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May 18, 2006

That al Qaeda Doesn't Believe in Transparency is a Big Reason We Do

On Tony Snow's first briefing: "One of the ways to fight and win (in a global contest of ideas) is to stand at the podium, with those words The White House behind you, and meet your misinformed critics head on." Plus: Snow scoffs at "rollback" on the HH show.

At his first televised press briefing Tony Snow was friendly, telegenic, and in command, except for one very real moment when, overcome at having survived cancer, he could not go on. “He showed more emotion in 60 seconds than Scott McClellan did in three years,” wrote Howard Kurtz.

McClellan’s style—a few posts ago I called it “strategic non-communication”—was the big loser in press accounts of Snow’s debut.

According to Scherer an initiation test had been passed. “Members of the press corps were thankful for warm blood. As they packed up their notebooks, they were visibly giddy, offering approbations like, ‘That was A-1’ and ‘It’s going to be fun.’” Howard Kurtz was impressed. He said Snow was more “interesting to listen to” because he tried “engaging the press in a conversation” and stayed out of “the defensive crouch.”

“Yes, he split plenty of hairs,” Kurtz wrote. “But he didn’t insult the press by saying, in effect, no matter what questions you ask, I’m going to repeat the same boilerplate phrases.”

Dan Froomkin disagreed. He said Snow “found new ways to insult the press.” Among them: “He misreported poll numbers when it served his purposes — then refused to answer questions about poll numbers he didn’t like.” True. He did exactly that. (Correction: no misreporting; see the top of WHB.)

Snow also said he couldn’t confirm or deny that the National Security Agency was collecting data on domestic telephone calls, but then he did talk about public reaction to those reports. “Something like 64 percent of the polling was not troubled by it,” he said. Under these rules Snow does not defend the NSA program on the merits (can’t confirm its existence) but suggests Americans are sold on the merits.

The beast controls itself

Eric Brewer of BTC News was present: “There were 22 questions about Bush’s immigration speech, 5 on the NSA phone records story, 1 on Karl Rove, and 0 on ABC’s claim that the FBI is using National Security Letters to obtain phone records of journalists without judicial oversight and without informing the journalists (that was the question I tried to ask).”

Brewer’s list shows why the briefing can be such an advantage to the White House. The president gives a big speech on immigration; next day, the press asks 22 questions about immigration. It’s called feeding the beast. Give the reporters something to report and you’ve set their agenda.

It’s true that if Karl Rove were indicted that day there might have been 30 questions on Rove, and four on immigration, speech or no speech. You can’t always control the beast. But on a normal day the beast is docile; it controls itself. The White House is doing immigration week, the press is “on” it. That Porter Goss resigned last week without explanation, calling it “one of those mysteries,” is easily forgotten.

At his first (untelevised) press gaggle, May 12, Snow said that “rumors of the televised briefings demise are greatly exaggerated.” Those weren’t rumors. On April 30, his boss, chief of staff Joshua Bolter, told Fox News that dropping the midday televised briefing should be on the table.

“I haven’t made any decisions,” Snow said Friday. He repeated this Tuesday. The ritual will continue for now. If there are any changes “I will do that in full consultation with you,” he told the press. He also said he didn’t think the televised briefings were “something that you can undo.”

I disagree with that. All it takes is a president with the will to undo and they’re done.

In my view there should be both televised and untelevised briefings. But mainly there should be more briefings: a full schedule every day, and the staff to make it happen since Snow cannot do them all.

A contest for world opinion

Rather than cutting back on the interlocutors’ space, the Bush Administration should be expanding it outward to take in more interlocutors— more Q’s, more A’s, from more people and more interests.

For if there really is a Global War on Terror and it’s being led from the White House, then the people there are engaged in a contest for world opinion. The National Security Strategy Bush proclaimed in 2002 says just that: “We will also wage a war of ideas to win the battle against international terrorism.” You don’t wage a war of ideas with Scott McClellan as one of your big guns. But with Tony Snow…? Maybe.

Last year Donald Rumsfeld offered this assessment of the war in Iraq:

The only way we can lose this is if we lack political will to see it through. The terrorists, the violent terrorists, the enemies of the Iraqi people and the legitimate Iraqi government and the new Iraqi constitution, they know that. They know precisely that their battle is not in Iraq. Their battle is here in the United States. They have media committees, they calculate how they can have the greatest impact on the media in the world, and they are very skillful at it and we’re not.

Well, if our enemies are having greater effect on “the media in the world,” as Mr. Rumsfeld said, that argues for trying something different— really different. Like reverse course different.

My suggestion: the White House should be answering lots of people’s questions— in fact, many more questions from all over the world. One of the ways to fight and win (in a contest of ideas) is to stand at the podium, with those words The White House behind you, and meet your misinformed critics head on, while talking sense to those—in the room, out in the country, around the world—who are fair and open-minded.

Taking Bush’s case to the world

No decision yet on whether to drop the briefings? If he’s a believer, Tony Snow should be taking Bush’s case to the world, and seeking opportunities to make that case. That means more briefings. Not cutting back but building on.

Snow is the head of an operation. That operation includes able assistants. There are extremely competent people across the government, outside of Snow’s office, who in their areas of knowledge can also brief the press, answer critics, and bring policy to life.

I’d go with two-person teams: one briefer pulled from the government itself (someone in the line of duty for the United States) and the other a deputy press secretary working for Snow. Here’s a schedule I drew up:

8:00 AM… Televised Briefing in Arabic (For journalists from the Muslim world and the Arabic speaking press. You make the evening news in Cairo and Baghdad that night, and the newspapers the next day.)

9:00 AM… Press Gaggle (On the record, audio-cast, not televised, transcripts by noon; this event exists now.)

10:00 AM… Bloggers Briefing. (It’s like a gaggle for stand alone and citizen journalists who self-publish. Same rules.)

11:00 AM… Q and A with the International Press (With a daily briefing open to all, more foreign news providers will send a person to Washington. Televised, in English.)

12:30 PM… The White House Daily Briefing (Televised, the way it is now. Mainly the American news media, and major foreign providers.)

3:00 PM… All-Faith Briefing. (For the religious press worldwide, same rules as the gaggle.)

4:00 PM… Today in the Global War on Terror. (On the record, audio-cast. Talks about progress and obstacles.)

5:00 PM… The Closer. (An update to all of the above with revisions, clarifications, corrections.)

During his debut Snow reminded Helen Thomas that there’s a war on terror. “But al Qaeda doesn’t believe in transparency,” he added. “What al Qaeda believes in is mayhem.” There’s two ways to read that. In one, the United States cannot afford its earlier levels of transparency because it has to defeat al Qaeda, which doesn’t have to worry about such things. I believe this logic helped justify the policy of rollback— back ‘em off, starve ‘em down, and drive up their negatives.

The other read cuts an opposite way: al Qaeda doesn’t believe in transparency and that’s a big reason we do. We know al Qaeda can’t answer the questions people have. We know that we can. Never will Qadea’s leaders stand before the cameras and take the heat. But we do that every day, eight times a day, fielding questions from all over the world.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Here’s the transcript of my live Q and A at, May 18. Main topics were the Bush White House and the press, including Tony Snow’s debut. Two highlights:

Scott McClellan was Agnew at the podium.

Okay, too glib. But you get the point.

Or you will if you read the thing. Also there’s…

My very strong impression after watching Snow this week is that to have a potential star in the Administration preaching from the podium would be a new dynamic in the Bush White House, and probably not welcome to all power players in the West Wing. Snow has charisma, and convictions. He’s articulate, quick on his feet. He could become a factor. But what happens when he has to defend the indefensible? Then we’ll see what moxy he has.

Tim Schmoyer (Sisyphus) comments on this post: OldThink at PressThink… He’s not impressed.

Vaughn Ververs at Public Eye:

Rosen’s suggestion sounds good in the abstract, and there’s something to be said from a public relations standpoint about answering critics and bringing a policy “to life.” From a practical point of view, however, message management has a way of breaking down when you add so much to the mix. Rarely is there room on the national news agenda for more than a couple large stories each day, and dispersing the administration’s focus each day seems to risk dispersing the message. If, the day after President Bush delivers a national address on immigration, you have eight different briefings with eight different briefers, that is a certain recipe for confusion.

Let’s put it this way: Has the Bush Administration actually behaved like it’s in a war of ideas? That is the question my suggestion was intended to raise. My answer is: no way.

Terry Mattingly at GetReligion, a blog about the press and religion, considers my suggestions. “The hard part would be deciding who would be left out. Obviously, Richard Ostling of the Associated Press gets in. Ditto for someone from Catholic News Service and Baptist Press. Ditto for the likes of World and Christianity Today. Is the key question whether someone carries a mainstream press card? That would narrow the field too much… I think that a ‘God room’ would ask some very different and, in some ways, very tough questions.

Rollback news flash! “Leftist overthink,” and nothing to worry about, says Snow. On his radio program yesterday, Hugh Hewitt interviewed Tony Snow and asked him about a theory of mine. (Transcript.)

HH:: One of the lead bloggers of the left, Jay Rosen, up at New York University, who writes at PressThink, has argued that this Adminsitration is intent on “rollback,” the delegitimzation of the White House press corps and main stream media generally, and part of that was to deny the spokespeople and including the number one spokesperson, in this case you, the ability to reply effectively, is that just sort of leftist overthink?

TS: I think so, yeah. You know, it has always been the case that there are certain things that a press secretary can’t talk about, such as matters of national security. Jay can go back and look through every White House, and you’re going to find that there are times that even when you want to swing back, and even when you’ve got great facts at hand, you can’t. You know, there are just certain boundaries you can’t cross.

There are also always going to be areas in which the press wants to get involved, whether it be interior deliberations or that sort of stuff, and being legally trained, you know that there are certain things, certain precedents that you don’t want to blow, even from the podium as press secretary. So there are constraints that you operate under. But every press secretary has had to deal with it, and it is nothing unique to this White House.

Well, thanks. That a press secretary can’t tell reporters everything because there are secrets of state that are not to be divulged is true—and obvious—and, yes, it has always has been thus. But this has nothing to do with rollback, as I have discussed it. (Also see Austin Bay’s guest post at PressThink.) So I can’t glean anything from Snow’s reply. It’s a bromide.

Here’s what Hewitt should have asked him:

Vice President Cheney has said that after Watergate and Vietnam the executive branch saw its perogatives trimmed. He thinks it got hemmed in by other institutions and their oversight demands. Do you think the news media is one of those institutions from which the White House has to regain lost powers?

Maybe next interview. Hewitt asked Snow about paying attention to blogs. Snow said:

TS: Well, we’re in the process of designating people to be…to sort of do blog work, because that is one of the things that I’m doing here, at sort of the press office, is to get us up on the new media. And so I still haven’t finished that task, but I’m going to start designating people to keep an eye out on certain blogs, so we can figure out an effective strategy… blogs are useful not only for information, but also for various analysis. You get it into the bloodstream, and boom. People start linking all across the universe, and it’s like one of those pictures of a crack in the ice. It just spiderwebs everywhere.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 18, 2006 1:20 AM