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Media in the New D.C.: Right Right, Left Wrong?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Media in the New D.C.: Right Right, Left Wrong?

Article excerpt

Conservative press hopes for liberal access to information under the new Bush administration

In a White House press briefing room, a TV monitor that was tuned to Cable News Network throughout the Clinton years recently displayed Fox News Channel instead. The switch may represent nothing more than the preference of an anonymous staffer. Or it may signal a change in Washington, one that could eventually give conservative news outlets an advantage over more-liberal competition.

A couple of weeks into the administration of Republican George W. Bush, it is too early to tell whether traditional East Coast media often regarded as liberal will suffer from a lack of access to key policy players. Thus far, the new administration appears to be playing the media straight, showing no preference for any ideology, say White House reporters, Beltway pundits, and academics who monitor Washington.

Therein lies the punchline -- the Bush team, although cordial, keeps a tight rein on information. The message of the day prevails. Reporters who call administration officials are routinely shunted back to the White House press office, where a disciplined cadre led by Press Secretary Ari Fleischer sets out a viewpoint framed by administration leaders.

The result may be frustration for Washington reporters who covet the leaked document or confidential aside. "In a way, it's pretty rigidly controlled now, and I imagine it will remain so," said Frank Bruni, a White House reporter for The New York Times.

These are still early days, with the administration naturally dominating news flow as it rolls out policies and selects Cabinet secretaries. Wider debates soon will erupt, involving not only the White House but a powerful bureaucracy, swarms of lobbyists, and 535 members of Congress and their staffs.

At that point, say observers, the likes of Fox News and The Washington Times, the capital's conservative daily, may prosper. "This may be a time when reporters go back to reading The Washington Times carefully," as they did during the Reagan administrations, for insights into administration thinking, said Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief. Washington Times Deputy Managing Editor Fran Coombs demurred. "I wish we got one-tenth of the leaks the liberal Democrats think the Republicans give us," Coombs said. He said he'd be happy with equal treatment: "I'm hoping they start calling on us at press conferences. …

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