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.
NBC’s longtime Middle East war correspondent Mr. Engel to Mr. Bush: “You said that negotiating with Iran is pointless, and then you went further. You said that it was appeasement. Were you referring to Sen. Barack Obama?”
Mr. Bush’s response: “You know, my policies haven’t changed, but evidently the political calendar has. People need to read the speech. You didn’t get it exactly right, either. What I said was is that we need to take the words of people seriously. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you’ve got to take those words seriously. And if you don’t take them seriously, then it harkens back to a day when we didn’t take other words seriously. It was fitting that I talked about not taking the words of Adolf Hitler seriously on the floor of the Knesset. But I also talked about the need to defend Israel, the need to not negotiate with the likes of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. And the need to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”
“You know, my policies haven’t changed, but evidently the political calendar has … And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you’ve got to take those words seriously.”
“NBC’s selective editing of the president’s response is clearly intended to give viewers the impression that he agreed with Engel’s characterization of his remarks when he explicitly challenged it,” Mr. Gillespie pointed out.
NBC chief Mr. Capus struck back, standing by the story and citing the rights of a free press. In a canny move, the network posted transcripts of both the edited and unedited interviews at its Web site, thus “allowing everyone to draw their own conclusions about it, the subject matter and our editing,” Mr. Capus said.
“Editing is a part of journalism. We take the collective body of information surrounding a story, distill it and produce a report,” he said, dismissing claims that NBC had committed other journalistic sins and suggested the matter be discussed “in a more appropriate forum.”
After the dust settled, the referees faulted both sides.
“Richard Engel’s questions sounded like they were written by the Obama campaign, which is a cautionary tale for the White House. Why would Mr. Bush accept an interview with Mr. Engel, who has publicly said he was a pacifist?” media analyst Mr. Graham observed.
“Mr. Gillespie is mad as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore,” she continued, referencing a seminal scene from the 1976 movie “Network,” which featured an anchorman’s meltdown on live TV. “Evidently he’s been storing up all sorts of affronts against the Bush administration committed by NBC News, like when you finally explode at your roommate for forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge … There’s only one problem: He’s pretty much wrong on every count.”
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