The attention of the political media these days is focused -- riveted -- on Sen. John Kerry’s rapidly crystallizing status as the party’s front-runner. I wonder who’s more relieved by this -- the media-averse Bush administration or the Bushwhacked media? The Bush administration has, after all, been more effective at throttling the mainstream news media than any administration in memory.
That may seem a churlish observation a mere week after the president sat for a one-hour interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” But with every network host and anchor having angled for the interview for months, it was Bush who decided when, with whom and in which venue he’d talk.
That’s not an unusual exercise of the presidential prerogative. But it’s evidence anew of how successful and determined this administration has been in controlling media access.
I know, I know. In every presidency of the past 30 or 40 years, the news media have complained that they didn’t have enough access to the president, that he was determined to go over their heads and speak directly to the public, and that he and his staff wanted to talk about only what they wanted to talk about, not what the reporters thought they should talk about.
In virtually every case, the reporters covering the president -- whichever president it was -- grumbled that relations between the media and this particular occupant of the White House were the worst in the history of the republic (or at least the worst since Nixon, the longtime, all-time, Watergate/plumbers/enemies list/18 1/2-minute-gap/"You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” bete noire of the media).
But it seems to me that a confluence of circumstances and events (the tragedy of 9/11, the public’s growing disdain for the media, the growth of alternate news forms and forums, the Bush administration’s scornful attitude toward journalists) have made the traditional media more compliant -- and have enabled the Bushites to ride roughshod over them.
The president’s declining poll numbers and growing partisan criticism of and public skepticism over his rationale for war in Iraq may change that. The media may feel emboldened to challenge Bush more aggressively, and he may feel compelled to be more cooperative -- as witness his “Meet the Press” appearance.
But so far, the Bush administration has been especially successful at stonewalling the media, keeping the White House team “on message” and all but abandoning the traditional presidential press conference.
Through Tuesday, Bush had conducted only 11 solo press conferences. Other presidents had far more by the same point in their first terms, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland, who’s writing a book on White House communications. Dwight D. Eisenhower had 78, Lyndon B. Johnson 79, Jimmy Carter 53, Ronald Reagan 21, George H.W. Bush 72 and Bill Clinton 40. Even Nixon had 23, more than twice as many as George W.
Modern technology makes it much easier these days for a president to avoid the traditional news media outlets and forums. Clinton was only partly joking when he said at a radio and television correspondents dinner during his first term:
“You know why I can stiff you on the press conferences? Because Larry King liberated me from you by giving me to the American people directly.”
Today the president can use any number of Bush-friendly venues to get his unfiltered message across. Who needs a White House press conference or Dan Rather -- or even Larry King, for that matter -- when you have Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Matt Drudge?
But what makes the current President Bush’s media policies especially alarming -- and different in kind, as well as degree, from those of his predecessors -- is his administration’s basic attitude toward journalists.
Bushites don’t see journalists as representatives of or surrogates for the public. They don’t even see them as conduits. They see them as, in effect, lobbyists, pleaders -- bleaters -- for special interests: their own. Their access. Their scoops. Their headlines. Their careers. Their egos. And that means the policymakers in the Bush administration have no obligation to talk to them.
In “Fortress Bush,” as the New Yorker titled a recent piece on the administration’s treatment of the media, author Ken Auletta quotes Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, to devastating effect, on these points:
“They [reporters] don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election.”
Bush himself virtually boasts of not reading newspapers. As he famously said in an interview with Brit Hume last fall:
“The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.”
The idea that any president would think his own staff members are “objective” boggles even my feeble mind.
But his comments -- and his and his staff’s attitudes and actions -- come at a time when public confidence in the media continues to be so low that journalists aren’t much more likely than Osama bin Laden to rally American support for their dislike of Bush policies. In a survey released in January, the Pew Research Center found that 65% of poll respondents thought there was either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of bias in the media.
Bias is, of course, in the eye of the beholder -- and the officeholder -- but according to a six-month study released in November by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, network television coverage of Bush and his administration was “consistently negative, with criticism that spanned all networks, administration policies and executive branch departments and agencies.”
In fact, the center says, media coverage of Bush has been about 2-1 negative throughout most of his presidency.
Is this radically different from the coverage of other recent presidents? Not really.
“In a nutshell, Bush’s coverage is negative -- and normal,” says Robert S. Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “Lichter’s law of presidential coverage is that you get about twice as much bad press as good press. It’s remarkable. Over time, everybody ends up about 33-35-38% positive.”
That’s exactly the range of Bush’s positives, except for the immediate post-9/11 period and during the Iraq war, when his coverage was largely favorable.
Lichter doesn’t think negative coverage comes from bias. “Presidents get such negative coverage, no matter who they are, that ideology is almost irrelevant,” he says.
Agreed. White House lies during Vietnam and Watergate triggered a permanent, almost knee-jerk adversarial stance in the media, and escalating competitive pressures within the media have only exacerbated the appetite for sensationalism and attack journalism. But in contrast with Lichter, I do think that when it comes to handling the media, the Bush administration has succeeded beyond even Nixon’s wildest dreams.
David Shaw can be reached at email@example.com. To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-media.