Auletta: Bush Sets the Tone for Chilly White House/Press Relations

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By: E&P Staff

The PBS program “Frontline” will air part three of its four-part series on the media this week. Supplementing the snippets of interviews in the shows, PBS.org has posted transcripts of more than 50 interviews online.

E&P has been excerpting from some of the interviews, featuring Bill Keller, Len Downie, Dan Bartlett, and others. Today we examine the program’s interview with celebrated New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, who talks about the Bush administration’s relationship with the press, and its focus on controlling information. Auletta addresses the administration’s penchant for secrecy, and when asked who sets the tone for this secrecy, his answer is “One person: ? George W. Bush. The policy about the press is set by him. It’s not set by the press secretary; it’s not set by a communications director. They’re just carrying out orders.”

Later in the interview, Auletta talks about where he sees this trend going, and what relations between the White house and press corps may be going in the future.

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Q: What do you think of the Bush administration having so few press conferences?

A: The Bush administration says by having so few press conferences they’ve actually substituted in another way. They have press availabilities. You can come to his office, usually every day, and he gets asked two or three questions. But those two or three questions that he’s asked, generally he starts with the wire services. The wire services tend to want to ask about meat-and-potatoes issues: “Is it true you’re going to Russia next week?” for instance — not a hard policy question, one that he’s quite pleased to get. So you could argue the public is not being served. ?

One of the functions that a press conference performs is it forces the president to get out of the bubble, to be exposed to aggressive questioning. I think ? every president, living in that bubble, gets out of touch.


Q: In terms of the message control you’ve talked about, things like the Web site, are there other ways the administration can get its message to us directly?

A: This White House has been pretty aggressive about getting its video news releases out there to local stations. And local stations, which increasingly are under cost pressures, want to raise their profit margin. They like cheap news programming. It’s basically public relations masquerading as news. We shouldn’t allow that without a disclaimer at least. But presidents like that because their message is unfiltered. ?


Q: … The Bush administration seemed to be strengthened by this amazing ability to speak with one voice on issues. [What do you make of that?]

A: Particularly in his first term, Bush has been very disciplined in a, policing leaks, not having that much leaking compared to previous administrations, including Reagan, including Nixon — there have been much fewer leaks certainly in the first term of Bush; second, of getting people to know that this president would really be upset if you showboat, if you get a lot of press yourself, so a lot of Bush administration people are not quoted by name, much more so than, say, the Clinton administration or previous administrations, including Nixon.

He was able to police leaks and the way people talked to the press in his first term. As his poll numbers decline in his second term, and as he gets near the end of his tenure, there have been many more leaks and many more people talking to the press — not on the record, but nevertheless talking to the press — and I’m sure that drives him crazy. But there’s not much he can do about it now. …


Q: … Who inside the administration is setting this tone for the intense secrecy that they seem to desire?

A: One person: … George W. Bush. The policy about the press is set by him. It’s not set by the press secretary; it’s not set by a communications director. They’re just carrying out orders. It’s policy that Bush wants.

Now, can they have an effect on the margin? Sure. But Bush has an attitude formed over a lifetime, probably most impressively in terms of the impression on his mind in his father’s administration and his father’s campaign. He remembers that Newsweek did a cover on the “wimp factor.” He remembers that reporters who his father thought were his friends wrote stories that his father didn’t like. He remembers that members of his father’s administration leaked, and you had to surround yourself with people who were not strangers, but longtime loyalists to you. So it’s a lifetime of attitude that is formed within George W. Bush. …

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Q: Where do you see the White House press corps in five years or 10 years?

A: We’re going to see more of the trends we’ve begun to see in the White House and the press relationship. This started, by the way, with Nixon, when Nixon said, “I want to avoid The New York Times or Washington Post filter and go out to local newspapers and get them to communicate my story.” They very aggressively organized to do that to try and get around the filter.

In the Clinton administration, Clinton got very angry at the press in his early years and talked about how he’s going to avoid using the middleman, using early technology, which was satellite, communicate directly to local press around the country, etcetera, and calling in people who would be honored to be in the presence of the president to do interviews. Bush has extended that, and technology allows him to extend that.

I think what you’re going to see more in the future is White House using its own Web site. ? They can basically chase the press out of the White House press basement, put back the swimming pool that was covered over there, say: “Go out and do your job however you want. We’re not going to help you by giving you these briefings. Check our Web site twice or five times a day. If you want [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld’s speeches, they’re there.” They’ll do what [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s been doing. Cheney travels all over the country, oftentimes without the press, kind of a stealth vice president, and it’s an attempt to control the way we cover the news.

They have the power to do that. Will they dare do that? Politics may make it harder for them to do that if the public saw it as an attempt by a future administration to deny the public information. … Bush has done fewer live press conferences than any modern president. Does the public say at some point, “Hey, where’s his transparency?” We want it for Enron; we want it for corporate America; we want it for the press. What about for the president? In a democracy, you can’t act unilaterally. You might want to. You might want to say: “Hey, deal with my Web site. Get all the information from that. You don’t like my spin? Tough.” Well, it may not be politically possible for you to do that. …

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To read the entire transcript on PBS.org, click here.

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