Bush vs. me­dia tilt is go­ing the dis­tance; NBC spat is latest in long fight

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen­nifer Harper

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 last 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.

Then there was the time in 2002, when Mr. Bush chided NBC’s David Gre­gory for ques­tion­ing French Pres­i­dent Jac­ques Chirac — in French.

“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. On the of­fen­sive

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,” emailed 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 on May 22.

“Cer­tainly one of the rea­sons Ed’s let­ter got so much at­ten­tion was be-

cause 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.” On the de­fense

Last 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.

Mr. Gillespie also took a pot­shot at NBC’s sis­ter net­work.

“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. Play by play

In a line-by-line anal­y­sis of the NBC in­ter­view, the White House made its case.

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.”

NBC pared down Mr. Bush’s re­sponse to this:

“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.”

In his let­ter, Mr. Gillespie said the net­work’s edit put Mr. Bush’s an­swer “through a po­lit­i­cal prism” and com­pro­mised the con­text and the clar­ity of his an­swer.

“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.” Post-game anal­y­sis

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.

“The up­shot: NBC: 1, Ed Gillespie: 0,” ob­served Rachel Sk­lar, me­dia ed­i­tor for the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

“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.”

Mary F. Calvert / The Wash­ing­ton Times

He hits back: Pres­i­dent Bush of­ten gives as good as he gets when deal­ing with the me­dia — whether in press con­fer­ences or in one-on-one in­ter­views.

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