< Putting the “Press” Back in Press Conference

Transcript

Friday, December 07, 2007

(THEME MUSIC)
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. This was President Bush last February on the global security threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
And I believe an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be very dangerous for world peace, and have worked with other nations of like mind.
BOB GARFIELD:
That, of course, was 10 months ago, long before the release on Monday of a new National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

The news was good, but not necessarily if you're determined to keep voters on constant alert for the unthinkable. It's awkward to keep crying wolf only to produce a couple of yappy Pomeranians. Surely the President would have to pull back on the rhetoric, which not long ago had him imagining World War III. Here he was on Tuesday.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.
BOB GARFIELD:
Whatever. That's his story and he's sticking to it. The media, however, did not. Burned once by this administration's interpretation of intelligence, the press was all over this one.
CHARLES GIBSON:
New report from the nation's intelligence agencies, that they do not believe Iran is now working to develop nuclear weapons.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Back now in Studio B with brand new developments on Iran's nuclear program, or lack thereof, I suppose, the Bush administration -
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, after all. Our reporters —
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
- many of the experts from those agencies that Iran really stopped building nuclear weapons back in 2003.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
And the consensus now is nothing short of shocking. The new National Intelligence Estimate is now saying Iran actually stopped working toward a nuclear weapon back in 2003.
BOB GARFIELD:
The media dutifully located dissenting voices on the NIE's conclusions, notably Israel's, and did nothing to paper over the nagging question — if the new intelligence consensus is correct, the old one was incorrect, so why trust any of it?

But to follow the coverage was to see that the dynamics of the relationship between the White House and the press have seen a turnaround all of their own. The so-called "media filter," whom the President had derided as irrelevant to American citizens, once again controls the narrative about Bush's own political and historical relevance.

In Tuesday's press conference, for instance, one reporter got under the President's skin by taking note of the President's body language, and observing, "You seem somehow dispirited."
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
You know, kind of Psychology 101 ain't workin’, it’s just not workin’. You know?
BOB GARFIELD:
The reporter was Chicago Tribute White House correspondent Mark Silva. I caught him on his cell phone in Texas and asked, why all of a sudden with the Dr. Phil?
MARK SILVA:
Well, because throughout the press conference the President was exhibiting a very dour, downbeat manner. He normally comes out, he's ready to go and he's upbeat and loud and combative. And, you know, he came out — he was soft-spoken, and the more he was asked about the disparities between everything he's been saying and what this report reveals, he just appeared glummer and glummer, if that's a word.

And as I sat and listened, it occurred to me that I'd like him to confront why he was in the mood he was in, and it seemed to me related.
BOB GARFIELD:
In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the press was, I believe, rightly criticized for being too deferential, too credulous, and equally, it seems to me, that over the last few years the press has pretty much accepted as a given that Iran is, in fact, actively trying to enrich uranium for the purposes of making a bomb.

Now comes the new National Intelligence Estimate, and it turns out that not only was the administration misrepresenting reality, the press, once again, was kind of caught with its pants down. Or am I being too hard on us?
MARK SILVA:
Yeah, I'm not sure I'd really agree with that because there are two situations here. One, Iran has been enriching uranium. The NIE concluded that, you know, that enrichment, in fact, had resumed as of some point in 2006.

Now, there's a difference between enriching uranium for civilian nuclear power and for weapons production. It's a difference of magnitude. It's a much lower grade, lower intensity of isotope enrichment that's required for power than it is for a bomb.

So the question becomes what's the motivation? And really the only person arguing the other point of view, which is that it's a civilian nuclear power program for these last few years, has been Ahmadinejad, you know.

So [LAUGHS] I'm not sure that the media is really at fault for misreading this situation. We didn't have the intelligence to know what their motivations were.
BOB GARFIELD:
There's one aspect of this story that has been covered, but from my personal perspective it seems to me pretty grossly underplayed, and that was the "what did you know and when did you know it" question. It's certainly clear that the President was talking about World War III in October when he had already for months been briefed with a short version of the upcoming NIE.

Has the administration's feet been held to the fire sufficiently on this question?
MARK SILVA:
Well, the way Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, put it, was the President had not been told to, quote, "stand down" by people within the administration. In other words, there was word from McConnell that, you know, there was a new assessment coming, they needed time to work on it. But nobody had said — back off, which I suspect at some point was coming up the line, the extent of the information.

But, you know, you've got to step back and look at what the President is still saying today. I mean, he is still maintaining that Iran is a threat; they're still enriching uranium. So the administration's position today isn't very much different from what the President said in October when he was talking about World War III.
BOB GARFIELD:
For quite a number of years, the President has been pretty successful at simply avoiding questions that he didn't wish to answer. But in asking him this question about his feelings, by asking him the Dr. Phil question, you actually, for one of the first times, created a situation where the President began to sort of unravel.
MARK SILVA:
My interest was trying to get him to get off that programmed path and sort of deal more candidly. He joked that this was like asking Psychology 101, but I would argue that, you know, maybe it was Psychology 101, and he didn't feel very comfortable about all of that.

And he also did engage. He generally sort of moves on when he doesn't want to follow up, but he [LAUGHS] didn't let go. I mean, I — he and I went back and forth about six or seven times, if you look at the transcript. And, and I think that's a healthy, good thing in a press conference, to get somebody to talk from the heart.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Dr. Mark, thank you [LAUGHS] very much.
MARK SILVA:
Well, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:
Mark Silva is the White House correspondent for The Chicago Tribune. We caught him in the back of some car as he was covering the Romney campaign in Texas.

We've heard the White House transform setbacks into triumphs with a few turns of phrase before, so there was nothing surprising about that aspect of President Bush's press conference this week. But the White House did manage to shock the press corps. Here's CNN's John Roberts.
JOHN ROBERTS:
CNN will have live coverage of the President's news conference beginning at 10 o'clock Eastern. It will be the first time in more than a month that the President will take questions from reporters. It's also the first time I can remember that he gave this much advance notice of a press conference.
BOB GARFIELD:
U.S. News and World Report's chief White House correspondent Ken Walsh has been covering the White House for over two decades. Can you remember the last time you had this much advance notice before one of President Bush's press conferences?
KEN WALSH:
It’s been a long time. Usually we get about 45 minutes’ notice, and often you can't get there in time, especially if you have other appointments that you can't really break. But in this case we had about a day's notice, and everybody was [LAUGHS] sort of shocked.

I was told today that we shouldn't expect this to be the routine from now on, but they're pleased the way it worked out in this case, and so you might see more of it.
BOB GARFIELD:
So what changed? Has there been some sort of shift in the way the White House is viewing the press, is choosing to deal with them?
KEN WALSH:
I think there's something of that going on. I think that President Bush — let's just say on the press conference front, he's been holding about one a month, really since the Republicans lost control of Congress.

And I think that was a key point, because the President in his first term really didn't feel like he needed the media very much, because the Republicans have developed this system of communicating with their base directly through email and in other ways, so they're going around the media in quite a sophisticated way.

Since the midterms, the White House has felt that they need to try some different things, and part of it is being more engaged with the media.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, the correlation with his falling political fortunes is probably inescapable, but he also has a new press secretary, Dana Perino. Maybe this new approach reflects a different style?
KEN WALSH:
Right, there's a definite difference there. Tony Snow, of course, was a conservative commentator before he became White House press secretary, on Fox News and on radio. And so, he enjoyed doing the daily briefings as sort of a Tony Snow TV show. But he didn't do as much of the private guidance on stories, helping reporters develop stories that other press secretaries had done.

Now, Dana Perino was his deputy, and she did do a lot of that. So now that she is the top person, you're getting less of that theater and more of the behind-the-scenes help with stories.

But I think that helps both sides, really, because not only does the White House get its point of view out in a more effective way to the media, but also the media gets more of an idea what the President is thinking and what policies are in stream and how policy is being formulated.
BOB GARFIELD:
What about the press corps' tone with the President? From this chair it seems that it was excessively deferential for a long time. But the deference seems [LAUGHS] substantially to have disappeared. Is that my imagination?
KEN WALSH:
No, well, I don't think there was so much deference as well, if you go all the way back to 9/11, there was certainly a sense of the media being too much supportive of the administration's policy.

As time has gone on, that has eroded. And particularly when the President has seemed at his weakest - this is the way the media work; if there's a sense of weakness or a sense of vulnerability, the watchdog becomes the attack dog. And I think that recently that's started to happen as President Bush has been unable to get legislation through Congress, and as the whole political system is moving toward the next president.

If you look at the briefings, they're not as well attended as they used to be. So there's that dynamic going on.

And so, I think you do see perhaps less deference, but also certainly more aggressive questioning and more challenging of his credibility.

You saw that in the press conference very clearly, and you see that — whenever, really, he engages on these difficult issues, you get the question of why should we believe the administration, particularly on intelligence matters and other things.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, Ken. Thank you very much for joining us.
KEN WALSH:
Sure, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Ken Walsh is the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report.