Are the News Media Soft on Bush? That Much-Ballyhooed "Liberal Press" Hasn't Been Nearly as Tough on President Bush as It Was on His Predecessor. One Key Reason: Bush's Controversies Have Involved Policy Rather Than Personal Peccadilloes, and the Media Have a Much Bigger Appetite for the Latter. but Does the Weapons of Mass Destruction Flap Presage a Shift?
Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review
Ninety-four reporters gathered in the stately East Room of the White House to bear witness to a rarity in George W. Bush's presidency: a sole, primetime press conference.
At 8 p.m. on March 6, Bush began his remarks about "our war against terror," flatly asserting that Saddam Hussein "possesses weapons of terror" and that he and his weapons "are a direct threat to this country." Bush then parried with 18 reporters, who asked 30 questions about the looming war against Iraq and three about North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Nary a word passed from reporters' lips about the ballooning deficit, rising oil prices, surging unemployment, soaring prescription drug prices or any other domestic issue.
If a sure loser emerged from that evening assembly, it was the White House press corps. Scathing commentary followed. New York Press contributing writer Matt Taibbi likened the press conference to "a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function." Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales panned Bush's performance, then said that the "lethargy was contagious; correspondents were almost as logy as Bush was. Nobody even bothered to ask a question about Osama bin Laden."
ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran, who participated in the questioning, told the New York Observer" that Bush wasn't "sufficiently challenged" by reporters and that the president's performance left the press corps "looking like zombies." Letters posted on Poynter's Romenesko Weblog branded the news conference a "sorry spectacle"; one observed, "the pack appears to have been totally domesticated."
Bush himself acknowledged the event was "scripted" when he called on CNN's John King from a predetermined list of reporters. Critics argued the press should not have succumbed so meekly to such an indignity, and some even accused the White House press corps of submitting questions for advance approval--an allegation that beat reporters vehemently denied.
"I was amazed at the reaction after the press conference," says George E. Condon Jr., Washington bureau chief of Copley News Service, who asked two of the three North Korea questions and thought most queries were appropriately tough. "It just became an article of faith among a lot of people: 'Look at this White House press corps; it's just abdicated all responsibility.'"
That pre-war press conference crystallized critics' frustration with coverage of Bush. While complaints about reporters' treatment of a president are as widespread as political polls, these protests cannot be dismissed merely as the howls of liberals stranded in the wilderness.
Reporters have handled Bush gingerly, particularly after the September 11 terrorist attacks prompted a surge of patriotism. The administration skillfully capitalized on that sentiment, just as it excelled at controlling information, staying on message and limiting access to Bush from the nascent days of his presidency.
Bush and his allies also have benefited in press coverage from having a weak opposition party. Democrats foundered after 9/11; then the discordant voices of 10 presidential candidates diluted attempts at a unified message.
And as voices from the right saturate radio and cable talk shows, the media have become increasingly sensitive to the venerable conservative shibboleth of liberal bias, a development that also favors the first Republican president in eight years.
These factors softened the adversarial coverage that defined Bill Clinton's presidency--at least until July, when 16 words from Bush's January State of the Union address sparked the first sustained negative coverage of the president since the terrorist attacks.
"Any objective person would say that in some ways Clinton was covered too aggressively in some areas, and Bush is not covered aggressively enough," says ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin. …