Journalists are about to embark on an uncommon task in American politics: covering a president’s second term. As Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times wrote recently, only eleven presidents have won a second term since the formation of the modern political party system in 1828.
Bill Clinton did it; so did Ronald Reagan. Now, as George W. Bush outlines his agenda and shuffles his cabinet in advance of Inauguration Day, it seems a good time to ask this question: Will the media, which belatedly conceded that they failed to adequately scrutinize Bush’s rationale for the Iraq war in his first term, take off the gloves in the next four years?
“History doesn’t give us much evidence of that,” says author Mark Hertsgaard. “Look at the Reagan era. The media certainly didn’t get tougher in his second term.”
In 1988, Hertsgaard wrote On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. “Even with all that eventually went wrong — the Iran-contra scandal, the stock market crash, the seemingly endless series of criminal investigations of former top White House officials — the overall press coverage of the Reagan administration was extraordinarily positive,” Hertsgaard concluded in his book.
Hertsgaard, currently a political correspondent for Link TV, a satellite channel, attributes part of Reagan’s second-term honeymoon to the effective public relations machine the president and his advisers created in the White House — an apparatus that has been replicated by the Bush administration. It succeeded in silencing critics, who were intimidated by the message and popularity of the president.
But another factor was at work: the lack of aggressive opposition on Capitol Hill. Absent that, journalists traditionally have shied away from injecting an issue into the news agenda, preferring instead to hang it on an “official” source.
“I think that basically press coverage of any president is only as critical as the opposition party is critical,” says Hertsgaard, who also wrote about the media and Reagan for The Nation shortly after the ex-president died in June.
Tom Rosenstiel, who heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agrees that the media take their cues from outside forces. “The press generally tends to be very reflective and reactive,” he says. “When it becomes more aggressive it’s usually because its sources become more aggressive.” Or at least available.
Washington is full of the disgruntled and ambitious, and so the second term offers an attractive opportunity for reporters.
“You have the president instantaneously becoming a lame duck,” Rosenstiel says. “You have factions that for the last two years or more were unified in working for the president’s re-election, and who are now vying for either their own candidacies to succeed him, or for their favorites to succeed him, or pre-eminence in policy-making or in the cabinet.” All are potential players in the source game.
There are others. “In a second term,” Rosenstiel adds, “you typically have more veterans of an administration who may feel free to talk to the press, either on or off the record. In the first term, that’s where some of the biggest stories from the administration came from.” He is referring to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who served as the main source for Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, a critical view of decision-making in the Bush White House, and former anti-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, whose book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror accused the administration of focusing attention on Iraq and away from al Qaeda.
Among the most sought-after sources during Bush’s second term may well be outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose relations with the president and his closest aides were rocky. Once he leaves the administration, Powell may be inclined to air his disagreements to salvage his legacy, as Sidney Blumenthal wrote earlier this week in Salon.
Still, Carl M. Cannon, who covered Bill Clinton and now Bush, first for the Baltimore Sun and now for the National Journal, doesn’t think information will be falling from the trees in the second term. “Bush is solidifying his group. He’s weeding out the outsiders,” he says. “It’s hard to think that things will be different.”
Beyond Powell, there are plenty of others on the receiving end of the “weeding” process who may prove accessible to reporters. Consider the recent purge at the CIA. Knight Ridder’s Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, who consistently found sources within the intelligence community during the first term, recently detailed administration efforts to silence those who disagree, an apparent attempt to prevent leaks during the second term.