On Monday morning, Karl Rove stood next to President George W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House and announced that he would be resigning from the administration at the end of the month. In front of the assembled D.C. press corp, he read a statement, and the President spoke. There was no formal opportunity for questions.
Towards the end of the appearance, as the President and his favorite pol were about to head in the direction of an awaiting helicopter, Bill Plante, CBS White House correspondent, broke the embargo.
“If he’s so smart,” said Mr. Plante, “how come you lost Congress?”
The president ignored Mr. Plante. But the bloggers did not.
By early afternoon, Mediabistro’s FishbowlDC had reported on Mr. Plante’s question, which quickly ricocheted around the Web.
Conservative bloggers were not amused.
“Besides being a rude little liberal, Plante also manages to show just how unqualified he is to be reporting on politics,” wrote Invincible Armor. “No doubt that's why CBS hired him.”
A blogger at Planetsave.com, on the other hand, gave Mr. Plante the “balls of the day award.”
Reached by phone at his home in Washington D.C. on Monday night, Mr. Plante said he wasn’t surprised by the attention. What people should understand, he said, was that the question was of less importance than the principle.
“Here’s the point,” said Mr. Plante. “It’s important that we ask questions even if some people don’t believe that they’re appropriate. They don’t have to answer them. But we have to ask them. Did I have to ask that question? That’s a point of legitimate argument.”
Mr. Plante said that if his bosses at CBS were unhappy with him, he hadn’t heard about it.
Earlier, Mr. Rove had chosen to break the news of his resignation in a hospitable forum with absolutely no threat of shouted questions—that is, in an interview with Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor Paul Gigot, a known conservative.
“That was Rove doing what he does very well: manipulating the media,” said Mr. Plante. “He chose the venue in which the story broke. It was basically a friendly one…That’s what Rove is very good at: shaping the message.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, said Mr. Plante.
“I’m not saying they are wrong to do that,” said Mr. Plante. “But we are not wrong either to ask questions. Sometimes they answer, sometimes they don’t. This has been going on for a long time.”
Mr. Plante, who first joined CBS’s Washington Bureau in 1976, said he seen similarly evasive tactics employed in previous administrations. “Clinton completely dried up during the time he was under investigation and under impeachment,” said Mr. Plante. “And we yelled at him too.”
Was he worried that his pointed query might subject CBS News to yet another round of accusations (see Rather, Dan) about the organization’s supposed liberal bias?
“You can have a long discussion about whether there’s some kind of structural bias in the reporters who cover Washington,” said Mr. Plante. “You can drag out the statistics that 82 percent of them voted for George McGovern, or whatever the hell that was. But I do think that the argument is most often used when you don’t agree with what the reporter is saying. If you the viewer of reader don’t agree with the point of view, you take it that the person who’s reporting that is somehow aligned with the enemy.”