WH Communications Chief Describes ‘Strain’ With Press

By: E&P Staff

The PBS program “Frontline” aired part two 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 in the past week, featuring Bob Woodward, Bill Keller, Len Downie and others. Today we look at White House communications chief Dan Bartlett and his view on relations with the media. With the Libby trial still in the news, it may strike some as odd that he would assert, “We’re not the type of administration … who leaks a lot to the press, uses the media in the way maybe past administrations have, to advance personal agendas, policy proposals.”

The interviewer is Lowell Bergman.

Q. What’s your view of the role of the press in terms of the administration?

We actually believe the press plays a valuable role for the American people and is a fundamental aspect of our democracy. Without the media, the American people won’t have the type of information they need to hold their leaders to account.

The relationship between government and media has always been strained, and I think most of the time that’s a healthy strain. I think our relationship with the media particularly has been different maybe than past administrations’.

Q. It’s pretty strained. It has been very strained.

Well, sometimes the conversation about our administration and the media — two different areas get conflated. One is the issue of the so-called access. We’re not the type of administration … who leaks a lot to the press, uses the media in the way maybe past administrations have, to advance personal agendas, policy proposals.

The other strains come from, I think, more from just being a country during a time in war. When there [is] a lot of more classified information, there’s more conversations that should be happening in secret. There is the issue of access in that respect that has obviously played out very publicly and has been a strain.

Q. But the administration in, let’s say, the NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping story that The New York Times did, the president himself said it was, I think the words were “despicable,” what happened.


Q. And there were calls by the Republican Party and allies of the administration, including the attorney general, for the possible use of the espionage statutes.

Well, I can’t speak of prosecutorial tools, but I will say that we do think it was a fairly egregious decision made by The New York Times. That’s what I was getting [at]. A difference between the day-to-day relationship we have with reporters who cover the White House is one thing; the other is these issues during times of national security where there’s decisions made by certain news organizations that we think are not in the interest of the country.

It was a very, I’m sure, a difficult decision for The New York Times to make. I think they made the wrong decision, and it actually really is a reflection of the type of war we’re in. The media has been always traditionally very sensitive about not reporting on things that could harm the national interest, but it’s taken a very traditional definition: troop movements; something that would [put] someone in the harm’s way for an operation.

But now that so many elements of this war are fought through financial means, through surveilling the enemy, through conversations on the telephone, then maybe there’s a different standard by the media used when it comes to the threats that may have [been made] to the American people.

Q. But the reporters involved and the editors involved say all they reported on was the question of the legality of the program — they didn’t reveal how it worked — and that the terrorists, if you will, know we’re listening.

Well, they don’t know all the aspects of how we’re doing it. And for you to get into a conversation about whether it’s legal, there are strong insinuations about how the program works, and the disclosure of such a program, whether it be on the one hand the NSA program, or on the other hand the financial programs, SWIFT, that I know you’ve looked at, those are putting up a big billboard to the enemy saying, “This is how they’re defending their country.” We think it’s wrong.

Q. [New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller said to us that when he left the White House after a meeting he had about this, the president was saying that The New York Times was going to give aid and comfort to the enemy. That’s what he was being told; that he would have blood on his hands, basically, if he published.

Well, the president said nothing like that. The president did stress the importance of this program remaining secret. Our conclusion when this came out was that this has been one of the most effective tools in preventing attacks on our country. It’s one of the most vital tools that we’ve had in our arsenal to defend America, and for The New York Times to make the decision to put it on the front page harmed the national security interests of our country. The president felt obligated, if he felt that strongly about it, that he ought to tell the person who was in charge of that paper how he felt.

Q. But should they be prosecuted?

I’m not going to get into prosecutorial decisions made by the Justice Department. I’m not a lawyer, nor would I try to be. But it’s an important debate for the country to have, for the media and government officials and others to have, who watch this issue closely, because we are in a new paradigm, where the enemies of our country use the very technology and comforts of our lifestyle against us.

It is a new paradigm in many respects, and it deserves a lot of debate and scrutiny and discussion. Whether it be shield laws that are being debated in the United States Congress or other things, this is a healthy debate for our country….

Q. There’s been a change, it seems, in the relationship of the administration recently to the press, sort of a reaching out. The president was on 60 Minutes; you’re sitting here now. What’s happened?

I think there actually has been a better relationship with the journalists who cover us on a daily basis than maybe some of the broader or more high-profile disagreements, such as the one with the NSA program, has shown. The president understands that the relationship is a two-way street. If he wants to communicate with the American people, he has to have a relationship with the media, and vice versa, if the media wants to learn about what this president is thinking.

So there was not a conscious decision, I guess, recently to increase our role. But I think if you looked over the course of the last — now that these elections are behind us, that the president has been very accessible.

Q. Well, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, when we interviewed him a couple of months back, said, “Oh, this administration isn’t cooperating with us.” It’s been the worst he’s ever seen. He went through a whole litany, and then two weeks ago he e-mailed me and said, “It’s changing.” So you’d have to convince him.

I wouldn’t conflate our issues with 60 Minutes with the media writ large. If you recall, there was an issue with 60 Minutes’ broadcast [about] the president during his re-election campaign, with Dan Rather. There’s a whole new regime in place at 60 Minutes, including Jeff Fager, the executive producer for 60 Minutes. And we have a working relationship with Scott Pelley, a very seasoned journalist who interviewed the president recently. So I wouldn’t use that as a microcosm for the rest of the press. …

Q. The perception has been that the administration wants to go to a friendly venue [rather] than the so-called mainstream media usually, whether it’s Fox or whether it’s local news — get around, if you will, the filter that Pat Buchanan talked to us about. [Those efforts] began during the Nixon administration.

Well, I’ve heard that charge. We’ve increased our access to maybe the local media or the others, but I don’t believe it’s been at the expense of others.

The president has met with all the top anchors. He’s done more than, I think, two interviews with Brian Williams since he’s been the anchor [of the NBC Nightly News]. He did an inaugural interview with Katie Couric when she took over [the CBS Evening News].

So I know there’s an reputation about this administration with the press, but if you look at the facts, we’ve been more accessible than people have suggested.

Q. So you don’t sense … the hostility of the press?

Not on a personal level. … Like I said, we’ve had some high-profile disagreements with certain media organizations, particularly on the national security front. But I can say with confidence that the president genuinely likes a lot of the reporters that he deals with on a daily basis; has good relationships, actually, with many of the reporters; and he respects their role.

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