Very Polite Press Takes Another Dive At W. Conference

When President George Bush’s live TV press conference last Tuesday, April 13, was done, Terry Moran, the 44-year-old White House correspondent for ABC News, had some regrets. He had asked Mr. Bush if he cared to explain how it happened that we had gone to war based on “false premises,” a pretty direct inquiry-and yet Mr. Moran went away feeling … complicit.

“We need people who are not polite,” he said. “We need to be more representative of America.

“I am what I am,” he said, “a Midwestern Catholic boy whose mama raised him to be courteous to Presidents, nuns, sales clerks, doormen …. I don’t holler, because it would be fake for me. But I sure wish someone did in there.”

Mr. Moran then said the White House press corps was sorely lacking someone like his predecessor on the beat, former ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, whose wild-man behavior and raucous, crazy-eyed bark had once been 120-grit sandpaper to Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton.

“I just wonder if our generation of White House correspondents has that grit and that character,” Mr. Moran said. “I don’t think you can expect the reporters in that room to fake it. I think that’s the worst thing you can do. But the more diversity, the better. It would throw the public official off-balance a little more. If they had to come to grips with a number of different voices, that would help extract information.”

Considering the reams of damning new information at hand that night in the East Room-from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s published revelations, to the findings of the 9/11 commission, to the news of escalating violence in Iraq-Mr. Moran said the press had taken a dive. Mr. Bush did his thing-he filibustered, deflected, stonewalled, recycled the company line-and the press watched, silent, as if afraid that if they showed bad manners, Karl Rove would never schedule another press conference. After all, the White House has effectively controlled the press by limiting televised news conferences-the fewest of any Presidency in history-which has had the effect of charging the one on April 13 with a certain high-noon theatricality. That night, each question had to be sweated over as if it was a rare event-since it was. But that very tension led partisans to react as if the press were a bunch of liberals playing “We Got Bush.”

But Mr. Moran said the Washington press corps’ social makeup-he called it mostly white, suburban, upper-middle class-reflected a genial group for whom noisy, baiting, choleric behavior didn’t come naturally. And others have brought up mass professional ambition as the grease that keeps the Washington press corps from getting too loud.ÊAs in: The squeaky wheel doesn’t get the story.

But some White House reporters were willing to ask: What did they have to lose? “I think that’s a perfectly reasonable notion,” said John Dickerson, a White House correspondent for Time magazine. “Certainly different approaches, however they may be framed-either more cranky, or more endearing-could be a way to get around what is a pretty solid wall on most issues.”

Actually, Mr. Moran’s sociological assessment was pretty close to President Bush’s stated view of the media, which he usually says is made up of the Eastern elite and doesn’t represent the views of the American people. Is that true? Conservatives always say it, but Mr. Moran fits the stereotype less than Mr. Bush himself. Even so, the President has developed it as his trademark approach: Who you gonna trust, folks, a fella who whacks brush on his West Texas ranch on the weekends, or these Ivy League pencil-necks? It’s an attitude borrowed from Ronald Reagan, who was more affable about it, and from other conservative populists.

Mr. Moran seemed to be looking for a tougher brand of reporter to take on the Presidential podium, as Dan Rather did in 1973 when he challenged Richard Nixon over Watergate at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in Houston: Nixon asked Mr. Rather if he was “running for something,” to which the CBS reporter responded, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?”

And those who have seen the press change in subsequent years understand what Mr. Moran was talking about. Gay Talese, the former New York Times reporter and author of The Kingdom and the Power , said the press had become more socially homogenized since the 1970′s, less contrarian. “A better-educated class has certainly moved into journalism, but has lost the sense of being an outsider,” he noted. “The young journalists in power are more educated and more inclusive in spirit, but also, I believe, more conformist, less individualistic. We were more individualistic because we came from backgrounds that were different from the subjects we were writing about. We felt different. I believe we have a more conformist media now because there isn’t that separation in point of view, or sense of who we are, or social class.”

Other members of the press didn’t agree. In fact, they said that the April 13 news conference showed the press was back on its feet.

A year ago, in May 2003, Dana Milbank, the White House correspondent for The Washington Post , complained that the press had lost its misanthropic edge in a time when it needed it most. He told an audience at Yale, his alma mater, that “about 40 percent of the Washington Post newsroom … is now taking some form of antidepressant.” He called it the “Prozac Newsroom.”

Now Mr. Milbank said that “a lot of our trade has lost some of its rough edge,” but was waking from a long slumber. And, he said, there was at least one maverick left: “David Gregory, who will shout out a question.”

Mr. Gregory, the NBC White House correspondent, declined to comment.

Helen Thomas, the former U.P.I. correspondent who is the dowager among all White House curmudgeons-and who last year called President Bush the worst President in American history-agreed with Mr. Milbank. She said the press had become “much more intellectual” since she started in 1961. “I think they’re better educated,” she said. “A lot more finesse-but I don’t think they’re better reporters.” But she also said of the April 13 press conference, “Well, now they’re coming out of their coma, they’re getting much tougher. I thought they did a good job at the news conference. I don’t know what has made them wake up, but I think they’re better now than they were.”

What made them wake up, of course, was the news itself: the 9/11 commission, Mr. Clarke’s book, the escalating violence in Iraq. Now it appeared that Mr. Bush would have to account for how the country got into the war in Iraq, and how the attacks of Sept. 11 were allowed to occur on his watch. The facts were on the ground (thanks, in large part, to the ex pos facto press corp of Simon and Schuster).

But on April 13, Mr. Bush managed to once more beguile the reporters with his Texas Churchillian rhetoric about America’s 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 didn’t want to answer a question, he just moved to the next reporter, who generally felt honored to be called upon. And so, despite a certain bitter self-loathing at once again having been cowed and beaten by the Bush White House P.R. machine, the press remained in its usual bind, gridlocked in White House rules.

“It’s where you are in the order, what kind of questions have been asked before you, who you are,” said Mr. Dickerson. “It’s an equation that’s complicated. Who knows what gets the best answers from this President?” Were the press beaten? “I think there are lots of people who think we’re too polite,” he said. “I’ve also heard plenty of people out in the country who think we’re rude and obnoxious.”

Mark Hertsgaard, author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency , said the Reagan-era White House established the lesson 20 years ago that the Bush White House has used today. “You can actually kick the press out of this stuff and control them, and they won’t fight back,” he said. “You can’t give any White House that amount of power and expect them not to give in to temptation.”

It was just such a system that created the rambunctious Mr. Donaldson and his ilk, who endeared themselves to their colleagues. But now there was something new that neither Mr. Donaldson nor Mr. Rather-nor Sarah McClendon, nor Helen Thomas-had ever had to face before. “I don’t want to idealize the Reagan period, but it’s a different media universe,” said Mr. Hertsgaard. “You didn’t have the right-wing media structure you have now. Nobody is stopping Mr. Moran or any of them except, probably, their bosses. You don’t want to look like Sam Donaldson now. All of the media now-and on every story-they’re looking over their right shoulder and asking if they’re being too liberal. Never do they look over their left shoulder and ask if they’re being too conservative.”

And a number of White House reporters said the press was supposed to follow, not lead. If the two parties were of one policy, as they were last year going into Iraq, then the press couldn’t be blamed for just reporting the story. Bob Deans, a former president of the White House Correspondents Association, now a reporter for Cox Newspapers, said that “shout shows” on cable had fostered the expectation that reporters would attack like Chris Matthews unleashed. But, he said, “I think it has created in the public an expectation that that’s the way that political differences are resolved. Some people expect us to be their surrogates and treat the President that way. ‘Why isn’t someone shouting at him?’ And that’s not our role.”

“I think the reporters are worried about looking like they’re taking dead aim,” said Howard Fineman, the Newsweek political analyst and MSNBC commentator. “There’s so much pressure that every shot has to be perfect. It makes them more self-conscious. If this was more of a routine thing, it wouldn’t be as dramatic and reporters wouldn’t worry about looking like they’re standing in opposition to the President. And that’s the way Rove has set it up. It pushes the press into an even more desperate and accusatory role, and they know that.”

Still, many reporters say that the soft-shoe approach works best. “The trick is to balance persistence with the decorum this President insists on,” said The Washington Post ‘s Mike Allen. “If you yell, all you’re going to get is a glare-guaranteed. The President knows when a question is aimed at tripping him up. He’s a lot more likely to make news if you ask something out of genuine curiosity, or that is designed to elicit his thinking about a particular decision or situation.”

And yet, curiosity was met with not a wink of new information at last week’s press conference. The press itself stuck out as the news. Mr. Bush remained Mr. Bush. ABC News’ Mr. Moran asked a question that was tough on its face, but too broad, too congenial, to elicit an answer: Could Mr. Bush explain to Americans how he had been wrong in taking the country into Iraq under “false premises”?

To which Mr. Bush replied, “Well, let me step back and review my thinking prior to going into Iraq,” before releasing an explosion of slogans on Iraqi freedom. What if Mr. Moran had followed up, out of turn, loudly forgoing his Catholic manners?

Mr. Moran figured he would have been in the “dog house” (“Where I’ve been plenty of times before and where I’m quite comfortable,”

he said), or worse, become the story himself. “The president’s answer-or non-answer-is for the country to judge,” he concoluded. “The problem is that he and most other politicians now break the fundamental tenets of normal, decent human conversation. They practice non-responsiveness.”