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The Bush Administration has frustrated reporters by ignoring their questions and sticking to its message. That strategy might no longer be working

April 16, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

For most of his five years in office, President Bush has acted as though the media were merely a cross to be borne, a needless impediment to his goals.

Whenever he could, the president went over the heads of the White House press corps to reach the masses beyond. Bush, who famously said he doesn't read newspapers - and whose aversion to detailed questions is palpable - has held only a fraction of the press conferences that his voluble predecessor did. Instead, he has relied on a rigid system of information management that often has stumped even the most determined reporters.

But with plummeting poll numbers, an unraveling war and ethics probes in the top ranks of his party, Bush's almost-legendary sway over much of the White House press corps seems to be fraying. No longer can he and his aides invoke the specter of the war on terror to fend off tricky questions and silence critics.

FOR THE RECORD - In Sunday's Ideas section, Les Kinsolving's name was misspelled in an article about the White House press corps.
The Sun regrets the error.

In recent weeks, Bush has begun courting the press, reaching out to reporters for off-the-record chats in his private quarters in an apparent acknowledgement of the altered circumstances.

At the same time, the reporters, recognizing Bush's growing vulnerability, have stepped up their questioning of Bush, when they can, and Press Secretary Scott McClellan, who runs the daily White House news briefings. McClellan, who in the past has greeted such barrages with a bland, well-rehearsed indifference, now looks less sure.

The recent revelation that Bush was intimately involved in the declassification of intelligence estimates on Iraq - subsequently leaked to selected members of the press - brought a fresh wave of critical attention. McClellan faced question after question about how Bush, who has condemned such leaks for years, could sanction them himself. It reminded some Washington veterans of President Nixon's famous assertion that, "When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal."

For many journalists covering the White House, the Bush administration remains a difficult and intransigent subject, an assignment fraught with frustrations. No matter what the question, the president, his press secretary and other officials usually manage to deliver their position of the day without obstruction.

"This White House is more disciplined in staying on message than any of the previous ones I've covered," Bill Plante, the veteran CBS News correspondent who's been covering the White House since the Carter administration, said the other day in the mansion's dingy press room. "That's because, in this White House, the man at the top demands loyalty and pays attention."

The Reagan White House, on the other hand, was a "hotbed of intrigue," Plante recalled. "The result was a banquet for us. There were all these competing factions at the upper levels of the White House. It was delightful."

Regardless of political bent, all presidents come into office believing they can manage their relations with the press to their advantage, Plante said.

The daily briefing "serves mainly as a forum for a White House to make its view known," he said. "In Reagan's time it was the `line of the day.' Reporters then try to pry news out of the press secretary. Or, failing that, to provoke him into saying something off-script and newsworthy."

In Plante's view, the current press secretary is doing precisely what his boss asks of him. "You can't blame McClellan," Plante said. "He's remarkably even-tempered for what he gets put through every day."

Although many critics of the media blame the White House press corps for failing to adequately question the administration over its rationale for invading Iraq three years ago, a series of abrasive challenges recently have gained attention if for no other reason than their rarity. One of the most vocal interrogators has been David Gregory of NBC News, who in February, after vice president Dick Cheney's hunting accident in Texas, memorably told McClellan he was being "a jerk."

Then there was the more recent confrontation between President Bush and Helen Thomas, who's been covering the White House since the Kennedy administration, mostly for United Press International. After snubbing her for more than two years, Bush finally pointed to Thomas, evidently having decided that he had to begin confronting his critics of the war in Iraq.

"You're going to be sorry," Thomas said, smiling, as she launched into a series of questions that sought explanations for, among other things, the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians. Bush, obviously uncomfortable, veered off into his standard justification for the war on terror, obliquely linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks. Thomas kept pressing, to no avail.

Asked later by telephone whether Bush had answered her questions, Thomas said, "No, he certainly didn't."

"There are so many people dead now, so many thousands," said Thomas, a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. "There was no reason to go to Iraq. I was just trying to get Bush back on track."

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