Another Administration, Another Show : Press Corps Expects Greater Media Accessibility to Bush

Times Staff Writer

In terms of TV, the Ronald Reagan presidency could be called the “eh?” presidency. It’s a phenomenon you’ve often seen on the evening news.

President Reagan heads for his helicopter at the White House. Reporters shout questions. He cups his ear as if to say “eh?” Then, a quick, barely audible reply and, before leaving, a friendly smile and a shrug.

Gee, gang, can’t hear you because of this helicopter. Love to stay and talk more, but I’m late .

That’s the sought-for impression. It has worked. And it has frustrated the White House press troops, for whom eight Reagan years have yielded a plethora of cupped-ear TV shots, but only 50 press conferences--the fewest in modern presidential history dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s days.


But after today, when George Bush becomes President, the forecast calls for greater accessibility to the President--at least initially--simply because Bush is more at ease with the press.

Few in TV doubt that the era of “eh?” will be over.

“It’s not going to continue, and no one wants it to continue,” said ABC’s feisty Sam Donaldson, the best-known of the White House bellowers in the Reagan years.

Handing over his beat today to Brit Hume and planning to start life anew in April as co-anchor of a new, as-yet untitled ABC News series, Donaldson has been the brashest of the network breed at the White House.

Still, he said, he never had to shout questions when he covered President Jimmy Carter. But given the lack of access to Reagan, he added, he and his colleagues “had to use techniques that were demeaning to both sides.”

Such as shouted questions as Reagan went to and from his helicopter, or those official “photo opportunities,” where more than one visiting head of state standing alongside Reagan seemed taken aback at the roar of the madding press crowd.

That was not a seemly way to do business, Donaldson said, and “from the press standpoint, we couldn’t win on that. The public only saw this nice, genial fellow being set upon by a pack of hyenas.

“But the alternative was to remain silent and accept that they had completely shut us out of any contact with the President. And none of us were willing to accept that.”

The “they” to whom he refers are the President’s staff. In any administration, some aides are known to ponder his dealings with the press and plot ways to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative, particularly on TV.

These people are sometimes called media strategists. CBS anchorman Dan Rather prefers the robust term of “media manipulators.” Others go so far as to call them White House shamans, electronic witch doctors who seek to shape the presidential “image” through what they perceive as the awesome power of TV.

Roger Ailes scoffs at the notion of the conniving TV adviser committing video voodoo.

“That is one of those myths that’s grown up in American politics, that somehow all this is being stage-managed and manipulated,” said Ailes, the TV producer-turned-political-consultant who helped the emergence of the “new” Richard Nixon in 1968, and was Bush’s chief media adviser during the presidential elections last year.

Whatever the presidential event, it “would take place whether the cameras were there or not,” he maintained. “The cameras have to be there; they cover the event--so everybody assumes that there’s some magic witch doctor business going on.”

But Hedrick Smith, whose recent PBS series “The Power Game” in part examined the to-and-fro of network journalists and the White House, contends that this image-building business by White House staffers is real.

“They work at it very hard,” said Smith, a former Washington bureau chief and chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times.

However, to shape a president’s image “you’ve got to have the clay. If they tried to turn Ronald Reagan into an Adlai Stevenson, it would have been a bust.”

Are TV advisers harmful?

“I think they’re harmful to the degree that they divert the public’s attention away from substance to personality, and that the issues of government which are really important don’t get frontally addressed,” Smith said.

But in trying to persuade the public on substantive issues, he added, the effort at image-building, “if it’s not false, is part of the democratic ballgame.”

There is no slot on Bush’s staff for a TV adviser, according to Tim Lynch, an official at the Vice President’s transition team in Washington, and Ailes said he will “absolutely not” be joining the Bush White House in any official capacity. If asked by Bush’s staff, however, “I will probably continue to function as an informal adviser, or ‘friend of the court,’ ” he said.

Elmer Lower, former president of ABC News, was NBC’s Washington bureau chief circa 1959-61. He helped cover the tag end of the Eisenhower Administration and the start of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

He recalls the January day, shortly after Kennedy’s inauguration, when the young, handsome President held his first press conference.

“It was very exciting, because it was live--the first time one had been done live on television,” Lower recalled.

Kennedy had his media advisers, he added, “but I don’t think anybody had to shape Jack Kennedy’s image . . . he was just a natural,” a President whose TV tools included a quick wit that helped deflect tough questions.

Still, in Rather’s opinion, the Kennedy era marked the start of the “modern era of the television stage” for Presidents--and since then there “has been a dramatic increase in efforts to mold a President’s image, a President’s reputation, through the use of media manipulators.”

But there have been five Presidents since Kennedy and a lot of television coverage of them has come and gone.

Might not TV now lack the impact of yesteryear, and might not viewers have grown jaded with the TV-attuned presidency?

“I believe that to be true, although I wouldn’t use the word jaded,” Rather said. “I think the public is smarter than these guys (media advisers) give the public credit for being. I think the public recognizes most of the efforts to manipulate public opinion and discounts them in advance.”

How will President Bush fare with the Great TV Monster?

Fairly well, say Rather, Donaldson and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who covered the Reagan White House for 7 1/2 years and now will be the network’s chief congressional correspondent.

“The early indications are that it’s going to be better . . . that George Bush will hold more, and more regular, news conferences,” Rather said. The reason, he thinks, is that Bush is far more comfortable with them than Reagan ever was.

“It is true Ronald Reagan was and is terrific at reading a speech. . . . It’s not true that he was terrific at news conferences. His handlers didn’t want him to do news conferences because they didn’t think he did well at them.”

“My prediction is that Bush will be far more accessible to the press than was Reagan,” Donaldson said. “He will do it, however, on his own terms and in a structured way that may not please some of us (in TV) in the sense that he’ll do quite a bit off-camera.”

Donaldson refers to interviews with print types.

NBC’s Mitchell thinks the TV omens are good. “For one thing, Bush has shown, at least so far, that he’s willing to talk to reporters much more frequently than Reagan ever did,” she said.

He also has confidence, a command of details, the wisdom not to answer a question to which he may not have all the facts, and, while he “will not be the natural performer that Reagan is,” nonetheless has “a wonderful sense of humor,” she said.

Mitchell has a qualifier, though. Although she thinks Bush will be more accessible to reporters than Reagan, the real test of that will come “after the first crisis, when all Presidents retreat into their corners.”

Rather agreed. “The question is whether it lasts,” he said. “Because unquestionably, the new President is going to get advice from all these people who make their living being media manipulators. They’re going to say to him, ‘All you need to do to be a success is just let me handle it. Don’t do anything that I tell you not to do.’ They’re already pounding on him about that.

“So we’ll see if the new access lasts. I hope it does. Because he’ll be better served, and the country will be better served, if he listens to his own instincts--at least some of the time.”

PRESIDENTIAL PRESS CONFERENCES President: Roosevelt (1933-'45) Total conferences: 998 Avg. per month: 6.9 President: Truman (1945-'53) Total conferences: 324 Avg. per month: 3.5 President: Eisenhower (1953-'61) Total conferences: 193 Avg. per month: 2.0 President: Kennedy (1961-'63) Total conferences: 64 Avg. per month: 1.8 President: Johnson (1963-'69) Total conferences: 135 Avg. per month: 2.2 President: Nixon (1969-'74) Total conferences: 37 Avg. per month: 0.6 President: Ford (1974-'77) Total conferences: 39 Avg. per month: 1.3 President: Carter (1977-'81) Total conferences: 59 Avg. per month: 1.2 President: Reagan (1981-'89) Total conferences: 50 Avg. per month: 0.5 Source: Gannett Center for Media Studies