The President vs. the Peacock

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 20, 2008; 1:00 PM

There is more to the White House's unprecedented attack on NBC News yesterday than meets the eye.

The blistering letter to NBC from White House Counselor Ed Gillespie ostensibly focuses on the way President Bush's interview with NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel was edited for presentation on Sunday's Nightly News.

But NBC's handling of the interview was not atypical for a tightly-edited broadcast and did not violate any journalistic norms. The White House may believe that news outlets are obliged to reproduce all of Bush's non-answers in their rambling entirety, but that's not the way the news business works.

Here is video of the edited interview as shown on the Nightly News. Here is video of the entire interview, which was 15 minutes long. Here is the full White House transcript.

A major topic was Bush's controversial speech to the Israeli parliament last week. (See Friday's column for background.)

Here is the particular exchange that Gillespie complained about at some length:

Engel: "You said that negotiating with Iran is pointless, and then you went further. You said that it was appeasement. Were you referring to Senator Barack Obama?"

Bush: "You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. . . . And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you got to take those words seriously."

What NBC cut out was these two sentences: "People need to read the speech. You didn't get it exactly right, either. What I said was is that we need to take the words of people seriously."

NBC also omitted the rest of Bush's response: "And if you don't take them seriously, then it harkens back to a day when we didn't take other words seriously. It was fitting that I talked about not taking the words of Adolph Hitler seriously on the floor of the Knesset. But I also talked about the need to defend Israel, the need to not negotiate with the likes of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. And the need to make sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon."

If Bush had actually explained what he thought Engel got wrong, then the editing might have come in for legitimate criticism. But all Bush did was vaguely and confusingly suggest that what he was calling appeasement was "not taking the words [of enemies like Iran -- or Hitler --] seriously." By no accepted definition does that amount to appeasement. But regardless, Bush's point was dutifully noted in what NBC aired.

The White House's outsized reaction instead appears to be about two other things entirely.

It doesn't take a trained psychologist to observe that Bush got angrier and angrier as the Engel interview went on. That obviously had nothing to do with the editing; it had to do with Engel's questions.

Bush typically sits down with interviewers from Fox News -- or, more recently, Politico-- where he can count on more than his share of ingratiating softballs. But Engel, a fluent Arabic speaker who has logged more time in Iraq than any other television correspondent, assertively confronted Bush with the ramifications of his actions in the Middle East.

For instance, Engel noted: "A lot of Iran's empowerment is a result of the war in Iraq." He questioned Bush about his lack of an exit strategy in Iraq: "So it doesn't sound like there's an end anytime soon." He clearly upset Bush by saying that "on the ground," the situation in Iraq "looks very bleak." (Bush replied: "Well, that's interesting you said that -- that's a little different from the surveys I've seen and a little different from the attitude of the actual Iraqis I've talked to, but you're entitled to your opinion.")

He also challenged Bush on his legacy: "[I]f you look back over the last several years, the Middle East that you'll be handing over to the next President is deeply problematic: You have Hamas in power; Hezbollah empowered, taking to the streets, more -- stronger than the government; Iran empowered, Iraq still at war. What region are you handing over?"

And Bush seemed positively furious by the end of the interview, when Engel had this to say: "The war on terrorism has been the centerpiece of your presidency. Many people say that it has not made the world safer, that it has created more radicals. That there are more people in this part of the world who want to attack the United States."

So is it a stretch to suspect that Bush told his counselor to get a little revenge?

The other essential bit of context is the ferocious, high-profile campaign being orchestrated by Fox News star Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch against NBC and its cable channel, MSNBC. Just in case that had escaped the White House's attention before, a front-page Washington Post story by Howard Kurtz yesterday noted, among other things, that O'Reilly "routinely assails NBC . . . as an organization that 'spews out far-left propaganda,' is 'the most aggressive anti-Bush network' and is 'in the tank' for Barack Obama."

Gillespie was clearly unloading more than a little pent-up frustration with NBC. Though his letter opened by decrying what he called the "deceitful editing" of the Engel interview, he quickly added a litany of other complaints:

"As long as I am making this formal request, please allow me to take this opportunity to ask if your network has reconsidered its position that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war," he wrote.

He also complained about NBC's use of the word "recession," and then concluded: "I'm sure you don't want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the 'news' as reported on NBC and the 'opinion' as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines. I welcome your response to this letter, and hope it is one that reassures your broadcast network's viewers that blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC don't hold editorial sway over the NBC network news division."

NBC released a statement of its own: "Just as the White House does not participate in the editorial process at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today, NBC News, as part of a free press in a free society, makes its own editorial decisions."

The Coverage

David Bauder writes for the Associated Press: "The White House routinely pushes back against news stories it does not agree with by issuing ' Setting The Record Straight' press releases. But the one against NBC News stands out for its angry tone and its accusation that the news division deceptively and deceitfully edited the president's words.

"It also came personally from Gillespie, one of the top figures in the White House and a veteran politico as former head of the Republican Party."

John D. McKinnon and Rebecca Dana write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The White House got involved in a media feud, criticizing NBC for its handling of a recent interview with President Bush and questioning whether its cable talk-show hosts are skewing the broadcast network's point of view.

"The broadside by White House counselor Ed Gillespie, in a letter to NBC News President Steve Capus, elevated a battle over network coverage that has previously pitted MSNBC's left-leaning Keith Olbermann against Fox News's conservative Bill O'Reilly. Recently, each has intensified his attacks on the other's parent company and on executive higher-ups. Fox News is owned by News Corp., which also owns Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co. NBC is owned by General Electric Co. . . .

"Mr. Engel, the NBC correspondent who conducted the interview with Mr. Bush on Sunday in Egypt, has been an occasional target of Mr. O'Reilly, who has said Mr. Engel was being too critical of the Iraq war. . . .

"In a reply letter to Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Capus wrote that 'We appreciated President Bush's decision to do the interview with NBC News, and believe Mr. Engel's reporting accurately reflects the discussion with the President.' He also said that 'the notion this was, 'deceitful editing to further a media-manufactured storyline,' is a gross misrepresentation of the facts,' and that the full Bush interview was posted Sunday on its Web site.

"He then offered: 'Editing is a part of journalism. We take the collective body of information surrounding a story, distill it and produce a report. We strive in all cases to be fair and accurate. In some instances, where appropriate, we offer interviews in their entirety -- in live broadcasts, or posted on our website.'"

Elana Schor writes in the Guardian: "The White House today accused NBC news of twisting George Bush's remarks on Iran and suggested that the television network had absorbed the bias of two of its star pundits. . . .

"Conservatives in the US have long frowned on what they consider a liberal bias at NBC, singling out the network's cable TV pundit Keith Olbermann for his fiery tirades against the Bush administration."

Dan Eggen and Peter Slevin write in The Washington Post: "The dispute illustrates the reverberations from Bush's speech on Thursday, in which he compared those who seek talks with Iran and radical Islamic groups to those who gave in to the Nazis before World War II. 'We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement,' Bush said.

"Although Bush did not mention Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the remarks were widely seen as an attack on the Democratic presidential front-runner, who has said he would be willing to talk with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions during his first year in office. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that while the administration often criticizes media coverage, it felt that the NBC report 'was particularly egregious.'"

Alex Pareene blogs for Gawker: "[R]eading the full transcript, it's clear that Bush does basically agree with Engel's question, just without mentioning Barack Obama.

"The White House letter also includes gratuitous swipes at Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann -- which may be a hint! Olbermann's ' shut the hell up, Mr. President' comment swept across the internet last week. It was maybe a bit more upsetting to the White House than a 'deceptively edited' interview."

On Cable

Here's Olbermann's own take on the complaint that NBC didn't show the full exchange: "Since they asked, we'll play it. Trust me, it makes him look worse." Olbermann's conclusion: "The White House apparently [doesn't realize] that in full it is clear the president never actually answered Richard Engel's first question and clear that the president either does not know what he talked about or what he is now talking about."

On Fox News's O'Reilly Factor last night, guest host Laura Ingraham and her guest, Karl Rove, applauded Gillespie's attack.

Laura Ingraham: "As you know, there has been a lot of criticism of NBC made by Bill that the news agency has gone far left. And this is just another piece of that evidence. . . .

Rove: "[T]his was either a very sloppy job of editing, or it was an example of bias. Either one of those doesn't speak well of NBC News. I mean, they deliberately edited out the president correcting Engel's depiction of what his speech was about. They deliberately left that on the cutting floor. . . .

"Look, NBC has got a real problem because we're now in a position where we are starting to see the journalistic standards of MSNBC, which are really no standards at all, creep into NBC, which is a respected news organization."

About Engel

TVNewser has NBC's announcement in April that Engel had been promoted to chief political correspondent: "Previously, Engel served as NBC News' Senior Middle East Correspondent and Beirut Bureau Chief since May 2006. Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003.

"Engel reported as a freelance journalist for ABC News during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq and was NBC News' lead Iraq correspondent from 2003 until his appointment to Beirut Bureau Chief in May 2006. He covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah during the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon. Engel continues to cover the ongoing war in Iraq as well as other assignments throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe.

"A celebrated journalist, Engel received the 2008 Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report ' War Zone Diary.' The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq."

In a 2006 profile of Engel in The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz wrote: "Among the small circle of journalists who risk their lives in the region, Engel commands considerable respect. . . .

"'In an era of instant media criticism, he calls balls and strikes in the middle of a war zone,' says NBC anchor Brian Williams. 'He is completely unbothered by any Web site that may have problems with his reporting while he's over in Iraq dodging bullets. . . . He is the most agenda-less person I've met in our business, I think, in the past 20 years.'"

Iran Watch

An Israeli newspaper's report that Bush has plans to attack Iran was slapped down by the White House this morning.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Bush "intends to attack Iran in the upcoming months, before the end of his term, Army Radio quoted a senior official in Jerusalem as saying Tuesday.

"The official claimed that a senior member of the president's entourage, which concluded a trip to Israel last week, said during a closed meeting that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were of the opinion that military action was called for.

"However, the official continued, 'the hesitancy of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice' was preventing the administration from deciding to launch such an attack on the Islamic Republic, for the time being.

"The report stated that according to assessments in Israel, recent turmoil in Lebanon, where Hizbullah de facto established control of the country, was advancing an American attack.

"Bush, the officials said, opined that Hizbullah's show of strength was evidence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's growing influence. They said that according to Bush, 'the disease must be treated - not its symptoms.'"

But in a statement released this morning, Press Secretary Dana Perino wrote: "An article in today's Jerusalem Post about the President's position on Iran that quotes unnamed sources -- quoting unnamed sources -- is not worth the paper it's written on. . . .

"As the President has said, no president of the United States should ever take options off the table, but our preference and our actions for dealing with this matter remain through peaceful diplomatic means. Nothing has changed in that regard."

Via Thinkprogress.org, here is CNN's Ed Henry with a few caveats: "A reporter pointed out to Dana Perino though that we heard these similar denials from the White House in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They insisted that diplomacy was the first option; military option was the last option." Henry said that there was no public word of such a meeting while Bush was in Israel, but he noted that "if -- and I stress if -- this had happened behind closed doors, this is not exactly the kind of story the Bush administration would have told us, because it's not the story line they want out right now." And Henry concluded: "The bottom line is that there's a broader fight going on -- which is the White House against the media."

The White House and the EPA

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson favored giving California some authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks last year before he consulted with the White House and reversed course, congressional investigators said yesterday.

"The five-month probe by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee drew upon more than 27,000 pages of internal EPA documents and interviews with eight key agency officials, and provides the most detailed look yet at the administration's mid-December decision. . . .

"It remains unclear how exactly senior Bush officials intervened in the decision. Burnett said he was instructed not to answer questions about the White House's involvement, and the White House maintains that Johnson was not influenced by his talks with White House officials."

From the report of the committee's Democratic staff: "The President has an obligation under the Constitution to take care that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed. In this case, the applicable law is the Clean Air Act, which requires that California's petition to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles be decided on the merits based on specific statutory criteria. It would be a serious breach if the President or other White House officials directed Administrator Johnson to ignore the record before the agency and deny California's petition for political or other inappropriate reasons. Further investigation will be required to assess the legality of the White House role in the rejection of the California motor vehicle standards."

Military Analysts

Satyam Khanna writes for Thinkprogress.org that at yesterday's press briefing, a reporter asked spokesman Scott Stanzel about e-mails suggesting White House involvement in the Pentagon's covert use of retired " military analysts" to generate favorable news coverage.

"Without denying White House involvement, Stanzel defended the program, saying it is the equivalent of giving information to someone who writes for a 'liberal blog' . . .

"As the reporter noted, however, the White House's meetings with Pentagon officials and military analysts were 'kept secret.' In contrast, the White House press briefings where the 'liberal' reporter receives his information are available on cable television. 'You can talk to the Defense Department. It was their program,' said Stanzel when asked why the meetings were not public."

On the Trail

At the same briefing, Stanzel said Bush will be doing a lot of campaigning for his would-be Republican successor.

Q: "Are we going to see a lot of them together?"

Stanzel: "I think you'll see the President out on the campaign quite -- campaign trail quite a bit. We'll keep you posted on their events that they may have together."

Bush's Travels

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush's visit to the Middle East last week offered a graphic primer on his failed policies -- and the many dangers his successor will face."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "At the end of what may be his farewell sojourn in the Middle East, President Bush delivered an obtuse speech to the World Economic Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt. Bush seemed oblivious to the loss of respect for the United States that his Mideast misadventures have caused in the region."

Bush Apologizes

Qassim Abdul-Zahra writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has apologized to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for an American sniper's use of a copy of the Quran for target practice, Maliki's office said Tuesday.

"White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush spoke to al-Maliki about the Quran shooting incident during a regularly scheduled videoconference on Monday. She said Bush expressed his 'serious concern.'

"'He told the prime minister that we take this matter seriously, and he noted that the soldier had been reprimanded and removed from Iraq by his commanders,' Perino said.

"A statement issued by al-Maliki's office said Al-Maliki told Bush of the 'disappointment and anger of the people and government of Iraq over the soldier's disgraceful action,' the statement said."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on McCain's excess baggage; Daniel Wasserman on redeploying Bush; Bob Gorrell on the GOP's new lapel pin; Bill Mitchell and M. e. Cohen on Bush's energy policy; Jim Morin on Bush's unappeasing policies; Rob Rogers on Bush's sacrifice.

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