“Relaxed” is how more than one reporter described President Bush’s bearing during his news conference yesterday. Unfortunately, with the frenetic campaign pace now a memory, “relaxed” also describes the antennae of some in the White House press corps.

At one point during yesterday’s press conference, NBC’s David Gregory asked the president whether America has “an image problem in the world” and how he will deal with it and build alliances.

Several paragraphs into his answer, Bush said (emphasis ours):

“There is a certain attitude in the world, by some, that says that it’s a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world… And I fully understand that that might rankle some, and be viewed by some as folly. I just strongly disagree with those who do not see the wisdom of trying to promote free societies around the world… I — I simply do not agree with those who either say overtly or believe that certain societies cannot be free. It’s just not a part of my thinking… there is a attitude among some that certain people may never be free — they just don’t long to be free or incapable of running an election. And I disagree with that. And the Afghan people, by going to the polls in the millions, proved — proved that this administration’s faith in freedom to change peoples’ habits is worthy.”

“By some?” “Among some?” Why didn’t a single reporter ask Bush the identity of these “some” who believe that “certain societies cannot be free,” these “some” who believe that certain people are “incapable of running an election?” (Then again, this is a press corps which itself has relied upon a group identified as “some” to support its stories).

This notion — that “some” believe that certain people aren’t capable of being free — is a straw man that Bush has set up before. At his April 14 prime time press conference, Bush said: “Some of the debate [about supporting Bush’s efforts in Iraq] really center around the fact that people don’t believe Iraq can be free; that if you’re Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can’t be self-governing and free. I strongly disagree with that. I reject that, because I believe that freedom is the deepest need of every human soul, and, if given a chance, the Iraqi people will be not only self-governing, but a stable and free society.” We don’t recall reporters back then getting to the bottom of who these “people” are who believe that “brown-skinned” people can’t self-govern. Then again, that was way back in April, before reporters caught on to the “fact-checking” thing.

It may not be that press was unwilling to press Bush to identify these “some” at the news conference yesterday, it may be that it was unable — after all, Bush made it clear he would not be entertaining multi-part or follow-up questions. But reporters could at least have taken note of Bush’s circumlocutions in today’s coverage.

Yet the New York Times’ David Sanger ends his “White House Memo” today with portions of the above quote, letting the “by some” statement dangle unquestioned, and then it’s on to the final ‘graph, with Bush “boarding his helicopter for Camp David.” And the Associated Press was no better. It offered up an un-bylined piece shortly after yesterday’s news conference, featuring bullet-pointed “highlights.” Under the “foreign policy” bullet point, the AP reported: “Bush pledged to stay the course in seeking to spread democracy,” followed by a portion of the above “by some” quote.

Some wonder if a somnolent press, briefly stirred awake sometime around Labor Day by the sight of the clock ticking down to the election, has lapsed into sleep already.

—- Liz Cox Barrett

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.