WASHINGTON—To many on the outside, it looked like a mistake when Vice President Dick Cheney failed to notify the White House press corps first of his shooting accident. But in the White House, it reflected a strategy of marginalizing the press.
More than ever, the Bush White House ignores traditional news media and presents its message through friendly alternatives, such as talk-show hosts Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.
And when a reporter appears belligerent in a televised confrontation with the White House spokesman, as NBC's David Gregory did this week, the imagery helps the administration turn the story into one about the press, which energizes a Republican base that hates the media anyway.
More than just a matter of sniping at an enemy, the Bush administration sees the traditional media as hostile. Working to erode their legitimacy in the public's eyes is a critical element of its determination to weaken checks on its power.
"It's a completely different landscape," said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. "And the White House and political folks have adapted to that environment more than the press has."
Today's media landscape is one that Richard Nixon wouldn't recognize. As president in the 1970s, he faced three broadcast television networks controlling all the airwaves and a handful of big newspapers and newsmagazines that set the news agenda.
Even Ronald Reagan in the 1980s had to deal largely with those same media. CNN was new and growing, but not that big a presence. Cable TV talk shows came on once a week for 30 minutes, not all night long on several channels. There was no Internet.
The conventional media hurt their own credibility, of course. High-profile embarrassments, such as CBS's Dan Rather using forged documents to blast Bush, and Jayson Blair of The New York Times making up stories, eroded trust. And polls have documented that newsroom professionals are more liberal, and much less conservative, than the general public.
Still, more than any of its predecessors, Bush's team has learned to deal with the media on the White House's terms.
Cheney, for example, spoke about the shooting in an interview with Fox News, where hosts all week voiced sympathy for him and criticism for the press badgering him. (In fairness, Fox anchor Brit Hume posed many of the same questions that the White House press had asked—but only Hume got answers.)
Cheney also makes frequent appearances on talk radio, where he's often fawned over. "We are thrilled and excited to have with us the vice president of the United States ... for a precious few minutes," Limbaugh said during one recent Cheney visit.
This week Limbaugh echoed the White House line, proclaiming: "This is not about Dick Cheney. It's about the media."
This White House isn't afraid to anger the press. Rather, it appears to relish it.
At the start of a recent off-camera briefing, for example, White House spokesman Scott McClellan interrupted NBC's Gregory when he asked about the shooting.
"David, hold on, the cameras aren't on right now. You can do this later," McClellan said. On camera later, Gregory appeared abrasive when McClellan stonewalled his questions. While reporters may think such exchanges show that the White House is unresponsive when the public has a right to know, White House aides know the TV imagery makes the press corps look petulant and appear more interested in posturing than in the public interest.
"McClellan is a brick wall disguised as a government official. He wins any time the press bangs its head against the wall," NYU's Rosen said. "Part of the White House strategy is essentially cultural, that resentment against the press is itself converted into a political asset."
Thus Cheney found a ready audience when he suggested that the White House press corps was angry only because he'd left them out of the loop.
"I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them," he said. "They didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times."
Conservative bloggers echoed that line of attack, despite firm statements from loyal Republicans such as former Defense Department spokeswoman Torie Clarke and former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who both said that Cheney had acted irresponsibly by not immediately disclosing to the nation that he'd shot someone.
Live TV broadcasts of news briefings also help the White House manipulate the media. Pundits, bloggers and talk-show hosts often spend more time criticizing reporters' questions than the issues they're raising. And reporters probing aggressively for information from polite but unresponsive officials can look like snarling jackals.
"Ideally, televising the briefings should add to the transparency of the White House. But it's become less. It's how the White House can use the event to its advantage," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
"It's another staged event. And the journalists in the briefing room are playing the role the White House wants them to play, as adversaries."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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