[[M E D I A]] * After spending the better part of two weeks reporting from storm-clobbered New Orleans, often from inside the crowded and malodorous Superdome, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has emerged with the realization that four and a half years of the media’s giving George W. Bush and his administration a pass when it comes to overt criticism is quite enough. Tracing the roots of this extraordinary deference to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Williams tells USA Today that the White House’s stumble-footed response to Hurricane Katrina may have changed the rules of press-president engagement. “By dint of the fact that our country was hit,” the anchorman says, “we’ve offered a preponderance of the benefit of the doubt over the past couple of years. Perhaps we’ve taken something off our fastball and perhaps this is the story that brings a healthy amount of cynicism back to a news media known for it.”
Early signs of that changing relationship have shown up in more contentious White House press briefings, frequently given their tone by NBC chief White House correspondent David “Mad Dog” Gregory. There’s also been a greater willingness among mainstream U.S. media of late to portray Bush as a “bubble boy” in rose-tinted glasses, rather than as the stalwart, straight-taking, jovial, nicknaming chief executive his handlers want people to see. The controversy that exploded around Michael Brown, former horse association judge and head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who resigned yesterday, also demonstrates a determination by the media to not let Bush off the hook for his administration’s manifestly dumb moves. So might the close attention to the prez’s plummeting poll numbers.
Want further proof of an adversarial shift? Selections from the latest issues of Time and Newsweek, plus tidbits gleaned from other recent sources, supply at least 10 things about Bush that the media were either reticent to tell voters before now, or had at least failed to confirm for them:
1. Behind Bush’s apparent calm lurks an ill-tempered reality. “Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States ...” (Newsweek)
2. His sphere of isolation has been expanding. “Bush’s bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, [aides and allies] say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news--or tell him when he’s wrong. Bush has never been adroit about this. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. ‘The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me,’ the aide recalled about a session during the first term. ‘Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, “All right. I understand. Good job.” He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom.’” (Time)
3. He doesn’t prepare well for media questioning. “Diane Sawyer’s rare live interview with President Bush this morning [September 1] on ABC’s Good Morning America exposed one of the president’s greatest weaknesses: He doesn’t have the answers to some of the most important questions. The White House press corps is sort of used to that by now, but the American public--clamoring for answers in the wake of the horrific Gulf Coast disaster--may be less sympathetic.” (The Washington Post)
4. It’s not simply pride that makes him unwilling to fire members of his administration or reticent to admit mistakes. On the September 11 edition of the TV’s syndicated Chris Matthews Show, New York Times columnist David Brooks--frequently an apologist for the Bush White House--disclosed that from “day one,” administration officials “decided our public relations is not going to be honest,” and that it would instead be “totally tactical and totally insincere” in resisting public admissions of failure and in thrusting blame upon other when things went obviously wrong. (Media Matters)
5. He’s a persistent fidgeter. (Time)
6. He doesn’t like being questioned, not even by his own people. “Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it’s mostly a one-way street.” (Newsweek)
7. He doesn’t want to be burdened with too much news. “[T]here has always been enormous pressure on White House officials to take only the most vital decisions to Bush and let the bureaucracy deal with everything else. Bush does not appear to tap sources deep inside his government for information, the way his father or Bill Clinton did, preferring to get reports through channels. A highly screened information chain is fine when everything is going well, but in a crisis it can hinder. ... ‘His inner circle takes pride in being able to tell him “everything is under control,” when in [the case of Katrina] it was not,’ said a former aide. ‘The whole idea that you have to only burden him with things “that rise to his level” bit them this time.’” (Time)
8. He views potholes as the key to political success. “Over the last five and a half years, President George W. Bush has developed his own theory of good government and successful democracies: it’s all about the potholes. They’re not always real potholes, of course. But they are real-life problems that all officials--from presidents down to mayors--have to fix, or else face the wrath of the voters. So whenever he delivers a speech with a mayor in attendance, Bush offers this unsolicited advice: “Fix the potholes.” And when he talks of spreading democracy in Iraq and the Middle East, he believes that pothole repairs are a key test of elected officials. As Bush explained to reporters in March about Lebanese politics, “I think people who generally run for office say, ‘Vote for me; I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes or making sure you’ve got bread on the table.’” (Newsweek)
9. He can be blinded by statistics. “Bush likes ‘metrics,’ numbers to measure performance, so the bureaucrats gave him reassuring statistics. At a press availability on Wednesday, Bush duly rattled them off: there were 400 trucks transporting 5.4 million meals and 13.4 million liters of water along with 3.4 million pounds of ice. Yet it was obvious to anyone watching TV that New Orleans had turned into a Third World hellhole.” (Newsweek)
10. He wants the happy news first--and last. “[Bush lives in] a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad--even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary. For example, a source tells Time that four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made. ‘It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening,’ said someone familiar with the presentation.” (Time)
While it’s all well and good for journalists to confide these quirks and weaknesses now, 10 months after the last presidential election, where were they when Bush was campaigning for a second term? Information about his unpreparedness and isolation might have had a meaningful impact at the time. The American press has pulled far too many punches on Bush, even helping him (in the case of Time) to cover up Karl Rove’s complicity in the CIA leak scandal. I was always taught that the greater journalistic debt was to the public, not to the powerful. Let’s hope Brian Williams is right when he suggests that the gloves are finally coming off.