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Media Relations

July 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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DAVID GREGORY: Scott, can I ask you this — did Karl Rove commit a crime?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing investigation.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s been a rough few days for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: It may not look like it, but there’s a little flesh that’s been taken out of me in the last few days.

TERENCE SMITH: With a bristling 32-minute question and answer session on Monday alone.

DAVID GREGORY: Scott, I mean, this is ridiculous. The notion that you’re going to stand before us after having commented with that level of detail and tell people watching this that somehow you’ve decided not to talk. You’ve got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that podium or not?

TERENCE SMITH: McClellan has been asked scores of times this week about any role that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have played in leaking the name of undercover CIA Officer Valerie Plame two years ago.

He was also pressed about his role as the White House official who first said in 2003 that if anyone from the administration was involved, they would be fired. In response to the barrage, McClellan developed an automatic answer. He wouldn’t comment because of:

SCOTT McCLELLAN: An ongoing investigation.

TERENCE SMITH: This month, McClellan begins his third year as George W. Bush’s press secretary. He sat down with the NewsHour before the Rove story broke to discuss his role and other recent flashpoints between the White House and the press corps. As the public voice and face of the Bush White House:

REPORTER: Do you think these two very senior officials of our closest ally were flat-out wrong?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Let me correct you on the characterization of the quote you attributed to me.

TERENCE SMITH: He says he has become accustomed to his daily sparring sessions with the White House Press Corps.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I’m referring to some of the allegations that were made referring to a report.

TERENCE SMITH: Beyond those frequently fractious sessions, he is working cooperatively with the White House Correspondents’ Association, which has pressed him to reduce or eliminate the anonymous “background briefings” with unnamed senior officials.

Because reporters cannot use the names of officials or broadcast the briefing, the association has challenged McClellan to end the practice.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: One reason we did the background briefings the way we have in the past, where it was essentially open and anybody who wanted to participate could come to that, typically you have someone on background leaking something to a specific media organization like the New York Times or Washington Post, maybe both, to try to set up a story. So, I think part of the reason we were opening up the background briefings was so everybody could participate in that and treat the media fairly so everybody had access to it.

I think we can do our part, and that’s why I told the bureau chiefs that came and visited with me that I would like to move away from them, and we have taken steps to move away from them.

TERENCE SMITH: Correspondents say that while the White House has made no formal commitment to curtail the practice by putting some recent briefings on the record, progress is being made.

Bill Plante of CBS News, who has covered four presidents over the last two decades, explains why he thinks background briefings are problematic.

BILL PLANTE: Those of us who have covered the White House, we have all suffered through a briefing from a senior official. Let’s say, for example, it is the national security adviser, whose people say, “Well, this is on background.” You can quote a senior administration official but you can’t use the national security adviser’s name.

Then, two hours after the briefing, the national security adviser would appear on one of the cable networks and say substantially the same thing out in public with his or her face right out there. That is frustrating and stupid.

There has been a lot of pressure from the press and from editors and managers who are getting pressure from outside about anonymous sources, and they have put these people on the record.

TERENCE SMITH: Other reporters complain more broadly about their lack of access to senior White House officials. Dana Milbank covered President Bush’s first term for the Washington Post and is now a national political reporter and columnist for the paper.

DANA MILBANK: They realize that if they can have a monopoly on information, that is power to them and that if they can keep one message coming out of this White House and out of this administration, they’re going to have a more successful time on Capitol Hill with their international diplomacy. The idea is to stifle any sign of internal dissent. You have to ask the question of: how would we be governing ourselves if we had full information?

TERENCE SMITH: McClellan says he has tried to create more access.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: One of the things I’ve tried to do, at least since I’ve been in this position, is open up access to more individuals. I think that’s a healthy thing.

But I think that when you talk about the White House — and we are a pretty disciplined operation — and there are some people that really just want to focus on their business, going about helping the president develop policy or advance his agenda, and they just really don’t want to spend time talking to the media. They are constantly looking at everything we are doing and there’s plenty of ways for reporters to get their information. But the president is someone who likes to make announcements on his timeframe.

TERENCE SMITH: The issues of access and anonymous sourcing were in the eye of the media storm that flared up around Newsweek’s recent story about alleged abuse of the Koran at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Some have taken this report and exploited it and used it to incite violence.

TERRY MORAN: With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it’s appropriate for you at that podium, speaking with the authority of the president of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I’m not telling them. I’m saying that we would encourage them to help –

REPORTER: You’re pressuring them.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, I’m saying we would encourage them.

TERENCE SMITH: The administration, along with conservative bloggers and talk radio, kept up the drumbeat about the report and the magazine retracted ultimately retracted the story.

Scott McClellan says that story, and last fall’s discredited CBS News 60 Minutes story about the president’s National Guard records, forced him into a role he has tried to avoid.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: There are two rare occasions I can recall off the top of my head where I did cross over into being a little bit of a media critic. I was simply urging them to help repair the damage that was done. I don’t know if they ever went into the region or on Arab networks and said, “We got it wrong,” and why they got it wrong. But when a report like that causes that kind of damage, I think, you know, it’s something that the media organization has an obligation to help repair the damage that was done, and that’s all I was suggesting.

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Plante said the administration, through the spokesman, was looking to change the topic. And, separately, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had said that the Newsweek story alone did not incite the violence.

BILL PLANTE: That was a classic and slightly over the top case of deflecting blame. Here is something that caused the administration great embarrassment, and their first reaction is to say, “Well, look, people died because you printed this story. Now, retract it.”

DANA MILBANK: He took an issue where even the press was saying, “Jeez, this doesn’t look so good, what Newsweek did here. I mean, people have died.” And then you have him coming out so over the top that the issue became the White House telling journalists what to do, and we all take umbrage at that.

TERENCE SMITH: The press and McClellan also butted heads over why and how Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert, was granted by the White House a day pass to the briefing room. Guckert, it was later revealed, was a former male escort who, while working for a Republican-funded Web site, lobbed softball questions to the president at a formal news conference, as well as to McClellan.

JEFF GANNON: How are you going to work — you said were you going to work with these people? How are you going to work with these people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?

TERENCE SMITH: Bill Plante says the issue of who is a journalist and who should get access is no closer to being resolved.

BILL PLANTE: You still have the same assortment of regular professionals and people with very specialized interests, important ones — Aviation Week, Oil Daily — and oddballs.

And you have the oddballs because the White House has never wanted to get involved in deciding who is allowed to have a pass; therein lies great danger.

TERENCE SMITH: To date, the procedure has not been changed. McClellan says that while the Guckert episode was an eye-opener, he doesn’t want to be in the position of denying anyone credentials.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I really don’t think it’s the role of the press secretary to insert himself into that process. I’ve never, since I’ve been press secretary, revoked anyone’s credential. I think it ought to be an inclusive place, and I’ve welcomed essentially all comers. Our staff has. And if you start drawing a line –

TERENCE SMITH: Even comers like Jeff Gannon, who represented clearly a Republican organization?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, there are others that represent organizations that come at it from the left. I don’t know that you’d characterize it as a “Republican organization.” Certainly, came at it from a conservative viewpoint.

But there are others that come at it from a more liberal standpoint that come to that briefing room as well, and the question becomes: Where would you start drawing the line? Is it advocacy journalism?

TERENCE SMITH: With that and many issues still on the table, interdependency is what likely will continue to drive the push-and-pull relationship between the press and the press secretary.