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March 4, 2005

De-Certifying the Press, Continued

The whole idea of the White House press corps is that the reporters in it represent the public's common interest in seeing executive power questioned, monitored, examined, explained. The President needs an interlocutor, it was once thought. No more.

When PressThink undergoes its first re-design, I plan to install on the right rail a “live” list of my top ten press puzzles of the day, which would change with the events that present those puzzles. Or not change, if the puzzle persisted.

Right now, tops on my list would be: “de-certifying the press,” which I have written about since September of 2003. Last week’s installment was In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press (Feb. 25). It was about putting “Jeff Gannon” into a larger context, the “post-press” philosophy of the Bush Administration.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post wouldn’t think much of my rankings, if I had them up. Yesterday he said that my Number One story—which is not really “a” story but a situation made of many stories—is mostly bunk.

“Are the Bushies at ‘war’ with the Fourth Estate?” Kurtz asks. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he answers. The evidence he alllowed into beat reporter’s court was this:

Bush says he prefers “unfiltered” news from his staff. He holds few news conferences (though he’s picked up the pace a bit after winning a second term). He doesn’t like “preening” television correspondents. Cheney’s plane bars New York Times reporters. Top officials all seem to be reading off the same set of talking points. Ari, and now Scott, toe the company line. Prepackaged videos are sent out as real news with fake reporters.

But the problems of the press are not these things, Kurtz said; they’re self-driven scandals. “Nothing the White House has done has damaged the media’s credibility more than what the profession has done to itself.” And he lists all the recent goings-on from Jayson Blair and Eason Jordan to declining ratings, in order to ask: are any of these Bush’s fault? (He left out excessive credulity on the Weapons of Mass Destruction story, which is on most people’s list of recent press failures. That, of course, was Bush’s fault.)

In my view Kurtz’s judgment on this is wrong— very wrong for a beat reporter with his experience. His attempt to de-excite us about de-certification deserves to fail. But at least he links to the arguments made by Eric Boehlert of Salon (March 2). He’s been following the de-certification story:

Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts, and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing pseudo-journalist working under a phony name, have led many observers to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news, but is out to sabotage journalism from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of the press corps.

Ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who reported on the White House communication shop in the first term and interviewed some key people there, told Boehlert that the strategy to “diminish the mainstream press” was the “same as how to handle the federal government; you starve the beast.” Then in its weakened state it can be attacked and subverted, which is where Armstrong Williams and Jeff Gannon come in.

De-certifying the press is a means to a much larger and scarier end. Boehlert’s formulation of it: “If the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts — the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.” I’m with Eric Boehlert and Ron Suskind (I’m quoted in the same article) as they try to discern the situation before us. And here are a few of the reasons I think Howard Kurtz is wrong to dismiss their ideas.

“People forget that every administration tries to neutralize the press,” he writes. For an example, he points to Bill Clinton stonewalling during scandals and circumventing the press corps when he started going on Larry King and other talk shows.

But Mike Allen of the Washington Post, Kurtz’s colleague, did not forget what every administration tries to do. On October 8 he wrote: “Although all presidents are kept somewhat removed from reality because of security concerns and their staffs’ impulse for burnishing their image, Bush’s campaign has taken unprecedented steps to shield him from dissenters and even from curious, undecided voters.” Did Kurtz catch that word “unprecedented?”

Kurtz says people forget what presidents do. But I didn’t forget (and I’m people, Howard.) Last week I went out of my way to address his doubts from this week.

It is true that all Administrations want to speak to the nation in an unfiltered way; there’s nothing notable about that. All at one time or another see the press as “against” them. All cry foul— and in the name of the facts! Hating the press is normal behavior in the White House. So is favoring the sympathetic correspondent.

But we can recognize these facts, and still discern something going on with the Bush team:

There’s a difference between going around the press in an effort to avoid troublesome questions, and trying to unseat the idea that these people, professional journalists assigned to cover politics, have a legitimate role to play in our politics.

Which is what de-certification is about: attacking that idea on as many fronts as possible. Kurtz should understand the thesis he is rejecting, and not rely on the entirely superficial approach of picking out two or three things Bush is accused of that Clinton was also accused of.

“It’s been apparent since the day he took office… that George Bush has little love for the press,” Kurtz writes. But what wasn’t apparent, at first, was the different philosophy of press relations the Bush White House held, and advertised that it held. Why have a different theory, and why talk openly about it, if you intend no changes in practice? (See Ken Auletta: Fortress Bush.)

There is no Fourth Estate, says the Bush Thesis. The White House press has no check and balance function. As for journalists, “they don’t represent the public any more than other people do,” according to Chief of Staff Andrew Card. “In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election.”

Of course the whole idea of having a White House press corps is that the reporters in it do represent the American public’s common interest in seeing executive power questioned, monitored, examined, explained. The President needs an interlocutor, it was once thought.

Keep in mind how often it has been observed that the British have the ritual of Question Time in Parliament—where the Prime Minister must answer the opposition— while the U.S. has the White House press conference to serve a roughly similar goal. Maybe it doesn’t serve very well, but on the other hand if the press does not have an accepted right to question time with the President, who does?

This is the most disturbing part of the entire pattern: To answer questions from informed people who might doubt him is not an essential responsibility that Bush, as President, feels he even has.

Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for the Washington Post, sees this as part of “Bush’s bubble,” which

first emerged as a serious news story during the campaign — in particular when he seemed unprepared for his first debate. It reemerged after the election, as Bush opted against new blood for his second term and instead gave increased power to loyalty-tested aides. And now, the protective bubble appears to have become standard practice wherever he goes — even when he’s abroad.

Consider what happened on the President’s recent trip to Germany: Reuters, looking ahead, reported on Feb. 14 that White House “organizers are still taking all necessary measures to ensure the German public’s dislike of Bush does not mar his kiss-and-make-up session with Schroeder.”

Initial plans for a “town hall” style meeting attended by local students, businessmen and Americans have been scrapped — to the relief of German government officials, who feared privately that such an open forum could backfire.

Elizabeth Bumiller had a more intriguing account Feb. 21 in the New York Times:

The proposed town-hall meeting raised the inevitable issue, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Washington, of “Do you know what kinds of folks you are going to have at that meeting and what kinds of questions they might ask?” Ischinger said the Germans told the Americans that the guests could not be screened, as White House officials do at similar events in the United States, and so “don’t be mad at us if some nasty question comes up.”

That was enough to sink the plan. So not only does Bush fail to accept any responsibility to be vigorously questioned, he now expects that others will supply the conditions in which he can appear to have an interlocutor but actually face no challenge at all. The Germans refused to play along.

Then on Feb. 23 the German weekly Der Spiegel added some additional facts:

As an ersatz for the town hall meeting on Wednesday, Bush will now meet with a well-heeled group of so-called “young leaders”… The chat is being held under the slogan: “A new chapter for trans-Atlantic relations.” The aim of the meeting is to give these “young leaders” a totally different impression of George W. Bush. In order to guarantee an open exchange, the round has been closed to journalists — ensuring that any embarrassments will be confined to a small group.

The ultimate solution, then, was to exclude the press after the Germans could not guarantee friendly questioning. To exclude in this way is closely related to the de-certifying I have talked about. But what is the result? No public interlocutor for Bush. From the standpoint of a de-certification move, that’s a solid win.

Here are some developments in the de-certification story:

To which I say: watch the closing doors.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit (March 4): “Jay Rosen writes about de-certifying the press. But my question is, who ‘certified’ them to begin with?”

Good question. I may give it a longer answer later. Short one for now:

“Certified” in this case does not mean legally so, as with a Certified Public Accountant. That would be unconstitutional. Rather, what the Bush team is doing is like de-certification (though not literally so) because it’s a sudden change in accepted status and a rejection of a commonly recognized role.

One answer to “who granted this status?” is “tradition did.” Previous Administrations, Republican and Democrat, established some common and accepted practices without codifying them. Glenn’s a law professor; he should understand why you don’t overthrow precedent lightly (and you don’t deny that you’re doing it when you are.) I have also used the term de-legitimize to describe what the Bush forces are doing. Prefer that? Fine.

Reynolds replies: “Hmm. ‘Tradition’ formed by whom? Not me, and not the large number of Americans who have shouted back at their televisions over the years. It’s just that now people can hear it. As for ‘precedent’ — well, to be ‘precedent’ a decision has to come from an authoritative body. And, again, which body legitimized the press? It seems to me that the press did. For a while, when it played ball with politicians (e.g., by not mentioning FDR’s polio or JFK’s infidelities) the politicians were happy to treat it as a quasi-government. I’m not sure that was an improvement, really, though I can see why journalists regard it as a golden age.”

Stephen Waters: De-certifying ‘De-Certifying the Press.’

Reading A1: The press and the new order, again. (March 4)

The interlocutory function of the White House press is, obviously, unspecified and unimagined in the text of the Constitution: but the White House press conference represents an enactment, a practical interpretation (one of the most visible and significant of the past era), of the meaning of the First Amendment guarantee of press freedom—and its association of the freedoms of conscience with the right to seek redress from the government. Understanding this aspect of the issue is crucial if you’re going to form theory about it.

What Jay Rosen isn’t seeing—what isn’t being seen generally yet, which is why I’m repeating myself here—is that one constitutional order doesn’t pass away without another taking its place.

Well, I appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night (March 3), in a taped “report” about the new journalism with funny man, actor and correspondent Rob Corddry. His background is in Second City style improv, I learned. It was fun and a little unnerving. Bill Doskoch has a blow-by-blow, and Crooks and Liars has the video, if you want to see. I didn’t see the whole show (traveling) but I am told Stewart asked Ari Fleischer straight out if the administration saw the news media as just another special interest group. Fleischer apparently dodged the question.

Wonkette has a brief review.

Read this incredible tale of a blogger, Crooks and Liars, getting an apology from CNN and (sort of) from Robert Novak for Novak’s misuse of a Howard Dean quote. And the blogger spake: columnist, you must remain reality based. In this case, CNN agreed with the blogger. Interesting. And way more important than getting Novak to admit X, Y and Z.

Dotty Lynch of CBS News, Fear & Loathing In The Blogosphere (March 3). She read my essay, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, and summarized its key points. She then made her own. Hers is a rational, rather than a reflex view of why blogging counts for newsroom types. She isolates it pretty well, and her tone is non-hysterical.

Political research I’ve done via the blogs during the 2004 campaign and for the Gannon column has convinced me of the validity of a lot of these points. There is information on the blogs that is extremely helpful to advancing a story and journalists who ignore blogs are overlooking a huge resource. Media Matters, Americablog, Kos and their contributors plucked information about Gannon, Eberle, Rove, et al, quickly and disseminated it before Talon News and GOPUSA decided to remove it from their sites. The guerilla warfare continued last week when a conservative site, The American Spectator, put up a controversial ad attacking the AARP, which was then captured and circulated on the liberal sites, eventually making it to the MSM. By the time the MSM discovered the story, the Spectator had taken down the ad.

The italics are mine.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, interviewed by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN. Background: The Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, in a written memo, ordered government staff not to speak with the Baltimore Sun’s State House Bureau Chief David Nitkin or columnist Michael Olesker. (See this archive of articles on the issue.)

I love the press in America. I think it’s great. I love freedom of the press.

But that freedom does not require me to answer every question you ask or to respond to every issue you raise. I’m not obligated— because I’m an elected official doesn’t obligate me to do that.

Now, you come to me as a constituent, now that’s a different story. But as a newspaper reporter trying to write a story, it’s my option.

I wonder if Steele will be having public and on-the-record sessions where constituents get to ask him questions and, you know… be an interlocutor. After all, it’s his option. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele: If you or your office are listening, PressThink asks: are you planning to have citizens question you after journalists no longer do?

An important essay: Robert Cox at The National Debate, Why “Blogging” Sucks. Among other insights, he explains why the term “blogger” is empty and will eventually become meaningless.

John Robinson, blogging editor of the News & Record in Greensboro: “The Houston Chronicle, WRAL-TV, The Oregonian, The News & Observer and USA Today have called me over the past week to talk about blogging. Not for a story but to pick my brain — what little crumbs are left — about our experiences online. All of the interviewers seem to be trying to figure out how to make the case to introduce blogging to their sites.” Does anyone remember when I said that Greensboro was national news?

From In the Press Room of the White House that is Post Press (Pressthink, Feb. 25): “…’Jeff Gannon’ can be thought of as the replacement press, a fake journalist with a fake name working for a fake news organization, asking fake questions at a real press event.”

CJR Daily: Interview with ex-Newsday science writer Laurie Garrett, who recently quit daily journalism.

A colleague of mine that used to be at Newsday and is now at Time magazine described this by saying that she had grown up in a working-class Irish-American family in Brooklyn. All of her brothers and sisters were either cops or firefighters or nurses. And she was the one that they all thought was an oddball because she was a writer. She said there came a day in the newsroom when a little light bulb went off in her head and she suddenly understood why fundamentally she was always disagreeing with other reporters and editors and had a different instinct about where to go with a specific story. And it was because one of them said in the newsroom, “How could anybody be a working stiff and a Republican?” And she realized that she had certainly grown up around working-stiff Republicans and here was a newsroom full of people who absolutely couldn’t comprehend how any one individual could put those two ways of thinking together. Which meant that, of course, they couldn’t understand who elected George Bush.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 4, 2005 6:01 AM