

Here's video of Williams talking to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly yesterday. Said Williams: "NPR decided that that was cherry-picking, the White House shouldn't be asking one correspondent/reporter/analyst versus another, that they should make a general invitation. . . .

"As you know, people all compete to get interviews with the president, and the president's never done an interview about race relations. so this was a rare opportunity, and I'm glad that Fox is making the most of it."

His own feelings about NPR's decision? "It's driving me crazy and I think it was the wrong decision, but, you know, you've got to live with it. But I think it's crazy . . . that any organization would say no, we're going to turn our back on the president."

Said Kelly: "And good for you, because you went ahead and did the interview anyway, as any good reporter should do."

Williams was obviously quite taken with the president. On the topic of education, Williams said, "we need to do a better job of educating every child, no matter where that child might be" -- and "President Bush . . . in that interview yesterday, he was so sincere and passionate about this topic."

O'Reilly's Foil

Williams not only served as O'Reilly's foil during the Fox host's initial comments about visiting a black restaurant, but went on O'Reilly's show last night to defend him against charges that those comments were offensive.

Here's what O'Reilly said on his radio show last week, during a segment in which Williams regularly chimed in agreeably: "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship . . . There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.'"

CNN's Mary Snow reported O'Reilly's comments on CNN yesterday, and the uproar they caused.

O'Reilly fired back last night on his Fox News show -- with Williams at his side. Here's a video clip. Williams to O'Reilly: "They want to shut you up. They want to shut up anybody that has an honest discussion about race. . . . They want to marginalize you, Bill, they want to shut you up. . . .

"I'm glad you said that. You should repeat that so they hear it again. You said stereotypes are not true. I say you should go up there more often, it shouldn't be a foreign trip. But it had nothing to do with racist ranting by anybody except these idiots at CNN."

'Is Our Children Learning?'

Peter Baker writes today for washingtonpost.com: "As a candidate, George W. Bush once asked, 'Is our children learning?'

"On Wednesday, he had an answer.

"'Childrens do learn,' he said.

"The setting was, yes, an education event where the president was taking credit for rising test scores and promoting congressional renewal of his signature education law. To create the right visual image, he summoned the local school chancellor, a principal, some teachers and 20 eager students from P.S. 76.

"The visual worked fine. The oral? Not so much."

Here's the (cleaned-up) White House transcript.

Bush's UN Speech -- In Context

Maggie Farley and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times that Bush, in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, "was nearly silent on the topic of Iran, and adopted a conciliatory tone far from his confrontational stance here five years ago when he argued his case against Iraq. He mentioned Iran only once, among a list of 'brutal regimes' that he said denied their people fundamental rights, along with Belarus, North Korea and Syria. . . .

"Bush, in a marked change from his original appearance before the General Assembly in 2002, when he challenged the U.N. to confront Iraq or stand aside, on Tuesday emphasized upholding the promise of the U.N.'s founding values, that all people have the right to be free from hunger, poverty, tyranny and fear.

"'Every civilized nation also has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship,' Bush said.

"He announced new sanctions on the military government in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where Buddhist monks for more than a week have led thousands in daily demonstrations against repression and poverty under the junta's leadership."

Kelly O'Donnell reported on the NBC Nightly News: "So imagine a speech on the world stage where President Bush never once uses the phrase war on terror [and] doesn't really talk about the war in Iraq or mounting tensions with Iran. That's what happened today."

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, the president called for renewed efforts to enforce the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a striking point of emphasis for a leader who's widely accused of violating human rights in waging war against terrorism.

"Bush didn't mention the U.S. prisons in Afghanistan or at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. practice of holding detainees for years without legal charges or access to lawyers, or the CIA's 'rendition' kidnappings of suspects abroad, all issues of concern to human rights activists around the world. . . .

"Some human rights activists credited Bush for taking action against Myanmar's military government, but gave him low marks overall when it comes to standing up for human rights.

"'I believe the president should be championing human rights at the U.N., but he's lost his authority and credibility as a world leader because of his policies on rendition and Guantanamo,' said Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. 'His remarks would be more effective if the U.S. was practicing what it's preaching.'"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Bush is to be applauded for having the courage, in the face of criticism of his own human rights record, to speak the truth to the assembled tyrants. Yet he failed to mount a compelling response to a compelling moral challenge facing the United States: How to lessen the global inequality that, more than freedom, tops the political agenda in the developing world?"

Iran Watch

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "In a fiery speech to the U.N. General Assembly, [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad denounced what he called the 'master-servant relationship of the Medieval Age' imposed by the United States and other leading nations through the Security Council. He expressed confidence that God would not allow the Bush administration to launch a military attack against his country and said Iran has 'spared no effort to build confidence' that it wants only civilian energy, not nuclear weapons. . . .

"Bush did not mention the nuclear dispute with Iran in his speech, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other advisers used their time here to build support for a new Security Council resolution that would impose more meaningful punishment on Tehran for ignoring a U.N. mandate to suspend its enrichment program. For his public remarks, the president focused instead on tyranny, citing Iran as a prime example."

The Washington Post editorial board put the onus of preventing a war on China and Russia: "As France's new foreign minister has recognized, the danger is growing that the United States and its allies could face a choice between allowing Iran to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and going to war to prevent it."

If China and Russia believe that the "world should stop trying to prevent Iran from enriching uranium and should concentrate instead on blocking U.S. military action," the editorial states, then "they are more likely to precipitate a U.S. or Israeli military strike than to prevent one."

Genocide Watch

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times that Bush also attended "a meeting of the Security Council convened to debate peacekeeping in Africa generally and the violence in Darfur specifically. He welcomed the African Union's contribution to a peacekeeping mission in Sudan, but warned that '7,000 troops is not enough, if you believe what's taking place on the ground is genocide.'

"'Maybe some don't think it's genocide, but if you've been raped, you think it's -- your human rights have been violated,' he said, gesturing forcefully. 'If you're mercilessly killed by roaming bands, you know it's genocide. And the fundamental question is, are we, the free world, willing to do more?'"

Bush and Maliki

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday to move on stalled measures deemed critical to political reconciliation, while al-Maliki made clear his unhappiness about the killing of Iraqi civilians by private U.S. security contractors.

"Meeting face to face for the second time this month, the two leaders used polite diplomatic language to talk publicly about tense issues."

Here are transcripts of Bush's remarks and national security adviser Stephen Hadley's briefing about the meeting.

Worse than Abu Ghraib?

Sudarsan Raghavan and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "A confrontation between the U.S. military and the State Department is unfolding over the involvement of Blackwater USA in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square Sept. 16, bringing to the surface long-simmering tensions between the military and private security companies in Iraq, according to U.S. military and government officials. . . .

"'This is a nightmare,' said a senior U.S. military official. 'We had guys who saw the aftermath, and it was very bad. This is going to hurt us badly. It may be worse than Abu Ghraib, and it comes at a time when we're trying to have an impact for the long term.'"

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "An ongoing battle between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a House committee investigating Iraqi government corruption and the activities of the Blackwater security firm erupted into another skirmish yesterday as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) accused Rice of interfering with the committee's work and preventing administration and Blackwater officials from providing pertinent information."

Downing Street Memo, Part Dos?

Editor and Publisher reports: "El Pais, the highest-circulation daily in Spain, today published what it said was the transcript of a private talk between President George W. Bush and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar on February 22, 2003, concerning the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq. . . .

"The conversation took place on the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas. The source for the leak was said to be someone in the Spanish government.

"Bush purportedly said he planned to invade Iraq inf March 'if there was a United Nations Security Council resolution or not. . . . We have to get rid of Saddam. We will be in Baghdad at the end of March.'"

Here's the story by Ernesto Ekaizer and the transcript (both in Spanish).

Here's what Bush was saying in public at the time: "President Aznar and I agree that the future of peace depends on the disarmament of Iraq."

Quagmire Watch

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "What is wrong with this picture: Two-thirds of the country oppose the Iraq war, but Democrats again are proving unable to achieve their promised 'new direction,' and President Bush is certain to keep the maximum possible number of U.S. forces in Iraq for the remainder of his presidency.

"Iraq is making the Vietnam quagmire look like a sandbox."

Lochhead writes that "the war drags on - and might continue, possibly for years, even if a Democrat wins the White House in November 2008."

Book Watch

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Examiner: "President Bush's chief of staff says White House officials misjudged how much the presidential campaign would radicalize the Democratic Party against the Iraq war.

"In an interview for the new book, 'The Evangelical President,' White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said he and other administration officials did not expect the Democratic presidential candidates to pull their party so sharply to the left."

Vice President Dick Cheney was a bit less charitable about the Democrats and the war: "'There are some who are against it just because we're for it, who are looking for any excuse they can come up with to try to defeat George Bush and the Republicans. Substance doesn't have much to do with it,' Cheney told The Examiner in his West Wing office. 'I think it's very shortsighted on their part, because if they prevail, then ultimately they're going to have to deal with the world as it is, having opposed all of those things that have made it possible for us to be successful.'

"These include controversial anti-terror measures such as the Patriot Act and the terrorist surveillance program. Although Bush has been working to institutionalize these programs, they could be undone by Democrats in the future, Cheney warned.

"'A couple of possible outcomes here,' he said. 'One is, obviously, the Democrats ultimately prevail and implement the policy they claim they support. I think it will do enormous damage. On the other hand, I think, ultimately, the country would look at that and make a decision that the Democrats can't be trusted with the nation's security.'"

Climate Change Watch

Judy Pasternak writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush skipped the United Nations gathering on global warming for 80 world leaders in New York this week, and he had to be coaxed into attending the secretary-general's more intimate dinner on the subject. But now he is about to tackle climate change his way.

"Bush has called a meeting of his own in Washington of the 17 largest emitters of greenhouse gases. . . .

"Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, dismissed the Washington conference as 'a sidelight, not a process that leads to anything.' He accused the White House of seeking 'an alternative to a binding treaty. . . . You're seeing the Bush administration make this up as they go along.'"

For background, see my June 1 column, Bush's Climate-Change Feint.


Christopher Lee and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "A broad House majority gave final approval last night to a $35 billion expansion of the popular children's health insurance program, with members from both parties brushing aside a stern veto threat from President Bush to vote their support, 265 to 159.

"The Senate will take up the bill later this week and is expected to send it to the president with a veto-proof, bipartisan majority. But amid furious White House lobbying, even Republican advocates in the House ruefully conceded that they will probably fall short of the 290 votes they will need next week to override the promised veto. . . .

"Moderate Republicans openly fretted yesterday that the White House had made the House GOP its firewall, to their political detriment. 'I'm a little baffled as to why the Bush people picked this issue to fight it out on,' said Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.). 'It's very sensitive. It's about kids. Who's against kids' health care?'"

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column that the bill "advances precisely the goal President Bush claims as his priority.

"Bush says he wants the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a state-federal partnership up for renewal this year, to more narrowly target the poorest children. He's threatened to veto the bill Congress is completing because he charges it directs too much aid toward middle-income families and would prompt too many of them to drop private insurance and enroll in SCHIP.

"But even conservative Senate Republicans such as Utah's Orrin Hatch and Iowa's Charles Grassley have complained that Bush's concerns are, to put it politely, overstated. The best studies of the legislation show that it predominantly focuses its benefits on struggling working families and targets uninsured kids more efficiently than the alternative Bush has touted."

So what is Bush's resistance really about? Writes Brownstein: "The real question is whether Bush wants an agreement or a fight that paints congressional Democrats as big spenders."

Federal Government Incompetence Watch

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The Interior Department's program to collect billions of dollars annually from oil and gas companies that drill on federal lands is troubled by mismanagement, ethical lapses and fears of retaliation against whistle-blowers, the department's chief independent investigator has concluded.

"The report, a result of a yearlong investigation, grew out of complaints by four auditors at the agency, who said that senior administration officials had blocked them from recovering money from oil companies that underpaid the government. . . .

"It suggested that the agency was too cozy with oil companies and that internal critics had good reason to fear punishment. . . .

"In one case, senior officials decided that it would impose a 'hardship' on oil companies to demand that they calculate the back interest they owed after having been caught underpaying. The agency itself was years behind in billing the companies, because its computers could not perform the calculations."

Dan Rather Watch

Eric Boehlert of Media Matters marvels at the reaction to Dan Rather's lawsuit, specifically from all the "mainstream journalists who rushed in to denounce the former anchorman as dishonest, arrogant, bitter, and delusional, all the while making sure not to take up Rather's challenge of addressing the underlying facts of the story surrounding Bush's no-show military service."

Writes Boehlert: "[T]he dirty little secret that bloggers and mainstream journalists don't want to discuss is that Rather is right -- the National Guard story was true."

For more background, here's some of my own coverage of the controversy over Bush's service.

GOP Bush-Bashing

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News: "Though President Bush insists he is a 'strong asset' for Republicans seeking election next year, there seem to have been repeated efforts by GOP presidential candidates to distance themselves from Bush.

"But who's counting?

" William Benoit, a University of Missouri-Columbia faculty member who teaches communications.

"He's gone through the debates to date and found Bush 'has been attacked' by GOP candidates 60 times.

"'At the end of Reagan's term, the Republicans attempting to get the nomination didn't attack Reagan,' Benoit said. 'At the end of Clinton's second term, the Democrats who were attempting to get the nomination didn't attack Clinton. Now, at the end of George W. Bush's second term, the Republicans are criticizing Bush fairly frequently. This has never happened before. Usually candidates want to support his or her own party.'"


Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column: "Bit of a slip-up at the United Nations yesterday. Someone posted a copy of President Bush's underwhelming address on the U.N. Web site, but turns out it was a draft, complete with helpful phonetic pronunciations for various countries and people.

"'The United States, salutes the nations that have recently taken strides toward liberty,' the draft said, 'including Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan [KEYR-geez-stan], Mauritania [moor-EH-tain-ee-a], Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Morocco.'

"'In Zimbabwe,' the draft said, 'the behavior of the Mugabe [moo-GAH-bee] regime is an assault on its people,' and the U.N. 'must insist on change in Harare [hah-RAR-ray].'

"There was a tip of the hat to 'French President Sarkozy [sar-KO-see].'

"The mix-up seemed to unsettle even the usually mild-mannered White House press secretary, Dana Perino."

From yesterday's briefing:

Q: "Does the President have a hard time pronouncing some of these countries's name?"

Perino: "I think that's a offensive question. I'm going to just decline to comment on it."

Froomkin Watch

I'm headed off to a conference tomorrow. The column will resume on Monday.

Cartoon Watch

David Horsey on the Clinton anointment.

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