No News Is Good News

In mid-March, Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman made a startling confession on media columnist Jim Romenesko's Web site. Weisman acknowledged that he changed a quote in a story about R. Glenn Hubbard, President Bush's departing economic adviser, after receiving pressure from the White House. He admitted that the switch violated journalistic ethics, but he also said reporters need to "reconsider the way we cover the White House."

Few journalists seem likely to heed Weisman's call, however. After eight years of bludgeoning the Clinton White House, reporters have been remarkably tame in going after George W. Bush. The trend of positive coverage has only increased leading up to and during the war against Iraq. And some news outlets have even taken a direct role in promoting the president's positions. In one of the most egregious examples, Clear Channel Worldwide Inc., which owns more than 1,200 stations in the United States, organized pro-war rallies in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Sacramento, Charleston, S.C., and Richmond, Va., in March, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Of course not all of the fault lies with the media. Democrats were timid about criticizing Bush after September 11 and have said they won't attack him during the war with Iraq. That lack of dissent makes it hard for journalists to run with an anti-Bush story line. Indeed, on the night the war started, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) told CNN that there wasn't "an inch of distance" between him and Bush on Iraq. In addition, war raises a president's approval ratings; the media's reliance on poll numbers to gauge the nation's mood means journalists will run positive stories about Bush's resolve and strength as commander in chief. And Bush is running what veteran reporters call the most disciplined administration in years, keeping damaging inside information from reaching the hands of journalists.

Still, it's disconcerting to watch reporters give President Bush what amounts to a free ride. Unanswered questions remain about his dealings with Harken Energy, and about Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. (Both received far less coverage than President Bill Clinton's Whitewater land deal and Vice President Al Gore's Buddhist temple fundraising.) Bush has held only eight press conferences thus far, far fewer than his recent predecessors did at the same point in their presidencies. On March 6 reporters sat quietly in their seats as Bush, reading from a prepared list of names, made clear that he only intended to answer questions from a select few. More often than not, his responses simply repeated practiced rhetoric. There's a sense that the aggressive tactics Sam Donaldson displayed in the Reagan years wouldn't be tolerated -- or even tried -- now. Bush's most vocal critic in the media, Hearst Corp.'s Helen Thomas, was ignored at his press conference for the first time in decades. It's unfortunate -- and dangerous -- that reporters are backing down rather than speaking up; at a time of war, the press should be more vigilant, not less.

Ronald Reagan's White House was famous for its scripted media messages. But just a year into his administration, factions developed that led advisers to leak damaging information to the press. At the end of the Clinton years, with the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, White House leaks became a deluge. But the sense of loyalty that pervades the Bush administration means there are few unplanned leaks. And those that do get out are dealt with swiftly. After former faith-based leader John DiIulio criticized Bush in an interview with Esquire, DiIulio quickly retracted his remarks when faced with White House pressure, saying he would have no further comments on his "limited and unrepresentative White House experience."

Press Secretary Ari Fleischer isn't afraid to reward and punish reporters based on their stories. He grants greater access to those reporters he sees as friendly to the administration. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward got plenty of face time with officials to prepare his latest book, Bush at War, which was mostly a recitation of the administration's positions with little independent analysis. At the same time, reporters Mike Allen and Dana Milbank have been ignored at press conferences or placed on the White House's unofficial blacklist. [See Nicholas Confessore, "Beat the Press," TAP, March 11, 2002.] And Bush sees no harm in skipping over the big papers or magazines. Laurence McQuillan, a USA Today reporter who has now covered six administrations, sat in the front row just a few feet away from Bush during the president's March press conference. About halfway through, McQuillan stopped raising his hand. "Eventually futility sinks in," he told me. "I've just never been to a press conference where the president never looked at the audience to see if anybody was raising a hand to ask a question."

Bush also uses, as well as any administration ever has, creative timing and defense via "expert opinion" to make sure that bad news gets as little attention as possible. When Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt resigned after weeks of criticism, he did it right in the middle of election night -- as reporters were busy trying to figure out which party was going to control the 108th Congress. In February, when Bush's economic-stimulus package came under attack, he released the names of 250 "economists" who conveniently favored it.

The war is giving the administration yet another chance to control the flow of information. Early on, at least, reporters traveling with troops in Iraq filed mostly soft features. (A March 20 Wall Street Journal article, for example, focused on soldiers who keep track of their units' battery supplies.) Many news organizations sent journalists home when the White House told reporters to get out of Iraq before the war started, which means a heavier reliance on the official military line about how the war is going. And coverage of the war is a guaranteed ratings boon for news divisions constantly pressured to deliver audiences. As a result, notes Newsday's Sheryl McCarthy, "The network news shows aren't covering the war; they're promoting it." Those reporters who did stay and are embedded with troops are part of the propaganda: It's hard not to sympathize with soldiers you're living with day in and day out, or to report on their missions in a jingoistic way. With media outlets spending millions of dollars on war coverage, there is a natural tendency to make that investment worthwhile by emphasizing the war over domestic issues, where Bush is more vulnerable. Just hours before the U.S. military began bombing Baghdad, the Senate defeated a proposal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a key part of Bush's energy plan. But it didn't make the next day's front page.

In the weeks leading up to the war, there were plenty of stories about the president's state of mind, that he was "resolute" and "at peace" with sending 250,000 troops into harm's way. Newsweek's March 10 cover article, "Bush and God," was a wet kiss to a president well known for his religious beliefs. It began with an anecdote about Bush reading a book of "evangelical mini-sermons" before he brings his wife a cup of coffee each morning. But journalist Howard Fineman really laid the praise on thick later in the piece: "Faith didn't make Bush a decisive person. He's always been one. His birthright as a Bush gives him a sense of obligation to serve, and a sense of entitlement to lead."

As Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, a journal published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, explains it, "The whole media is really very frightened about appearing not to be supportive of the troops. To the extent that President Bush is able to wrap himself up with the war effort and the military, that makes it very difficult for media people to criticize Bush." Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the media haven't distinguished between their coverage of the war and Bush. "The press is much better at covering official debate than it is at covering public debate," he notes. "Should we be going to war is a bigger question than, 'Do I like or not like George W. Bush?'"

Changes in the media business, too, are to blame. Phil Donahue's anti-war stance didn't draw in enough viewers; his show got canceled. (Meanwhile, the king of cable news, Bill O'Reilly, chastised Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) for criticizing Bush on Iraq, saying Daschle was "playing politics in a time of life and death.") The need for stories on an hourly basis -- to post on the Web or fill slots on cable-news networks -- has also made it hard for reporters to look at the big picture. "It's just all we can do in this sort of media culture to keep up with official news that's emerging from the [White House]," The Washington Post's Milbank says.

White House coverage, moreover, doesn't generate the kind of big Nielsen ratings garnered by sex and crime stories. Covering Gary Condit and Chandra Levy, the Washington-area snipers and Elizabeth Smart draws a lot more interest from consumers of news than untangling the administration's relations with Enron. On the day the war started, The Washington Post ran an article about Lewinsky's job hosting FOX's new "reality" dating series. Old habits die hard.

Unfortunately there is no indication that the media will provide a check on power by offering more thoughtful or critical coverage anytime soon. The growing popularity of conservative news outlets, such as talk radio and cable news, make for friendlier audiences for Bush and fatter profits for media CEOs. A press defensive about being labeled liberal, especially in wartime, will bend over backward to prove that it's not. An administration famous for being tight-lipped will only become more so as it wages war. As Naureckas says, "The default mode of U.S. journalists is an over-regard for people in authority." The role of the press is to give the public the information it needs in a nonbiased way so that citizens can make informed decisions. There's never a more important need for that than at a time of war.