Bill Moyers: On the Record
Since the Wednesday broadcast of our documentary Buying the War there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from the press and the public, some of it right here on this blog. But some in the White House press corps have expressed dissatisfaction over the way we portrayed the Presidential press conference of March 6, 2003. Bill Plante, a friend and former colleague, and April Ryan of the Urban Radio Networks have contacted me directly, and CBS's Mark Knoller made comments that ran at CBSNews.com.
I invite you to watch what we ran in the documentary and read the transcript and judge for yourself. We posted the transcript on our site before the broadcast, by the way.
We began the documentary with that press conference because it crystallized how the Administration controlled the flow and content of information leading up to the war. Our particular focus was on how the press failed to challenge the President on the Administration’s assertion of links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. If you read the transcript from the program, you will see that I pointed out that "at least a dozen times during this press conference he [the President] will invoke 9/11 and Al Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America. But the White House press corps will ask no hard questions tonight about those claims." There were questions about the war, but if you go to the actual record of the press conference, you will find the President wasn’t challenged on his assertion that Saddam was somehow in league with terrorists who brought us 9/11. I remember watching the press conference and the surreal way it played out.
It was also on this occasion that the President confessed publicly what the members of the press who were present already knew: the press conference was "scripted." Bill Plante wrote me to say that it "was no more 'scripted' than any other" press conference he’d attended in recent years. So? Isn’t it about time the public knew how the game is rigged? Especially on the eve of war? Wouldn’t it have been to the public's benefit if at least one reporter shot up his or her hand and insisted the President throw his list away? Helen Thomas, where are you now that we need you? But Helen was banished.
Looking back on the night, NEW YORK TIMES White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller told a group of journalism students: "I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you' re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war…There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."
Let me repeat, that confession by a member of the press corps: “I think we were very deferential.” Another member of the press corps had this to say in the NEW YORK OBSERVER: "'I don't think he was sufficiently challenged," said ABC News White House correspondent Terry Moran. He said Mr. Bush's hyper-management left the press corps ‘looking like zombies.’”
We used Ms. Ryan’s exchange with the President (watch here) to demonstrate that it was no secret that the President had acknowledged he was calling on selected journalists. We took the essence of her question and the President’s response, and did her a favor in doing so. If there’s any doubt just read the transcript:
THE PRESIDENT: April. Did you have a question, or did I call upon you cold?
Q Oh, I have a question. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Okay. I'm sure you do have a question.
Q Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you? And what should you tell America -- well, what should America do, collectively, as you instructed before 9/11? Should it be "pray?" Because you're saying, let's continue the war on terror.
Even though the president at first responds with something about diplomacy, notice how quickly he brings the conversation back to 9/11.
THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that question a lot. First, for those who urge more diplomacy, I would simply say that diplomacy hasn't worked. We've tried diplomacy for 12 years. Saddam Hussein hasn't disarmed, he's armed.
And we live in a dangerous world. We live in new circumstances in our country. And I hope people remember the -- I know they remember the tragedy of September the 11th, but I hope they understand the lesson of September the 11th. The lesson is, is that we're vulnerable to attack, wherever it may occur, and we must take threats which gather overseas very seriously. We don't have to deal with them all militarily. But we must deal with them. And in the case of Iraq, it is now time for him to disarm. For the sake of peace, if we have to use our troops, we will.
And then, he elaborates on his faith.
My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. If we were to commit our troops -- if we were to commit our troops -- I would pray for their safety, and I would pray for the safety of innocent Iraqi lives, as well.
One thing that's really great about our country, April, is there are thousands of people who pray for me that I'll never see and be able to thank. But it's a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer. And for that I'm grateful. That's -- it's been -- it's been a comforting feeling to know that is true. I pray for peace, April. I pray for peace.
Ms. Ryan may not like the way she looks, either, but we didn’t misrepresent her exchange with the President that night.