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July 16, 2005


"This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country."

The brutalizing of Scott McClellan at the White House podium on Monday is a development with long roots. They stretch well beyond the particulars of what McClellan earlier said about Karl Rove and the use of Valerie Plame to discredit Joseph Wilson. Frustrations roared to life that day from hundreds of briefings prior:

MCCLELLAN: If you’ll let me finish.

Q: No, you’re not finishing. You’re not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson’s wife. So don’t you owe the American public a fuller explanation. Was he involved or was he not? Because contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his wife, didn’t he?

MCCLELLAN: There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it.

Q: Do you think people will accept that, what you’re saying today?

MCCLELLAN: Again, I’ve responded to the question.

QUESTION: You’re in a bad spot here, Scott…

And so he was. The immediate cause for Monday’s events, where the press finally held McClellan in contempt of country, was an old-fashioned breakdown in official credibility. It happened when statements from the podium were rendered inoperative by Michael Isikoff’s report for Newsweek, posted Sunday, July 10.

The press attacks when it feels openly lied to. (Emphasis on “openly.”) Also when it senses weakness, which of course means it’s safer to attack. Dana Milbank spoke for most of the reporters when he said to McClellan: “It is now clear that 21 months ago, you were up at this podium saying something that we now know to be demonstratively false.” (See also David Corn.) The press secretary and the White House didn’t try to contest it, choosing silence until the prosecutor is done.

Lying to the press—though a serious thing—is what all administrations do. In Washington leaking to damage people’s credibility or wreck their arguments is routine, a bi-partisan game with thousands of knowing participants. I rarely see it mentioned that Joseph Wilson (who is no truthtelling hero) began his crusade by trying to leak his criticisms of the Bush White House. When that didn’t work he went public in an op-ed piece for the New York Times.

But business as usual is not going to explain what happened in the Valerie Plame case, or tell us why its revelations matter. For that we need to enlarge the frame.

My bigger picture starts with George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Andrew Card, Dan Bartlett, John Ashcroft plus a handful of other strategists and team players in the Bush White House, who have set a new course in press relations. (And Scott McClellan knows his job is to stay on that course, no matter what.) The Bush team’s methods are unlike the handling of the news media under prior presidents because their premises are so different.

This White House doesn’t settle for managing the news—what used to be called “feeding the beast”—because it has a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country, but also less of a wild card in fighting enemies of the state in the permanent war on terror.

Depending on audience and situation, rollback is seen as:

Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives: this policy toward the press has many strengths as a working piece of politics, and supporters of it abound within the Bush coalition. I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president’s freedom of maneuver— not only in policy-making, and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself.

This is why Bush the Younger’s political project inevitably collides with journalism, a conflict that has largely been won by the Bush forces. They have succeeded in changing the terms of engagement with journalists. Monday’s evisceration of McClellan happened only because a third party—the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald—altered the power equation. At Whiskey Bar, the astute Lefty blogger Billmon wrote about this (July 13th):

Spinning unfavorable media stories is easy; deflecting accusations from the hapless Democrats easier still. But the Rovians are dealing with a prosecutor and a grand jury who mean business, and a set of federal judges who appear to have found the evidence presented to them rather compelling… they face the possibility that whatever story they try to peddle could be quickly and definitively proven false by hard legal evidence — just as the carefully constructed non-denial denials [from] Scotty McClellan were blasted to bits by Matt Cooper’s e-mail.

His point: The brutalizing of McClellan was no recovery of courage by a suddenly-awakened press. It was the Bush team’s bald assertiveness coming into conflict with truth collection in the criminal justice system, which has exposed a seamy story that journalists themselves would have kept hidden because it involves their confidential sources. (See Howard Fineman’s very different analysis.)

In the normal conduct of McClellan’s briefings, the non-answer (a refusal to engage a question, or even grant it validity) has become the standard answer. “Why bother asking…?” then arises as a problem in professional conscience. It involves trying to estimate the value of having another empty reply in the record of what the White House spokesman said. As Fineman wrote:

The deliberately colorless Ari Fleischer raised the content-free “briefing” to a dismal high art; Scott McClellan… is if anything, even less communicative and, unlike Fleischer, who once worked on the more media-friendly Hill, never betrays the slightest sense of guilt about saying nothing.

And that guiltlessness is a critical factor in his success. The very art of “spin,” which we still talk about, is the old model speaking. The original logic of spin assumed the story the press told was a kind of base line in the public narrative. Therefore you had to win the spin by playing the game of interpreting events with journalists. Bush has challenged that assumption.

Of course Bush spin is still around— lots of it. But notice: Scott McClellan isn’t particularly good at spin or telling the President’s side of the story. That’s not the game anymore. His are the skills of non-communication; he was hired to absorb questions and let no light escape through his non-answers. Beyond that he repeats a pre-determined White House line in rote (many say robotic) fashion.

Press rollback, the policy for which McClellan signed on, means not feeding but starving the beast, downgrading journalism where possible, and reducing its effectiveness as an interlocutor with the President. This goes for Bush theory, as well as Bush practice. The President and his advisors have declared invalid the “fourth estate” and watchdog press model. (See my earlier posts here and here on it.) They have moved on, and take it for granted that adversaries will not be as bold.

The old notion (still being taught in J-school, I’m afraid) had the press permanently incorporated into the republic as one part of the system of checks and balances— not a branch of government, but a necessary, vital and legitimate part of open government and a free society. The First Amendment was interpreted as protection for that part of the system, and this is the grand thinking behind which Judy Miller has gone to jail.

Within government, a representative figure for the pre-rollback era is David Gergen, the consummate insider who served as White House advisor to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. He preached to both parties, the press, and television audiences a cautious realism in White House media relations. It’s long gone now but (in my paraphrase) it went something like this:

“The White House has a right to get its message out. The press has a right to question and probe. There are going to be conflicts (and during scandals much worse) but they ought to remain within bounds. The press needs the Administration, it’s number one source. The Administration can be hurt by bad press, and helped by good relations with reporters. So calm down and let’s get on with producing White House news together.”

Or as Larry Speakes, fomer press secretary to Ronald Reagan, once put it: “You don’t tell us how to stage the news, and we don’t tell you how to report it.” It’s no surprise that Gergen moved easily from one Administration to the next, and from government into journalism and back. He had the insider’s consensus narrative in his pocket. But what if one party unilaterally withdraws from Gergen-style managerialism? There’s nothing in the press playbook about that.

Ken Aueltta of the New Yorker was one of the first to notice the shift and try to describe it. (See Fortress Bush and this interview.) In January of 2004 he wrote: “For perhaps the first time, the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders - pleaders for more access and better headlines - as if the press were simply another interest group, and moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.”

Not as powerful, and unsure of what to do about it. In switching from news management (think Gergen) to roll back (think John Ashcroft) the Bush Team was recognizing certain weaknesses in its adversary. Not only could it count on culture warriors to drive up the negatives of the liberal elites in journalism, but also on broader trends reducing the size and influence of the Legacy Media, therefore weakening the Washington bureaus from without and above. The simple fact that the public can download the Administration’s story from (a media page) is part of the change. The Economist described it well in March:

Behind all this lies a shift in the balance of power in the news business. Power is moving away from old-fashioned networks and newspapers; it is swinging towards, on the one hand, smaller news providers (in the case of blogs, towards individuals) and, on the other, to the institutions of government, which have got into the business of providing news more or less directly.

I think Rove also knew that the press is that rare special interest group that feels constrained in how “organized” it can be to protest or strike back. In fact the national press, which is only a semi-institution to start with (semi-legitimate, semi-independent, semi-protected by law, and semi-supported by the American people) has no strategic thinking or response capability at all. Rove and company understand this. They know the press can be done to. It rarely knows how to “do” back. (Here is Milbank’s 2002 effort in the Washington Post: “For Bush, Facts Are Malleable.” He barely gets any traction.)

“Executive freedom on the terrain of fact itself” is my way of describing what the Downing Street Memo said: “facts were being fixed around the policy.” Which is also what author Ron Suskind was getting at in a celebrated passage from his 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, “Without a Doubt.” Today it is mocked by the Right as crackpot realism. I think the passage, which adds little to the documentary record since the official who speaks is unnamed, is a parable about recent innovations in executive power.

Suskind, as you may recall, wrote of a meeting with a “senior adviser to the President,” who expressed his displeasure with an article Suskind had written about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes (one of the architects of rollback.) “Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend— but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.” The parable:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Today the prosecutor is studying what they do, and there’s no way to roll that back. In a Salon interview after the Times article came out, Suskind (whose sources were mostly Republicans) was asked whether the Bush forces were indeed trying to “eliminate a national point of reference on facts.”

Absolutely! That’s the whole idea, to somehow sweep away the community of honest brokers in America — both Republicans and Democrats and members of the mainstream press — sweep them away so we’ll be left with a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact.

No more honest brokers; claims take the place of facts. Disguised by the culture war’s ranting about media bias, these very things are happening all around us today. Limits on what liberties could be taken with the factual record without triggering a political penalty are being overcome. Joseph Wilson interfered with this, forcing the White House to pay a penalty: the so-called sixteen words in the State of the Union speech that had to be withdrawn after his op-ed. So he had to pay. And that’s how rollback, freedom over fact, culture war, and the naming of Valerie Plame connect to one another.

I should add that rollback intersects with trends in journalism that, as Tom Rosenstiel notes, are promoting a “journalism of assertion” (cheap, easy, safe) over the discipline of verification (expensive, hard, and certain to spur more attacks as the culture war wears on.)

Also, Team Bush has been aided immeasurably in its strategy by various lapses and excesses in journalism, including major breaches in public trust like Dan Rather’s Sixty Minutes story about Bush’s military service, and faulty reporting during the build-up to the war in Iraq. When the press is damaging itself in the eyes of the public, and under automatic attack, it’s hard to recover any lost ground. Writing in the New York Times May 22, reporter Patrick Healty said:

Scrutiny is intense. The Internet amplifies professional sins, and spreads the word quickly. And when a news organization confesses its shortcomings, it only draws more attention. Also, there is no unified front - no single standard of professionalism, no system of credentials. So rebuilding credibility is mostly a task shouldered network to network, publication to publication.

When “no unified front” meets “roll back the press” and the discipline of the Bush White House, it really is no contest.

A PressThink reader pointed me to this testimony at a public hearing organized by Senate Democrats on the Valerie Plame disclosures and the effect of outing an agent (Oct. 24, 2003). (Also discussed by Talk Left.) The speaker is Vince Cannistraro, former Chief of Operations and Analysis, CIA Counterterrorism Center, and now a terrorism consultant. His is one of the better descriptions I have found of that strange feature of the Bush governing style Suskind called “a retreat from empiricism.”

CANNISTRARO: …There was a pattern of pressure placed on the analysts to provide supporting data for objectives which were already articulated. It’s the inverse of the intelligence ethic. Intelligence is supposed to describe the world as it is and as best you can find it, and then policymakers are supposed to use that to formulate their own policies. In this case, we had policies that were already adopted and people were looking for the selective pieces of intelligence that would support those policy objectives.

This ethic in government (stating that the White House is entitled to its own facts, and what are you going to do about it?) has brought the Administration into conflict with the CIA, with the press, and now with Republican prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. All are engaged in empirical work—truth collection and verification—of one variety of another.

My final thought: “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” said Ronald Reagan on March 4, 1987. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” I wonder what caused him to say that, because whatever it was seems to be much weaker today.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Dori Smith of Talk Nation Radio (Pacifica) interviewed me about this post. The transcript is here. Excerpt: “In my view the story of the Bush White House has been for a long time political innovation. They are innovators. They don’t believe in doing things the way that others have done them.”

Scott Rosenberg of Salon responds to my final paragraph:

It seems to me that what caused Reagan to say that was not any particular flash of conscience, but the determined, relentless effort of a team of prosecutors and congressional investigators to dig up the truth, forcing the Republican administration into a corner from which Reagan had no choice but to make a confession in an effort to defuse a crisis that was otherwise headed down the road to impeachment. In those days, we still had an independent counsel statute, and we had two-party government, in that Democrats had a power-base in Congress. Today, there’s a prosecutor, but he’s out there pretty much on his own, and I don’t have any great confidence that his efforts will bring the Bush White House back to its factual senses.

CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer in a commentary Sunday:

This White House did what it usually does when challenged: It went into attack mode, called charges that the White House had leaked the name ridiculous, and allowed the controversy to boil until a special prosecutor had to be appointed. Now two years and millions of tax dollars later, the president’s trusted friend and strategist Karl Rove has emerged as the top suspect, and we’re left to wonder: Can anything said from the White House podium be taken at face value, or does the White House just deny automatically anything that reflects badly on it?

Schieffer thinks the Bush people are following “the modern public relations rule, ‘Never admit a mistake, just do what is necessary to kill the story before it kills you,’ which often works.” I think the strategy goes well beyond any notion of PR we know about from the past.

Howard Kurtz: “Helping White House officials finger a covert operative is not exactly the kind of work that builds public support for the Fourth Estate.” In the 33 years since Deep Throat, Kurtz writes, “journalists have so badly overused unnamed sources on routine stories that they have come to be seen as too cozy with political insiders.”

Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s media blog has had it with journalists “refusing to report what they know” by protecting their sources; and he thinks stonewalling the press is justified:

With the NY Times leading the coverage last week with an incessant series of leaks, all spun against Rove, and with the Times’ reporting clearly tailored to its own political interests — protecting the crutch of anonymous sources, promoting a scandal involving a powerful, unaccountable White House official, and covering up its own role in the investigation of a potentially serious crime — tell me again: Why shouldn’t the White House stonewall this press?

Not rollback, blowback! Bill Quick at Daily Pundit thinks I have it wrong. He says my post

ignores (stonewalls? rolls back?) the possibility that the problems the media is having with the White House (and not just this one, either) are of its own making, arising out of the media’s sense of itself as a special interest group with special privileges to not just report the news, but to militate both for its own projects, and against those of Presidents and other politicians and ideologies with which it disagrees.

Read the rest. I do wonder what Bill Quick thinks of Karl Rove declining to endorse the cultural right’s view of the press in a speech he gave in Maryland April 18. As reported by Dana Milbank, Rove was asked a question about the liberal media:

“I’m not sure I’ve talked about the liberal media,” Rove said when a student inquired — a decision he said he made “consciously.” The press is generally liberal, he argued, but “I think it’s less liberal than it is oppositional.”

The argument — similar to the one that former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer made in his recent book — is nuanced, nonpartisan and, to the ears of many journalists, right on target. “Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat,” Rove said.

I also wonder why Rove received so little criticism from his own camp for this view, which openly contradicts the claims of the cultural right, and undermines the entire “liberal bias” discourse.

Editor & Publisher: What did Spiro Agnew actually say about the press back in 1969-70? Useful.

In comments, Andrew Tyndal of the Tyndal Report notes that who-leaks-what (certainly an important story) doesn’t get much attention:

How about an article on the leaking styles of the major inside-the-Beltway actors? How does Karl Rove leak? Does he pick up the phone or wait for his contacts to call? Does he react to stories or initiate them? Does he deliver only assertions or authentic facts, as Rosenstiel would say? Does he trade access for non-disclosure? Does he engage in reportorial reward and punishment?

In what way is Rove’s leaking style different from Paul Wolfowitz’s, Colin Powell’s, Karen Hughes’, Dick Cheney’s and so on?

In fact, there is a gentleman’s agreement among journalists not to investigate each other’s confidential sources. Whenever I have asked about this, I have never heard a reporter try to justify the arrangement. (I don’t think it can be done) Nor do they deny it. Good question for Howard Kurtz to ask on “Reliable Sources.”

The San Francisco Chronicle calls on Scott McClellan to resign. Won’t happen. McClellan hasn’t even apologized for misleading the press, which would be the decent thing to do.

Billmon of Whiskey Bar comments (at the Huffington Post):

“I rarely see it mentioned that Joseph Wilson (who is no truthtelling hero) began his crusade by trying to leak his criticisms of the Bush White House.”

I’m sure Jay understands that there is a difference between anonymously criticizing goverment policies and challenging official disinformation, and leaking derogatory (and false) information about political opponents. I’m just surprised he didn’t make the distinction here.

Big difference, yes. Bill (ex-reporter himself) also points out an intruiging passage from a Sidney Blumenthal article in Salon, where former New York Times Washington bureau chief and Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Bill Kovach, a legend in the business, argues against the notion that confidential sources must be protected at all costs:

If a man damages your credibility, why not lay the blame where it belongs? If Plame were an operative, she wouldn’t have the authority to send someone. Whoever was leaking that information to Novak, Cooper or Judy Miller was doing it with malice aforethought, trying to set up a deceptive circumstance. That would invalidate any promise of confidentiality. You wouldn’t protect a source for telling lies or using you to mislead your audience. That changes everything. Any reporter that puts themselves or a news organization in that position is making a big mistake.

Billmon’s commentary on this shows a man wrestling with himself. Read the rest. Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper provides the view opposite to Kovach’s. Here he is on CNN:

I don’t think we as journalists can sort of pick and choose which sources and which obligations we’re going to honor, and say, well, this source doesn’t seem to have good motives, I’m not going to take his. I think even as we saw in Deep Throat, Mark Felt, who emerged as Deep Throat, had his own motives, and he had been involved in things that were not so great too.

And I think the phrase “we can’t pick and choose” is a dodge. Translates as: we cannot afford to think about it or make any distinctions. New York Times editorial: “But the hard truth is that no reporter can choose the circumstances for upholding a principle.”

See also Sam Smith in Editor & Publisher, who says: if there was more news value in what the source was trying to do (get Wilson’s wife into the frame) than in the information the source was passing (remember the Times did not report it as news) then Miller erred. Smith calls it “malpractice.”

Michael Kinsley on June 12, 2005 dismissed the Downing Street Memo but said: “Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the Iraq war.”

Hmmmm. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta in a 2004 interview: “This is a cohesive White House staff, dominated by people whose first loyalty is to Team Bush. When Bush leaves the White House, most of his aides will probably return to Texas. They are not Washington careerists, and thus they have less need to puff themselves up with the Washington press corps.”

Halley Suitt comments on this post, and she’s optimistic: “Has telling the truth gone out of fashion? I say no. Telling the truth is very fashionable. We all need to start wearing it out on the town. I think we’re about to enjoy a new fall season of veracity, strutting around town in our finery, all dressed up in the naked truth.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 16, 2005 12:58 AM