- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

MEDFORD, Ore. President Bush believes "the press looks silly" for obsessing over Iraq in its coverage of a meeting on a different topic missile defense that he held with military advisers this week, said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer.

"The press yesterday and the day before reached an absurd point of self-inflicted silliness," Mr. Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One. "A self-inflicted point of silliness that goes beyond the usual August hype."

The spokesman expressed astonishment at the lack of interest in the administration's acceleration of plans for a missile-defense shield. Before the war against terrorism, missile defense was considered a hot topic among journalists.

Two participants in the meeting Wednesday Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice have made harsh statements about Iraq in recent weeks, and Mr. Bush continues to aggressively advocate the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as he has done for weeks.

Miss Rice said last week in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. that dealing with Saddam was better done sooner than later.

"We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing," she said. "If Saddam Hussein is left in power, doing the things that he's doing now, this is a threat that will emerge and emerge in a very big way."

Mr. Fleischer said the media's preoccupation with a prospective war against Iraq allows the administration to discuss various sensitive subjects with little or no scrutiny by the press.

"From a journalism point of view, it has become an odd situation, where the government can hold a meeting on a topic missile defense and the press be oblivious to the topic of the meeting," Mr. Fleischer said. "This is a good time for us to have meetings on all kinds of things related to defense, because nobody will ask about the things they're talking about. They'll only ask about Iraq."

He said: "Don't miss the story in front of you, because yesterday's story was missile defense."

The White House told reporters in advance this week that the meeting at Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, would not cover Iraq. Nevertheless, there was much reporting about Iraq before, during and after the meeting.

"We were getting calls from bookers saying, 'Are you putting anybody out after the Iraq meeting?'" Mr. Fleischer said. "One news organization had a story [and] the headline was about a war council on Iraq."

"It's just inaccurate," he said. "And we have a choice: Either we can point out whether it was inaccurate or not, and then be accused of why are we talking about it. But we're trying to help people to be accurate."

A reporter asked: "If you're going to give us advice about journalism, can we give you advice about being press secretary and governing?"

"Bring it, baby," said Mr. Fleischer, who insisted his criticism was at least partially tongue in cheek.

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