Communication or manipulation?
Press and president clash over approach
In his new journalist-scolding memoir, ''Taking Heat," former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer presents a series of grievances against the news media that include excessive commentary, oversimplification, liberal bias, and the ''drive to find conflict anywhere and everywhere."
Fleischer's adversarial view of the reporters who have covered President Bush, which will come as no surprise to political and media analysts, underscores what many say is an ongoing tension between the White House and the press. Citing James Guckert (a.k.a. Jeff Gannon), the obscure conservative Web journalist who asked softball questions at White House press gatherings; revelations about administration payments to sympathetic commentators; the use of fake journalists in propagandistic video news releases; and the administration's generally chilly relationship with the press, some observers say the Bush administration has taken the art of media manipulation to new heights -- or lows.
''You've got some very sophisticated media managers that are working this," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. ''It's absolutely a philosophy. It's a profound lack of understanding of the role the media plays."
While much of the outrage is coming from the left side of the political spectrum, concern about the administration's communications tactics has spawned efforts to introduce new antipropaganda legislation, formal requests that federal agencies reveal contracts with public relations firms, and letters from lawmakers seeking an investigation into whether Guckert was an administration media ringer.
''The Bush White House has virtually no respect for the media's traditional role," says Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly and author of the forthcoming book ''Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan disputed that notion in an e-mail response to the Globe. ''The President's every move and every decision is closely monitored and constantly covered by the national media," he wrote. ''The idea that you can 'circumvent' the national media is somewhat absurd. He recognizes the important role the national media plays in keeping the American people informed about the decisions being made in Washington, and it is a way for us to get our message out about the President's agenda."
Yet in various ways the administration has signaled its uneasy relationship with the press. As he indicates in his new book, Fleischer was famous for his give-no-quarter approach to reporters at the White House. Bush himself has spoken openly about relying on his aides rather than reading newspapers when he wants an accurate and objective account of events. And according to numbers compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University, Bush's 17 solo press conferences in his first term are the fewest of any president in the television age. By contrast, Bill Clinton had 44 in his first term, Bush's father had 84, Ronald Reagan had 27, Jimmy Carter had 59, and even press-averse Richard Nixon had 30.
The still-unfolding story of Guckert -- who went by the name Jeff Gannon and worked for a partisan website that has since shut down -- broke over a month ago. The controversy was set in motion by a friendly question he tossed to Bush during a Jan. 26 press conference. Referring to Democrats who had said the economy was in crisis but Social Security was not, he asked the president: ''How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"
In recent weeks, angry letters from Democratic lawmakers seeking a probe into Guckert's credentials and role have been sent to the White House, the Government Accountability Office, and even federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the source of a leak to the media that revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
''As far as Jeff Gannon goes, anyone who follows the briefing on a regular basis knows there are a number of people on both sides of the political aisle who come to the briefing to express their views," McClellan wrote in his e-mail. ''I try to call on everyone who has a question. The briefing room should be an inclusive place, and it should not be the press secretary's role to pick and choose who covers it."
The furor over Guckert came on the heels of news that some commentators had been paid to hype administration policies. Syndicated columnists Mike McManus and Maggie Gallagher, along with columnist and TV and radio personality Armstrong Williams, received money from federal agencies and touted White House priorities ranging from marriage initiatives to the No Child Left Behind program.
While those cases involved the use of actual journalists -- or at least real pundits -- the executive branch has also used people pretending to be journalists to get their message across. Twice in the past year, the GAO concluded that the administration violated the prohibition against using appropriated funds for ''publicity or propaganda" purposes with video news releases made available to and used by some television outlets. The videos featured announcers -- pretending to be journalists -- narrating government-produced reports, including one about drug-abuse prevention and another about the administration's Medicare plan.
At the Jan. 26 press conference that followed the Armstrong Williams revelations, Bush acknowledged that the government had gone too far with some of its tactics. ''All our cabinet secretaries must realize that we will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda," he said, expressing the need for an ''independent relationship" between newsmakers and news gatherers.
But others seem less willing to rely on those words alone and are pressing for action. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit organization that monitors government officials, has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 22 federal agencies looking for any more Armstrong Williams-type contracts or administration efforts to hire public relations firms to shape public opinion. The organization recently filed a suit against the Social Security Administration after it failed to respond to the Freedom of Information query.
''There is a very clear law that says the government shall not engage in covert propaganda," says Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director. ''It seems like this administration has taken it to a whole new level."
While holding out little hope of legislative victory, Democrats on Capitol Hill are raising the issue in an effort to stir public debate. In early February, a group of Democratic senators introduced the Stop Government Propaganda Act, which would impose tough penalties on violations of the prohibition against propaganda that has been part of every annual appropriations bill since 1951. ''This bill puts teeth in a law that has had none," says Dan Katz, chief counsel to Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.
A bill has also been introduced in the House that would codify the annual propaganda prohibition. Sponsor Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, says the bill -- called the Federal Propaganda Prohibition Act of 2005 -- was the result not of ''just one instance; this is about abuse." With the fight continuing over Social Security reform, DeLauro is worried about public relations tactics that might be employed by the administration.
Presidential historians such as Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, and Joan Hoff, research professor of history at Montana State University, say that in the tug of war for dominance between the White House press corps and the White House occupant, the president now has the upper hand.
''I don't think any longer we have an adversarial press," Hoff says. ''They've just rolled over. You see the limits of the press with a popular president . . . with Bush probably taking the cake at this for being successful."
And while critics point a finger at the Bush administration's willingness to manipulate the media, other observers blame the news profession for not responding aggressively and for failing to assert the importance of an independent, watchdog press.
''I think it falls on the media's shoulders, not the White House," Brinkley says. ''I blame the media for not calling them on it. I just think that 9/11 terrified journalists of seeming to be not patriotic."