By Zachary Roth
In an extraordinary piece in the Jan. 19 New Yorker, Ken Auletta explores the Bush administration’s deeply-held conviction that the press is just another special interest group, not a champion of the public interest.
What is striking is the candid, on-the-record comments that Auletta elicited from adminstration officals, from the top down. Auletta leads off with the following anecdote from a Crawford, Texas barbecue last August:
“During a conversation with reporters (Bush) explained, perhaps without intending to, why his White House often seems indifferent to the press. “How do you know then what the public thinks?” a reporter asked, according to Bush aides and reporters who heard the exchange. And Bush replied, “You’re making a huge assumption - that you represent what the public thinks.”
Another money quote comes from chief of staff Andy Card, who says acidly of the press: “They don’t represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election.” Auletta notes that Bush has given far fewer press conferences at this point in his tenure than any of his predecessors since the advent of television, that he hasn’t given an in-depth interview to the New York Times since taking office, and that staffers boast of not answering reporters’ questions.
He gets more gems out of Karl Rove, who says of Bush, “he understands that [the press’s] job is…not necessarily to report the news. It’s to get a headline, or get a story that will make people pay attention to their magazine, newspaper, or television more.”
What’s unnerving about Rove’s comment, of course, is that there is obviously a grain of truth to it.
Other revealing quotes from White House insiders:
White House press secretary Scott McLellan: “I represent the President of the United States. I serve as an advocate for his thinking and his agenda”. White House communications director Dan Bartlett: “The vast majority of people in this building…don’t want to talk to the press. They want to do their job.” Bartlett again: [Bush] resents the press’s ‘exclusive’ pipeline to the public”. Card again: “It’s not our job to be sources…Our job is not to make your job easy.”)
Auletta also gets a few White House reporters to make the point for him: Mark Halperin of ABC News says that presidential advisors believe that the public too sees the press more as lobbyists than as guardians of the public interest. As long as that’s the case, he says, the administration “can manipulate us forever and set the … agenda that he wants.”
Auletta concludes: “For perhaps the first time, the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders - pleaders for more access and better headlines - as if the press were simply another interest group, and moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful as it once was.”
The otherwise impressive piece lapses once into naivete. Auletta contrasts McLellan’s flat declaration that, “I work for the President”, with the attitudes of Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry, press secretaries, respectively, for Presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton. Unlike McLellan, Auletta says, Fitzwater and McCurry believed “that a press secretary had to represent two masters” - the President and the press corps. For anyone who watched McCurry doggedly defend Clinton through various crises, it’s hard to believe that he ever saw the job as representing anyone other than the man who hired him, and it’s also hard to blame him for that. That’s what a press secretary’s for.
Auletta ends with a quote from Mark Mckinnon, a Bush media consultant, who observes of White House reporters, “They’re all alpha dogs. The cream of the journalistic crop. They have arrived. They have made it to the top. And they discover, to their dismay, that they are not as important as they thought they would be. Or should be. And in fact, many are flat bored.”
This isn’t a new observation - it was made three decades ago by Timothy Crouse in his classic 1973 look at campaign reporters, The Boys on the Bus. But as this White House refines its media strategy for a bruising re-election campaign, it looks more true today than ever.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.