Spats between President Bush and a voracious press have been a fixture of his presidency, and the media landscape is pockmarked with the salvos of their contention.
Mr. Bush has been blunt at times, and journalists have thrown it right back - exemplified most recently by a brief on-camera exchange with NBC News earlier this week. White House counselor Ed Gillespie accused NBC of selectively tweaking an interview, calling the network irresponsible, deceitful and misleading. Uncowed, NBC shoved back, creating the latest crisis du jour at the juncture of media and politics.
The tension began even before he assumed office. While campaigning in 2000, Mr. Bush characterized New York Times reporter Adam Clymer as a “major league [expletive]” just near enough to a live microphone to be heard by a few journalists, who blew the moment up into a regular bomb of a story.
“The guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he’s intercontinental,” Mr. Bush said, adding that Mr. Gregory had been “showing off.” In the years to follow, Mr. Gregory’s sparring matches with the president at press conferences continued, tracked by talk shows and online gossip columns.
Since 2005, the White House has gone proactive, publicly fact-checking news coverage through “Setting the Record Straight,” a feature at the White House Web site, www.whitehouse.gov. In the past year, the press office added a comprehensive “Morning Update,” e-mailed to journalists each day outlining pertinent stories, noteworthy headlines and official responses.
“I enjoy good relations with the press corps, and we have a pretty high bar when it comes to complaints. Maybe a nitpick here and there. Our updates in ‘Setting the Record Straight’ are few and far between,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino yesterday.
“Certainly one of the reasons got so much attention was because it is rare for us to reach the boiling point like we did. It has been building for a while,” she said. “A selective edit that mischaracterized what the president said to fit a story line is something that as defenders of the president, we could no longer abide.”
This week’s skirmish was particularly piquant, however.
“This e-mail is to formally request that ‘NBC Nightly News’ and ‘The Today Show’ air for their viewers President Bush’s actual answer to correspondent Richard Engel’s question about Iran policy and ‘appeasement,’ rather than the deceptively edited version of the president’s answer that was aired,” Mr. Gillespie said in a lengthy missive to NBC President Steve Capus.
“I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the ‘news’ as reported on NBC and the ‘opinion’ as reported on MSNBC,” he wrote, calling hosts Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann “blatantly partisan.”
Some gauge the letter as particularly vigorous.
“Republican presidents have long faced a hostile press. But this was an unusual moment. I don’t remember the White House ever issuing an open letter to a news organization, even though the Bush administration has taken a lot of media punishment over the years,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.