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April 25, 2004

Bush to Press: "You're Assuming That You Represent the Public. I Don't Accept That."

"In our system, the press has the role of..." Generations of journalists spoke confident sentences like that. The press is a vital check on power. It's quasi-Constitutional. Bush, head of government, rejects this idea. That theory has gone down, he says. And you guys don't have that kind of muscle anymore.

Mr. Bush managed to once more beguile the reporters with his Texas Churchillian rhetoric about Americaís place in the world and his feelings about freedom. His non-answers hung in the air, blocking the vision and hearing like swarms of black flies, confusing and distracting the press, which seemed gaga and unable to bat them away. Mr. Bush, prepared, saw the questions coming. Everybody did. When he didnít want to answer a question, he just moved to the next reporter, who generally felt honored to be called upon.Joe Hagan, New York Observer, April 24, 2004

Data point: I read that. Then I got an email from a PressThink reader, Harris Meyer, a Florida journalist asking how any pundit, “particularly a liberal talking head like Auletta,” could, after watching Bush’s April 13 press conference, conclude what Ken Auletta of the New Yorker concluded in an interview with WNYC’s On the Media last weekend.

I guess I would have to say the press lost. The president holds the cards. First of all, he dominates almost half the press conference with a statement. And then he chooses not to answer the questions. Now if, if someone had asked him a question that threw him off stride and caused a headline that - where he looked foolish, that would be one thing. But no one asked him that question. He did not behave foolishly. He’s not, obviously, the most fluent, articulate speaker, but Bush did better than, say, he did at his last press conference, or better than he did on Meet the Press.

Meyer attached the transcript in his e-mail, a second data point. I had intended to read it, when I had the chance, because I’ve written about Auletta, and tapped his reporting on the Bush view of the press. But then I realized as I scanned the text: I did that same interview with On the Media. It was recorded it on Thursday (April 15) at WNYC with host Bob Garfield, a voice in my ear from Washington.

The interview with Garfield (about ten minutes of Q and A) was blogging by radio. The occasion for it was something I posted at PressThink just before the news conference. There, I was trying to capture what was strange about this event: A Prime Time News Conference Before a Special Interest: Make Sense to You? So that’s what we talked about. But the producers told me on Friday they had decided not to air the Q and A, which happens frequently, for all kinds of reasons. (Producers have to make their calls; a wise radio guest takes no offense.) Third data point: my almost interview, an incomplete act of blogging by radio.

Auletta was the right choice, anyway. Others have done the complaining. He’s done the reporting on the subject, pushing further into the mind of the White House than anyone else. To me, and to most journalists, this gives him unique authority to speak. A good radio show is about that. Auletta, for example, can describe Bush at a barbeque for the press in August, where a reporter says to the president: is it really true you don’t read us, don’t even watch the news? Bush confirms it.

And the reporter then said: Well, how do you then know, Mr. President, what the public is thinking? And Bush, without missing a beat said: You’re making a powerful assumption, young man. You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.

Which is a powerful statement. And if Bush believes it (a possibility not to be dismissed) then we must credit the president with an original idea, or the germ of one. Bush’s people have developed it into a thesis, which they explained to Auletta, who told it to co-host Brooke Gladstone:

That’s his attitude. And when you ask the Bush people to explain that attitude, what they say is: We don’t accept that you have a check and balance function. We think that you are in the game of “Gotcha.” Oh, you’re interested in headlines, and you’re interested in conflict. You’re not interested in having a serious discussion… and exploring things.

Further data point: The Bush Thesis. If Auletta’s reporting is on, then Bush and his advisors have their own press think, which they are trying out as policy. Reporters do not represent the interests of a broader public. They aren’t a pipeline to the people, because people see through the game of Gotcha. The press has forfeited, if it ever had, its quasi-official role in the checks and balances of government. Here the Bush Thesis is bold. It says: there is no such role— official or otherwise.

Generations of journalists have been taught to believe differently. Their sentences start like this, “In our system, the press has the role of…” and then they go on to describe journalists as a check on power, which is quasi-Constitutional only because another part of the Constitution, the First Amendment, says you can’t lesiglate the role of the press. The Bush Thesis takes the “quasi” part and pushes on it.

The thesis, in turn, is influencing policy: “why should we have to talk to you?” On the whole, Bush doesn’t. In January, Auletta reported that Bush had held eleven solo press conferences while president. Over a comparable period, his father had done seventy one and Bill Clinton thirty eight. The White House line when these figures come up is that the president just does things differently. He’ll meet reporters one on one, or answer questions in other venues. This defuses the issue. Meanwhile, a different line of argument is born. “Stiff ‘em, they don’t represent anyone. People are on to their game.”

The “unrepresentative press” is a political conviction widely borne. Some of its strongest proponents are those who hold to the liberal media thesis. (Parts of which are more and more acknowledged in the media. See this from ABC’s The Note.) It’s also an attitude among the president’s most conservative supporters— many of whom don’t trust the press for the same reason they don’t trust teachers’ unions and trial lawyers. To them, a decision to “stiff” reporters, a conniving special interest, is not only acceptable conduct by a sitting president, but a refreshing policy change— and smart constituent politics.

For the conservative populist in the Bush base, the White House press is a liberal elite. If its currency is questions put to the CEO, then you can de-fund the left by having the CEO not answer the reporters’ questions— on principle, as it were. (And no principle better explains the daily press briefings in the current White House.) Then there’s the resentment out there among supporters of the war in Iraq, who believe the press committed an outrageous lapse by not covering what was going right, ignoring a great story about democracy and freedom, in effect playing Gotcha in a war zone. (Glenn Reynolds, for example, here and here.) They too might warm to the Bush Thesis, which has not only its logic but a constituency out there.

Previous presidents had the same resentments, of course, and drew cheers in parts of the electorate for voicing them. Previous presidents avoided the press, or routed around it with TV and photo ops. All presidents try to manipulate the news. It took until Bush the younger for the imaginative leap to be made: Attack the claim that any public interest at all is served by “meeting the press.” Remove the press from the system of checks and balances. Deny that it’s any “fourth branch of government” (Douglas Cater’s idea, 1959.) Don’t just work around a troublesome crew. Be bolder. Reject the reporters’ claim to be channelling the public and its questions.

Not only that. In January, Auletta reported the following on the Bush Thesis: “the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders,” an interest group “thatís not nearly as powerful as it once was.” Bush thinks the national news organizations don’t have the influence Richard Nixon and other angry presidents saw in them. Here the Bush Thesis is like a mafia read, a Sopranos script: “You don’t have that kind of muscle any more, so shut the f… up.” He basically said that. I don’t read you or watch your news. NPR? Sorry, I don’t listen. Am I out of touch with the American people? Nah, not worried about it. Playing Gotcha when America’s at war— now that’s out of touch! Fifth data point: at the top of the government, the press is seen as a declining power.

Among various puzzles in the cluster of ideas I have called the Thesis, there’s: why did the Bush team feel comfortable placing hundreds of “special pleaders” with the tanks and troops invading Iraq? If the press doesn’t represent anyone, then by what logic did the administration agree to embed reporters? Another analysis must have taken hold. Here are several possibilties:

No doubt there are other possibilities beyond these. Data point, number six: The administration doesn’t always hold to the Bush Thesis.

By April, Bush was under pressure from the 09/11 commission to answer more questions and release information. The occupation of Iraq had taken a dangerous turn. Richard Clarke’s book was causing a sensation in Washington. Approval ratings for the president’s handling of the war had slipped some. The normal confidence and discipline of the Bush White House had turned into rigidity amid shifting events. And at a moment of political trouble, preparations for a prime time press conference began with Bush, Karl Rove and his advisors.

Data point: Bush—with Rove’s counsel—decided to meet the press when the president was in some trouble. Why, if he believes what he said in the summer? “You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.” Here, perhaps, the Bush Thesis weakened under the press of events. Or maybe not. Maybe it goes forward even in the exceptions.

In preparing for the ritual, the White House team anticipates the questions the president will face, reviews his answers, underlines things to be said at any opportunity— emerging with The Talking Points. It’s up to Bush to synthesize this advice, and get comfortable with the answers he will give. Data point: Perhaps 90 pecent of the questions will have been guessed by the time he strides in.

How is this even possible? Auletta has an interesting answer: Because meanwhile the press is getting its own talking points together: “They rehearse what is the question we’re going to ask that will shake the president off his talking points, that will force him into a moment where he gives us a candid response, or he shows vulnerability that gives us a gotcha moment or a wow moment.”

The president has his scripted points, the reporters theirs— and neither will be moved off the script. The kind of question that cannot be predicted, of course, is one born live, a spontaneous response to something that happens at the press conference. Ted Koppel when he does Nightline prepares one question for each guest, the first one he will ask. Beyond that he wants everything to flow from what’s said on air.

In the East Room ritual, with so much at stake (international embarrassment, for one) both parties cooperate to make sure the Koppel moment never happens. Data point: On April 13, they both read from their scripts. For the press, this meant: Were you at fault? Do you accept responsibility? Were there any mistakes? Going to apologize? “They repeated the question, because if the president was pre-programmed, so too, many reporters are pre-programmed,” Aultetta said. Brooke Gladstone, (see my earlier interview with her) then asked “how did this play as a media event? Who won or who lost?” His answers:

Harris Meyer wants to know: how could Auletta, operating in the role of pundit, conclude these things? Well, in order to say who won a White House press conference, you need in hand, prior to an up or down verdict, some intelligible standard for political achievement in press conferencing. For his standard Auletta goes back to the “drama” of confrontation, ritualized by the script— the predictable effort to knock the president off stride, the president’s determination to stay in form.

You score the contest by whether the headlines say: Bush knocked off stride… If yes, they got to him. Press wins. If not, then he prevailed. No knock out, decision to Bush. So my answer to Harris is: don’t look at the Auletta verdict, look at the standard that created the verdict, which is not his personal handiwork but a common style of reasoning in Washington journalism, punditry and the political class.

A typical example is this assessment from Adam Nagourney and Eric Litchblau in last Sunday’s New York Times: “Evaluating the 9/11 Hearings’ Winners and Losers.” It’s a news story about who came out looking good from the hearings, in the estimation of insiders and operatives. Thus Matt Bennett, a political consultant and Democrat, is quoted about commissioners Bob Kerrey and Richard Ben-Veniste: “They were a little too combative, and it sort of came off as a nasty spat.”

That very peculiar construction, “it came off as…” identifies the “who won?” style of Beltway thinking. Some of its virtues are to be empty of political content, (and thus applicable to whomever is in power) agnostic on questions of truth, exacting on matters of appearance, preoccupied with positioning and technique, and with how things look to a hypothetical observer who is never quite identified. “How will this play, politically?” is the same mindset speaking. Recognize it?

Come in with another standard, and the verdict changes. If transparency in government is the critical standard, and the press conference a means of achieving it, did Bush “win?” (I would say no.) If self-expression for the president—revealing what’s in his gut, displaying his convictions—is the standard, then the president probably achieved that. He won fuller expression as a man of resolve. If a clearer, fuller and more coherent explanation of policy is the right standard, and the press conference a kind of teaching platform that includes the press, then no one did very well.

To me what’s amazing is how little is expected of Bush as an artful politician, even among his supporters. By taking a “buck stops here, you betcha I’m responsible” approach to the mistakes questions, he might have shown the mature, manly, quasi-heroic virtues for which he and the Bush family are admired by many Americans. Not that it would have been easy, but the proper kind of apology to the families could have transformed the entire political dynamic around 09/11. But no one expects such things of Bush. (See blogger Rand Simberg on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in reviews of Bush’s performance.)

A more skilled politician could have re-framed the June 30 date for passing “control” to the Iraqis and created room for himself, relaxing the pressure to phony up the import of the handover, which is now building as the press gets ready to observe progress on that date. Not even the minimal standard of appearing to answer questions you have actually skirted gets applied to Bush, for as Auletta observed he didn’t answer some, zoned out on others, and evaded in a flagrant way— yet still won the encounter. It’s a mystery to me why Bush’s political friends would be happy with any of this.

The idea of the press as the “fourth estate,” which is the big idea Bush rejects, is usually traced to English historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881.) What Carlyle wrote puts a different light on Jeff Jarvis saying at Buzzmachine: send some bloggers to the White House press conference! I took him to mean that independent voices, writers representing no one but themselves and their public reputation, without rank or representation, should be in the mix with the press. Jeff meet Tom Carlyle, writing at a time when the press was newly arrived on the political stage:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact, …. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. ….. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power. There is still a reporters gallery, and it is still speaking the language of a Fourth Estate. But perhaps its weakness is in speaking a language Americans recognize as theirs. Bush is challenging the press: you don’t speak to the nation, or for it, or with it. (See Hagan on this point.)

He cannot sustain this challenge all the time—thus, the April 13 press conference, thus the embeds—but it is a serious argument. Intellectually, it’s almost a de-certification move against the press corps. There’s a constituency for this, and it picks up on long-term trends that have weakened the national press, including a disconnect between Big Journalism and many Americans, and the rise of alternative media systems.

As a first step out of this trap, journalists need to ask themselves: how did we become so predictable? Is it possisble to go back, and pull the wire that made this so? The game of Gotcha does exist. Auletta, a liberal journalist, can recognize it as easily as Karl Rove. Knock him off stride. Get him off the talking points.

But instead of rolling our eyes, we ought to realize that Gotcha has been incorporated into a new thesis, now in power in the White House. Behold the basics of President Bush’s press think. You don’t represent the public. You’re not a part of the checks and balances. I don’t have to answer your questions. And you don’t have that kind of muscle anymore.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

John Kerry tells the American Society of Newspaper Editors: if elected, he’ll have monthly news conferences. Editor and Publisher: “After the speech, when asked to elaborate on his feelings about the need for regular press events, Kerry declined to openly criticize Bush, but said press conferences were ‘an important forum and an important way to communicate with our country.’” Clearly, a difference between candidates.

Listen to the Ken Auletta interview or read the transcript here. (WNYC)

For an earlier Q and A with Auletta: Bush’s Press Problem. (New Yorker Online, Jan. 13, 2004)

For Auletta’s Reporting: Fortress Bush (The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2004)

Jeff Jarvis at Buzmachine reacts to this post with this:

Yet there are many who claim to represent us, The Public. Winning presidents and political parties do. The press does. But they don’t. Bush didn’t win the majority of votes; he doesn’t represent us. The same could be said of every President, since so many of us don’t vote. Nobody elected the press; they elected themselves. And they certainly don’t represent everyone since there are so many who don’t pay attention to them.

So the first fallacy is that there is one public. The second is that anyone represents us. But the third — the one the matters — is that the relationship is representative at all. That’s the misnomer.

The relationship, instead, is one of service.

Read the rest. One of Jeff’s titles is an advisory to the press: You don’t represent me; I hired you.

And in the comments @ Buzzmachine reader and writer billg puts it exactingly: “It isn’t the job of the press to represent the people. It is the job of the press to report the news to the people. But, it isn’t the job of any single press entity to report all the news, all the time. The press isn’t doing its job when it stops reporting the news and replaces it with entertainment packaged as news, i.e., pundits, magazine shows, talk shows, etc.”

I posted this in the comments at PressThink, to clarify what some readers may have missed:

When Bush says to journalists “you don’t represent the public,” it means a bit more than reporters are unrepresentative, or their views unlike the views of most Americans. I believe Bush is challenging the very notion that journalism is conducted in the public interest, that the public’s right to know depends on the press finding things out. That’s quite different from “journalists are liberal, Americans on the whole are moderate to conservative,” which is not the point the President is making— even though he probably agrees with that too. (See comments for more.)

Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) comments on this post: “The press, of course, is unrepresentative. It isn’t elected, nor — in its views, its background, and its personal characteristics — is it reflective of the public. (If the public thought like the press, no Republican would ever be elected President.) Nor does the public feel that it is represented by the press… But it’s certainly true that the notion of the professional press as a check on the government has no foundation. The Constitution envisions freedom of speech and of the press as checks — not the institution of the press as one. That’s a key difference, I think.” (See the comments of Ryan Pitts, a journalist, who replies to the “unrepresentative” charge at The Dead Parrot Society.)

Roger Simon, novelist and blogger, dissents: “I’m not as convinced… that Bush is treating journalists in an entirely different manner from previous administrations. The attack on the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ from the Nixon years seems much more strident than the quote from Bush that Jay uses in his title. Yes, Bush’s has an element of dismissiveness about it and, yes, the use of embeds during the war smacked of cooptation, but I remain unconvinced that these developments are much more than normal executive reponse to an increasingly powerful and expanding media (term picked deliberately). It’s an old game.”

Centerfield (the Centrist group blog) replies with Press Arrogance and the Bush Press Conference:

The relationship of the Press and the Presidency is supposed to be speaking truth to power. Their freedom and intellectual opposition are supposed to encourage that to happen. But the press has a pretty miserable record of speaking truth to power during the Bush Administration. The press has been worse with facts than the Administration, and has gone after shadows much more often than real problems.

Half-Bakered, a Memphis based blogger: “One place Rosen fails, I think, is that he casts doubt on the Bush administration’s belief in the Bush Thesis because the administration engages with it. Rosen doesn’t seem to see that the ‘press’ is unavoidable and must be engaged at least some times. That engagement isn’t a ‘failure,’ but a reality.”

From the Left—Headblast by David Cogswell—there’s this summary of the Thesis and what it means:

Bush has taken an extremely radical step in redefining the place of the press in American society. Bush said he does not accept that the press speaks for the people. He doesn’t recognize any obligation to answer questions of the press or deal with them in any way but however he feels like dealing with them. This is truly the most radical president to ever occupy the White House.

Reviewing blog reactions to this piece, The Smallest Minority writes: “the interpretations of Bush’s position vary, bipolarly.”

And one further thought of my own: After reading the many passionate comments here that welcome the Bush Thesis while articulating a deep disdain for the press, I wonder why so few of the President’s supporters seem concerned that a vital reality check may be lost to the administration, given what are seen as Big Journalism’s failures.

On April 17, Glenn Reynolds—a supporter of the war—wrote this about events in Iraq: “Is our government doing a good job? It’s hard to tell. And the tendency, knowing that the media are overplaying some negatives, is to apply Kentucky windage and assume that things in general are better than they say. This may be true, but it may also be true… that there’s not just good news, but bad news, going unreported.” Reynolds continues:

That’s especially unfortunate, because good reporting doesn’t just inform ordinary folks like us. It’s also a check on reports that flow up within the chain of command, making sure that real problems get noticed and not papered over. I’m afraid that the White House, understandably tired of the unrelenting negativity that has given us the Brutal Afghan Winter of 2002, the Invasion-Killing Sandstorm of 2003, and the Mass Popular Uprising of 2004, may have started tuning out negative reports. That would be a mistake…

On the matter of the news media, I think many Bush partisans—not all, but a lot—drink so deeply of their resentments that they fail to ask whether there will be any costs to Bush himself when the discrediting, dismissing, disdaining and decertifying of Big Journalism is complete.

Jeremy Bowers thinks about it: “As flawed as the press is, what other mechanism does the President have for communicating with us? If Bush turns his back on the press corps, what will he replace it with?”

“Big Media—especially network television and daily newspapers—are rapidly losing their power to shape public consensus and marginalize ideological extremes.” Where was this argument made? In a news story, the Washington Post, April 25

“I think the ‘The Fourth Estate’ is beginning to get the theme that they’re increasingly irrelevant unless they start taking their own carefully tended memes a little less seriously. We may actually end up with a halfway decent press, somewhere down the road.” Scott Talkington, Demosophia (April 28.)

Newspaper man turned blogger, Jon Donley of Dawnsinger, reacts to this post: ‘The Press’ doesn’t represent us.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 25, 2004 1:28 AM