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Ari Fleischer Discusses Press Coverage of Bush; Are Journalists Painting a Distorted Image of the President?

Aired July 28, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Point man with the press: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer talks about the coverage of his boss. Why is George Bush keeping such a low media profile? Are journalists painting a distorted picture of the president? And, coping with the daily interrogations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

The public face of the Bush administration, the one official who can't duck reporters is the White House press secretary.


KURTZ (voice-over): Ari Fleischer is more than a buffer between his boss and the reporters covering the president. He helps shape and delivery the message the White House wants to promote. Like his predecessors at the briefing room podium, he also must be a master at deflecting questions that stray from the administration line.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that's a great question for Congress. I'm not going to speculate on that. I'm just not going to go there.

KURTZ: Fleischer is also ready to lecture journalists when he feels they go too far. For instance, defending the first family's privacy when the Bush daughters were cited for underage drinking.

FLEISCHER: I think you really want to ask yourself these questions, about do you want the American people to know that you're asking about private conversations that took place between the president of the United States and his child.


KURTZ: Joining us now for a rare sit-down interview is Ari Fleischer. Welcome.

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

KURTZ: There was a spate of stories about Bush is slipping; Bush is losing control of the agenda, when he dropped in a couple of polls to 50, 53 percent approval. Are those stories unfair? FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I think it's indicative of the way journalism is often practiced, particularly in Washington, where the negative gets the most accent and the negative gets the most time and space.

When there was an up-tick in his polls, you saw there was no proportionate amount of up-tick stories. It's the nature of journalism in Washington.

KURTZ: And, but when the president does have real setbacks, whether it's losing part, GOP control of the Senate or the House failing to pass his preferred versions of the Patient's Bill of Rights or campaign finance reform, your job seems to be to come out and spin, everything is fine, don't worry, be happy, as opposed to acknowledging that anything might have gone wrong for the White House.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's important for the White House spokesman to always be fair and factual, and there are going to be times when I've said the White House made a mistake, and I've said it just as directly as that.

So, I think you always have a push and a pull between the White House press secretary and the press corps, regardless of whether the White House is a Democrat or a Republican White House. It's the nature of the job.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Ari, a little truth in advertising; I once had a comparable job as yours at the State Department. But then again, all spokesmen do the job differently. To what degree do you feel that you are in sync with President Bush's policies across the board?

FLEISCHER: Well, as a professional, 100 percent. My job is to fully and faithfully articulate the positions of the president, and I love doing so.

KALB: Can you share with us whatever vibrations take place when you find yourself slightly at odds with presidential ideology?

FLEISCHER: First of all, any staffer should have no ideology that they bring to public life. I didn't run for anything. President Bush did. I am a staffer. And that was true when I worked on Capitol Hill working for a freshman congressman, or whether I worked for the president of the United States. A staffer's job is to fully and faithfully represent the boss, an elected official.

KALB: Are you at any point shaping policy or are you simply handing the press guidance to, how shall I put it, share with the press?

FLEISCHER: Bernie, I don't hesitate to tell the president what I think privately. And the president welcomes that.

KALB: And one last one, if I may. Do you feel you're in the loop, or are you cut out from the big decisions? FLEISCHER: Oh, I think there is no question. I think reporters feel it, sense it, you can't bluff it. I have all the access that I need to do the job and do it in a way that the press needs to have for them to get their job done.

KURTZ: George W. Bush has held only three full-length news conferences without foreign leaders at his side. "The Wall Street Journal" said in a recent piece, the White House may be paying a price for shielding a president who came to office with a reputation for malapropisms and uncertain devotions of intellectual rigor. Shielding the president?

FLEISCHER: Yeah, I'm not sure having news conferences is the best measure of whether people get to hear and see a president the way people like to hear and see a president.

Reporters, of course, have an insatiable demand to hear and see the president every day. Yesterday, for example, in the Oval Office, or earlier, just a few days ago, the president took eight questions at a regular photo opportunity with a candidate who was running for governor of Virginia. So, there is a frequent interaction where reporters have a chance in a variety of settings to ask questions. It'll never be enough.

KURTZ: It's no secret that this president, certainly unlike his predecessor, is not out there in front of the cameras hogging camera time, if you will. He hasn't had any TV interviews with the likes of a Barbara Walters or a Diane Sawyer or a Larry King. It seems to be White House strategy to not over expose him and some people think that he's being under exposed and seems kind of remote. Is this something that you talk about?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president has done a series of interviews. It may not have been Larry King, but it was John King, for example. The president sat down and had a series of interviews after the 100 day mark with reporters and has talked live from the White House about the accomplishments and the set back that the White House experienced.

The president has been very accessible, very open to the press, and will continue to be because he views it as an important part of his job, is talking to the American people through the press.

But, you know, there's a degree, and you just see this so clearly at the White House, the press will never be happy; they're insatiable, until there is "Oval Cam" in the Oval Office and they can watch the president 24 hours a day...

KURTZ: But Ari, the figures show that this president does fewer news conferences and fewer TV interviews than some of his recent predecessors. That's got to be a strategy. It's not an accident.

FLEISCHER: But he also, on the June trip to Europe, for example, even though there was a foreign leader by his side, so what, all the questions still come to the president of the United States. The poor foreign leaders sometimes stand there alone. He did five news conferences in five days. KALB: Yeah, but you do that overseas when you're travelling, that's inevitable. Can you tell us what the president thinks of the portrait of him that is being written by the media?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think every president thinks the portrait could be improved. I think...

KALB: But where specifically?


KALB: Yeah, could be improved. You mean, he is actually -- the public is being offered a distortion?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I said at the beginning, the press corps, in Washington particularly, focuses on the negative. It's the negative that defines the news all too often. Education, for example, is an area where the president has led to widespread bipartisan agreement in the House and the Senate. There is not much coverage on education because the press is looking for flash points, contention to write about.

KURTZ: There is also no final bill passed yet.

FLEISCHER: Sure. But, you had an overwhelming passage of the House, overwhelming passage in the Senate. To the press, it's a yawner. There's no controversy. They want controversy.

KALB: Ari...

FLEISCHER: I think the president sense that.

KALB: I've been shopping around for some estimates of the job you're doing, and what I'm getting, if I may boil it down, something like you are an elegant paraphraser of the obvious.

FLEISCHER: Well, let me make something clear, the White House press secretary's job is not to make news. The president's job is to make job. The Cabinet Secretary's job is to make news. The White House press secretary's job is to help reporters understand what went into the making of the news, to reflect upon why the president did what he did. But I'm a staffer. The press secretary's job is not to all of the sudden create a policy.

KALB: Yeah, but if I say, if I say, as I hear, that what you're offering is the obvious, would the press lose anything if all you're briefings were abolished?

FLEISCHER: I think you'd have to ask the press that. They keep showing up, though.

KURTZ: I'm sure journalists would not be in favor of that.

You have made some mistakes on the podium. When there was a flap with the NAACP, for example, you said that Kweisi Mfume was no longer the president. Is that sort of thing embarrassing? I guess, if you're going to brief every day it's going to happen.

FLEISCHER: Well, sure. I mean, you want to have 100 percent record of accuracy in every word and always strive to do so. I got the president and the chairman mixed up.

KALB: When a "Houston Chronicle" reporter asked some weeks ago a question about the Jenna Bush alcohol incident, you objected to the question and you later called the reporter and said that the question had been noted in the building. And that sounds like a clear implication that the White House is not going to be terribly helpful to reporters who ask tough or unfair, in your view, questions.

FLEISCHER: And the reporter in question was a gentleman named Bennett Roth of "The Houston Chronicle." And he and I talked it through and he said afterwards that he didn't feel that it was any type of threat from the White House that we were going to treat him any differently. But I did want him to know that I thought his question crossed the line.

And my philosophy in dealing with the press is, when I differ with them that I will differ directly, respectfully and politely. I'm going to tell them. And the question where a reporter wants to know what a father said to his daughter, even if the father is the president of the United States, about her underage drinking, that is not a governmental matter. It's a private matter, and I want him to know that.

KURTZ: Just briefly, is it your job to edit the questions? I mean, you can certainly chose to say "no comment," "that's inappropriate," you can criticize a question. But don't reporters have the right to ask anything they...

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, Howard, it's become a fascinating change in that press room. Because there used to be a day when questions were asked in private. In other words, the questions themselves weren't broadcast over the air...

KURTZ: Before they answered on camera.

FLEISCHER: ... and the questions themselves, you know, shape public thought. Now we're in an age where these news conferences are often covered live. They're covered on C-SPAN, people watch the reruns, and reports questions do appear on the air, unedited, unfiltered. So I think reporters also ask themselves the question, how do we want to appear to the American people? What questions do we want to ask that people will see, unfiltered?

KURTZ: OK. We need to hold it there. When we come back, more conversation with Ari Fleischer and we'll talk about how the Bush White House makes news.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES and our conversation with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. You spoke before the break about, I'm just a staffer, I don't want to make news. It's not my job to make news. Reporters might disagree. But, in the Clinton White House Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart, they used leaks, they used stage manager bangs (ph) to try to break through the static of a 24-hour news cycle that often was focused on O.J. or Monica Lewinsky or these days I suppose it would be Gary Condit and Chandra Levy.

The Bush White House seems to do far less of that, trying aggressively to make news. Why is that?

FLEISCHER: Well, we think it's important also to treat everybody fair and equal. And one of the things that drives reporters crazy is when they are the beneficiary or the punishment of a selective leak.

KURTZ: It doesn't drive them crazy when they're the beneficiary.


FLEISCHER: But what happens...

KALB: Ari, you have done no leaking at all since you've been in that job? You have not...

FLEISCHER: The Bush White House works very hard to treat everybody fair and equal.

KALB: That's not my question.

FLEISCHER: Sure, there are going to be occasions where the White House does -- sure...

KALB: And there, indeed, have been specific leaks?

FLEISCHER: Sure, absolutely.

KALB: So, the follow-up then: Is there a tilt toward the conservative? I have a line here by Brit Hume at Fox News: "The treatment Fox News is receiving from Bush aides is certainly different than it was when the Clinton White House was doing everything it could to strangle Fox in it's crib." Suggests that you're showing more of an open door policy than you might to other journalists.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think your question was, is there a tilt, and there's your answer. You answered it yourself. There was a tilt in the previous administration, trying to kill...

KALB: No, I was quoting a...


KALB: Well, what have you done? Have you tilted?

FLEISCHER: We are equal to all. And that's very important. I can identify a couple of instances of some people in the press room who are liberal, some who are conservative, some I can't tell and I just don't want to try to tell.

I call on everybody fair and square and even, because if you're in that room and you're credentialed to be in that room, you have a right to have your question answered.

But let me get back to what I was saying before. There was a process of selective leaks, in which a reporter would get a call "The Washington Post," they had an exclusive, and every other reporter got woken up at midnight by there editor saying chase this.

It's not fair to reporters. The strategy in this White House is first and foremost, the president makes the news, not the staff. So, the president will give a speech and we work very hard, and we are not known for being a leaky White House, that all reporters at the same time, and therefore all readers and viewers at the same time, will hear what the president has to say.

And I think that's a fair way to do the business.

KALB: There has been considerable coverage about Carl Rove, the senior political adviser, having owned some stocks and having met with some corporate leaders from those companies before he disposed of the stocks. You've talked about this and you've said that he followed the procedures of the White House lawyers. Do you think those stories and the persistence of those stories has been unfair on the part of the media?

FLEISCHER: I do think there is a hangover from the previous administration in the press corps where they are still on the search for scandal, even if there really is not any scandal to be found.

KURTZ: So, they're pumping up scandal?

FLEISCHER: It's part of the nature of Washington journalism, again. The staffers in the White House try as hard as they can to conform to all the rules. In this case, Carl's certificate of divestiture was not delivered to him as quickly as it should have been. It wasn't Carl's fault. Yet the press still was in pursuit of scandal, and it didn't rise to any of the previous levels, but it still was the juiciest they had and so they're running with it. And I think that is unfortunately.

KALB: What we hear a lot is this administration is very much on message, that it's hard to journalistically penetrate. Are you opening up any kind of access? After all, the American public should get a broader picture than the narrow offering that you present.

FLEISCHER: Bernie, I think there is no shortage of people in Washington who talk about this administration and no shortage of reporters who will go out and find other sources of information...

KALB: Within the administration is what I'm talking about.

FLEISCHER: The fact of the matter -- the fact of the matter...

(CROSSTALK) KALB: Let me interrupt again, if I may, Ari. Are you giving orders within the administration that every request for access has to go through you?

FLEISCHER: No. No. I figure we have a lot of senior and mature people in the White House and they use they're own judgment. What I ask them to do is, if they're going to talk to the press, do so on the record and represent the president faithfully.

KURTZ: I guess...

FLEISCHER: What's wrong with that?

KURTZ: ... all those unnamed officials must work for some other administration.

FLEISCHER: That's right.

KURTZ: During the campaign, I got the impression that George Bush liked reporters, they were among the first to get the famous nicknames. But since taking office, at least as far as I know, there has been very little or no off the record schmoozing, press bar-b- cues, that sort of thing. Was that friendliness toward the press just sort of a product of a campaign rap?

FLEISCHER: No. Actually, there have been such sessions. He's done them on a couple different occasions, often in the Roosevelt Room, where he'll sit down at a table with a large group of reporters -- when I say large, maybe 10 -- and go over whatever issues are on their minds.

KURTZ: And that's off the record?

FLEISCHER: No, it's actually on background.

KURTZ: On background.

KALB: You expect dividends from that?

FLEISCHER: I don't look at it as dividends. I think that it's mutual. It's a place where the president gets to talk to reporters and get his message out, and reporters get to take the measure of the man.

KURTZ: We have about 30 seconds. You worked for a number of years a Capitol Hill press secretary. What's the biggest difference? What do you find most frustrating about being in the center of this media universe as a spokesman for the president?

FLEISCHER: Other than having to get up at 5:15 for a White House job when you didn't on the Hill, it's the intensity and the focus. It is remarkably different. As press secretary, you had a lot of anonymity on the Hill. In the White House, it's all very visible and on the record.

KURTZ: What about the scandal mentality, just briefly, that you referred to?

FLEISCHER: Well, there is a much more aggressive press corps that is in hot pursuit of everything in the White House.

KURTZ: All right, Ari Fleischer, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, a look at the Chandra Levy coverage and a former Beatle says the press got it wrong.


KURTZ: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know better, knows precisely what the Levy/Condit story is; pornography by another name."

Strong words this week from "Washington Post" columnist Richard Cohen. Bernie, the coverage is clearly out of control. I mean, they're interviewing psychics on Fox News channel. But there have been some potentially important developments as well. What's your take?

KALB: Howie, if the coverage has been excessive, so to, in my opinion, is the choice of that word. I think it was a Supreme Court justice who said you may not be able to define pornography, but you know it when you see it.

From the bits and pieces I see of this story, this is not pornography. If you were to say, is there a salacious dimension of curiosity, a voyeuristic dimension, the answer is yes, there is that. But his case has something else. A missing young lady and we do not know what her fate is.

KURTZ: Right. What we have here is pieces of a puzzle. For example, the five minute phone call we just learned about from Condit's wife to the congressman's apartment when he wasn't there. She may have talked to Chandra Levy, we don't know. But what happens is that all the facts, the few available facts, get put into this kind of Cuisinart, sliced and diced with a heavy dosage of speculation and supposition.

Well, turning now to our e-mail bag, your opinions about the Chandra Levy coverage:

"Cover it, don't smother it. I also wonder how many members of the judgmental media family could undergo such microscopic scrutiny as Congressman Condit."

And: "It would be so refreshing if, when asked to justify their Condit/Levy coverage, editors and columnist would simply say: `It makes money for us.'"

But this view: "When I turn on my TV now, I go through my channels until I find one that has the latest news on the Chandra story."

We want to hear from you; e-mail us at

Well, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items, dying for news about the Beatles, former Beatle George Harrison said in a statement that he was "disappointed and disgusted" by heavily reported rumors that he was dying of cancer, adding that he is feeling very well after treatment in Switzerland.

The same tune from his former Beatle partner, Ringo Starr.


RINGO STARR, MUSICIAN: And that is the problem sometimes with the media, that they take some craziness, it's not they're fault, and then they blow it up."


KURTZ: London's "Mail" on Sunday had quoted an interview with former Beatle producer George Martin, saying that Harrison "knows he is going to die soon."

Martin spokesman said the quote was taken out of context.

And, "The New York Times" names a new managing editor, Gerald Boyd. Stepping up from his position as deputy managing editor, Boyd is the highest ranking African-American in the newsroom.

After joining "The Times" in 1983, his first assignment, covering the Reagan White House. One of his most recent accomplishments was helping to shape "The Time's" Pulitzer Prize winning series on race in America last year.

Well, up next, Bernie's "Backpage" and how TV cameras just can't say no to certain pictures.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: Howie, look at this. These pictures from Genoa this last few days got me thinking about my own introduction to TV news all those years ago.

I was new to TV. My cameraman was an old pro, and we were covering a noisy anti-American demo outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. "Mob scene," my cameraman said looking through the lens, "great pictures."

"Zoom back!" I shouted. "Show that there are only 20 people here."

I was so innocent then.

In other words, nothing has really changed in the intervening years.


KALB (voice-over): TV still surrendering to the nearest outburst of violence. Or to put it another way, TV still allowing violence to hijack the cameras. After all, who'd want to look at pictures of the G-8 crowd when you can look at horror in the streets, live! Live! Live! Even if it's violence that is staged for cameras.

This was not supposed to be in the script. A militant protester shot by a policeman in a moment of panic, and then the Italian police chief backing up over the body; the first such death in the protest that have chased the G-8 around the world.

Looking at these pictures nonstop, you might think the great majority of the demonstrators were radical hothead revolutionaries. Just the opposite, in fact.

Here's a quote from "The New York Times,": "A vast majority of those who have marched here in recent days is determined to be pacifist and nonviolent."

And from "The Washington Post": "Only a small minority of the protesters took part in the violence today."

Which is not to say that magazines, newspapers, and TV should downplay these pictures, this sequence of a killing. In fact, this will be the Genoa will be remembered, long after these G-8 faces are forgotten.

But at the same time, the cameras should be giving equal opportunity to the other side of the story; the nonviolent who also oppose some of the globalizing objectives of the G-8. For them, the nonviolent who have their own ideas about global reform, what happened in Genoa was a nightmare.


KALB: Next year's G-8 meeting will be held in Canada and for security reasons it will be held somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. But the Rocky's will be no barrier if the cameras once again surrender to the violence.

KURTZ: I think you should go cover next year's summit. Bernard Kalb. Thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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