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Ari Fleischer Hits McClellan, Defends Press Coverage of Iraq

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ari Fleischer Hits McClellan, Defends Press Coverage of Iraq

Article excerpt

In an Op-Ed for The Washington Post on Sunday, former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer takes strong issue with his former deputy, and successor in that post, Scott McClellan, who in his new book labels the media "complicit enablers" in the march to war in Iraq.

Fleischer points out that he, of all people, never expected to defend reporters, but he feels they are getting a bum rap for allegedly not asking the tough questions before the invasion -- and he sides with those, such as David Gregory and Charles Gibson, who have strongly defended themselves.

But Fleischer's case is misleading and weak. Consider just one assertion: "In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, no matter what position the president took, the press took the opposite."

In fact, more than half of the column considers issues beyond Iraq -- involving Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, and the immediate aftermath of 9/11. When he gets to Iraq, Fleischer cherry-picks a few tough questions, but the only reporter he identifies is -- are you ready? -- Helen Thomas, the most outspoken of all the White House reporters in that period. The other questions simply come from transcripts, with no reporter known, but I would suspect that one or more of these other examples also belong to Thomas.

In any event, the handful of questions, covering seven months of buildup to war, hardly represent a groundswell of criticism. And, in any case, they are almost irrelevant. No one disputes that dozens of reporters, over many months, asked Flreischer many tough questions in the little-watched daily press gaggles. But it was sporadic, few were posed to the president in prime time, and the "tougnhess" rarely carried over to print or TV airtime.

More importantly, it was the overall press coverage that was, yes, quite enabling, as I have chronicled in my new book and dozens of times previously here. Stories critical of the administration's case for war were usually buried -- and the non-answers to the "tough questions" did not lead to front-page probes.

Jonathan Landay, one of the few reporters to translate his questions into print, over and over, at Knight Ridder in the run-up to the war, told me a few days ago, "Yes, many asked the right questions -- but they asked the wrong people."

Dan Rather, in speaking to the National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis on Saturday, aptly addressed this "tough questions" question, by observing that too often the White House correspondent "dutifully repeats the question he asked of the president or his press secretary, and dutifully relates the answer he was given -- the same non-answer we've already heard dozens of times, which amounts to a pitch for the administration's point of view, whether or not the answer had anything to do with the actual question that was asked. …

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