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bill sammon

Sammon is senior White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner and a political analyst for Fox News. His political coverage for The Washington Times was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and he is the author of several books about President Bush, as well as At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 16, 2006.

How different is the media landscape faced by President Bush compared to that of his recent predecessor?

Well, there's been a profound change in the media landscape since Bush took office. When Bush took office, CNN was the ratings leader in cable news. Newspapers had significantly more circulation than they have today. The Internet and the blogosphere was not nearly the political force that it is today. Six years later it's quite different: You have the rise of the alternative press; you have the corresponding decline of the mainstream media. So it is different.

There's more competition for control of the national debate, if you will. I actually talked to the president about this. He said, in his opinion, it's a healthy development, because as a conservative Republican, he believes that in years past, there was a monopoly on the national conversation, where you had basically the mainstream media, for lack of a better term, all saying the same thing -- and generally it wasn't a good thing -- about conservatism, about Republicans. ...

What has this changed media landscape meant for President Bush?

The changed media landscape has given President Bush more opportunities to get his message out. For example, you have the Drudge Report, which I think [has] got to be one of the most popular Web sites for people who are interested in political news and news in general. It's tremendously successful. I think it gets something like 14 million hits a day. ... I'm a member of the White House press corps. I can tell you that everybody in the press corps, whether you work for The New York Times or The Washington Post or ABC or The Washington Times, everybody is checking the Drudge Report each day. And more importantly, our assignment editors are checking the Drudge Web site. So it's extremely influential.

I think [Matt] Drudge actually has sources in the White House, and they're not dumb people. If they want to get their story out in a way that they feel they're going to get a fair shake, sometimes I think they'll leak it to Drudge, and Drudge will get it out there. And sometimes when you come out of the gate with the story, and you get the first cut on a story and you frame it the way you want to frame it when it's just coming to the public's attention, that's a tremendous advantage, as opposed to letting the mainstream media get a hold of that story and shape and frame it for you first. ...

But I think the proliferation of news outlets and the splintering of the market and the news environment until you have all of these different niche outlets and different audiences, and they're all competing with each other -- some people decry that development. I applaud it. In my opinion, the more the merrier. I think it's sort of like the Wild West right now. You have all of these different voices coming into the media conversation, and they're all bringing something different. Some of them aren't very responsible; some are responsible. But I think readers can sort it out. ...

We talked to Pat Buchanan about this, and he said in the 1960s it was the case that when a president would speak to the public, then it would be followed on by the three networks. You could only go to the three networks, and you would have these commentators following onto that. That's not the case anymore. ...

Yeah, it's a completely different environment, whereas years ago, you got a brief bit of summary and commentary on the networks, because, of course, they went back to regular programming pretty quickly after, say, a prime-time address by a president. They might reserve some time afterward to talk a little bit about it, but then they'd go back to the prime-time lineup.

“The public doesn't like the press. And therefore I thought it actually worked for Bush politically to be seen as an adversary of the vaunted New York Times.

Nowadays you have hours and hours of commentary on the cable news channels. ... You have Web sites instantly posting their summaries of the speeches. You have the blogosphere lighting up before the speech is over. ... In the old days, if you were a newspaper reader and you got your news from the newspaper, you had to wait until the next morning. Now, of course, you just go online, and you find out what the take is on the speech from both perspectives.

What has been the effect of this new alternative media on the old mainstream?

I think the mainstream media is a little conflicted about the rise of the alternative press, because frankly, it was kind of nice for the mainstream media to have a monopoly. ... They see the alternative press as competition, an I think in some cases, the mainstream media views the alternative press as unworthy, as somewhat irresponsible, as perhaps reckless sometimes. ...

In this mainstream media coverage, is there a liberal media bias? If so, how does the bias reveal itself?

I think the mainstream media's liberal bias usually manifests itself in ways that are somewhat unconscious. I'm a member of the White House press corps, so I work every single day with members of the mainstream media -- The Washington Post, New York Times, CBS -- and they're great people, and I love them to death. They're my friends, but they're liberals. They just are. People sometimes want to argue about this. And I'll argue about almost anything, but there's just no arguing this: The people are liberals.

Now, the problem is that sometimes, oftentimes, these people will approach a story of the day, and they will frame it according to their own liberal worldview, and they have this assumption that they're framing it according to the worldview of middle America and the sensibilities of somebody in Ohio, for example. And it really isn't. They really aren't reflecting the sensibilities of someone in Ohio. They really are reflecting -- I hate to say it -- the East Coast elite sensibilities. It's a cliché, but there's some truth in it. ...

I think that has provided an opening to the rise of the alternative press, where you've got Fox News coming in and saying: "Hey, we're actually going to provide a bunch of conservatives on TV as well as a bunch of liberals. And we're going to mix it up, and you're going to get a more fair and balanced look." Now, is it going to look relatively more conservative than what you're used to? Yeah. That's because what you're used to has basically been a one-sided discussion. So I think Fox looks relatively more conservative. But on balance -- and nobody gets it exactly 50/50 -- but on balance I would argue that Fox News is actually closer to getting it down the middle than the mainstream media, which is clearly slinging it to the left.

Can you give me a specific, recent example?

Yeah, sure. ... Seven days into the war on Afghanistan, The New York Times ran a front-page article comparing it to a Vietnam quagmire, and then within a couple of weeks after that, all of the press, all of the mainstream media, was echoing this business that it was a quagmire. ... And just as this tremendous gloom-and-doom coverage reached a crescendo about a month into the fighting, what happened? Allied forces swept across most of Afghanistan, and the press was in the embarrassing position of saying, "Oh, maybe it wasn't such a Vietnam quagmire after all."

So the press gets it wrong time and time again, and I think a lot of it is for ideological reasons. ... And they never held themselves accountable. The press is the one powerful institution in American society that is utterly unaccountable. If any other institution in society, whether it's government, business, sports, entertainment -- you name it -- had made these kinds of blunders of historic proportions, the press would be all over them, and heads would roll. ... But when the press gets it wrong, which they do all the time, they just sort of shrug, and they kind of move on to their next wrongheaded story idea. ...

Are you part of the mainstream media?

No, I am not, nor have I ever been a member of the mainstream media. I can raise my right hand and swear to that. What's funny about the mainstream media is that for reporters like me, who try to come at stories from a different angle, who try to question the conventional media groupthink, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked, because when virtually every other newspaper wants to write a story in the same way that The New York Times writes it, that leaves the field wide open for people like me. ...

Do you feel like a voice in the wilderness in the White House press corps? Are you the only non-liberal in the White House press corps?

It's interesting. Even though the White House press corps is populated overwhelmingly by liberals, there are a couple of closet conservatives in there. ...

Just recently, ... I was talking to a reporter from a very, very large, well-established newspaper in the United States, national newspaper, and this reporter was telling me that he had written a story the previous day, and his editors kept coming back at him and saying: "How is this Bush's fault? How can we make this Bush's fault?" This reporter is sort of a conservative, sort of a closet conservative, and he was telling me, he says, "Look, I'm not even that big a fan of Bush, but not everything that happens is Bush's fault, and yet my editors, I'm constantly fighting with them."

My point is that even if you have an occasional conservative that's in the closet, that's in the White House press corps, it doesn't really matter, because that conservative is reporting to liberal bosses who are looking at the world through the prism of, how is this Bush's fault? …

Should the press be patriotic?

I don't know that the press needs to be overly patriotic. Here's the problem with the press and patriotism. There were a couple of famous journalists years and years ago who were given this hypothetical scenario: If you were traveling with the enemy, and you found out that they were going to launch an ambush against U.S. forces, would you alert the U.S. forces? I'm sure you heard this. They said no. And they said, "Well, why wouldn't you do that?" And one of the reporters said, "Well, I'm a journalist first and an American second." ... I mean, that's a problem. That's a problem. ... And again, that's why conservatives regard them, the media, as liberal. ...

There's a famous quote from [former Bush Chief of Staff] Andy Card in The New Yorker in 2003, in which Card apparently tells [writer and media critic] Ken Auletta that he doesn't believe that the press serves a check-and-balance function; that Congress does, the judiciary does, but not the press. What's your take on that?

I don't know that I agree with Andy Card on this one. It's the whole concept of the Fourth Estate, of the free press. The press, for all its problems -- and they are legion -- and for all its shortcomings, and for all its liberal bias, and for all its wrongheadedness, it serves a vital role in our society in terms of checks and balances. ... Without the press, I really don't think America works. I think you absolutely have to have the press to ferret out information. ...

The press, more often than not, will alert people [to] problems that they need to be made known of. ... That's not a function of liberal or conservative bias; that's a function of the press being a bulldog and going out and finding the story. So in that sense, I think they're a vital check and balance on our society.

I can't put you in the position of speaking for the president, but since you've had access to him -- more than most journalists -- do you feel comfortable saying to what extent that might reflect the president's own views about the press, what Andy Card had to say?

I don't think that President Bush would necessarily agree with Andy Card on that particular case. I do know that the president fundamentally regards the press as a biased institution that is not there to help him in any way, shape or form. ... Institutionally, they're not his friend. Institutionally, these are reporters who personally believe that taxes should be higher; that [access to] abortion should be pretty much unlimited; that there should be some constraining of the U.S. military; that we're too unilateral; that we need to defer more often to the United Nations and not be so "go it alone." So the press is not filled with people who agree with Bush. I think Bush is keenly aware of that. ...

He made it very obvious when he took that book called Bias by Bernard Goldberg, and he held it in such a way that he walked right in front of us on the White House South Lawn so that we could all get an eyeful of that title, and it was his way of tweaking the press and saying, "I may like you guys, but I really don't think you're particularly fair." ...

One of the things that can be said about the Bush administration and the press is that the Bush administration has been somewhat successful in marginalizing the press by basically saying: "Look, we're not going to play your games. We're not going to leak to you. We're not going to let you in, have very much access to the inner workings of this administration, because we don't believe you're doing us any favors. We don't believe you're giving a fair representation of what's happening in this administration, so we're going to keep you at arm's length. We're going to marginalize you."

I think they have been somewhat successful. They don't completely stiff the press, but their reputation as a secretive administration is well deserved. They are secretive, and for good reason. ...

And many people have commented to us about the intense message control in this White House. Can you talk about that a little bit?

The message control of the White House, which is awesome from the perspective of effectiveness, is due to two things. One is loyalty, the loyalty to the president, and the other is discipline. They're a very disciplined bunch over there, and I think that flows from the president on down. He's the most disciplined of all of them.

They made up their minds, this White House team -- Karl Rove and etc., the other advisers -- at the beginning that they weren't going to allow their internal deliberations and so forth to show up in the pages of the morning newspapers the next day. ...

The other thing is loyalty. ... There's a lot of loyalty in this White House. People who work for Bush are loyal to him. And there's this fierce rally-around-the-boss kind of effect, because he's being pilloried every day in the press, [and] the attitude at the White House is: "Well, we're going to defend this guy. We're going to not enable the press by giving them any more access than they absolutely have to have. Certainly we're not going to give them anything behind the scenes." ...

This president [has] given fewer press conferences, in particular fewer prime-time press conferences, than any of his recent predecessors. Why?

I think the reason that the president gives fewer press conferences than his recent predecessors is because he's not a particularly formal man. ... He really doesn't like the full-dress, prime-time, East Room, formal press conferences, because he believes that that is basically an opportunity for network correspondents to get up and preen for the cameras and ask snotty questions to try to make Bush look bad. Let's be honest about it: That's what this is all about. ... But that's not to say that he doesn't answer as many questions from the press as his recent predecessors. I believe that this president, like a lot of presidents, is keenly aware of the need to feed the media beast in his own way, and he does do that.

I would say that every couple of days, he'll do what we call a "pool spray." He'll let the pool, which is a small, representative sampling of the larger media press corps, come into the Oval Office, or, if he's on the road, come into an event he may be doing. He'll make some remarks, and then he'll take two or three questions from the pool. If you do that every couple of days, you're keeping the press somewhat satisfied, even if you're not doing a lot of formal press conferences. ...

My point is that there are different ways to feed the media beast, and I think Bush would rather give the media beast a steady diet of a couple, three questions every couple of days than wait and give these big, formal press conferences.

But even in terms of other access, though, for a sit-down, one-on-one interview, those seem fairly rare as well. ….

You're right. President Bush gives very few sit-down interviews. Dan Rather interviewed I don't know how many presidents going back to the '60s; I mean, he never missed a president. Dan Rather never interviewed President Bush. The New York Times, the paper of record, so-called, I would say, they've had fewer than five interviews with Bush; I would say maybe three. And we're talking about six years, going on here six years. He will literally go years between giving interviews to any given media outlet. He just doesn't do a lot of them.

I think it's because he feels that he doesn't need the press to get his message out, but also because he feels that the press is not going to be terribly fair in these exchanges, and so he'd rather just talk directly to the American people through speeches and that kind of thing. ...

There was an interesting moment in the 2000 campaign when then-Gov. Bush was caught on microphone referring to Adam Clymer, a reporter from The New York Times, as an "asshole." What did you make of that? ...

This is an example of disconnect between the press and the American public, because the American public loved it. ... There's a terrific disdain for the press. This isn't news. This is reflected in every poll that's ever been taken. The public doesn't like the press. And therefore I thought it actually worked for Bush politically to be seen as an adversary of the vaunted New York Times. ...

Some would claim that attacking The New York Times, it's not just about them getting the story wrong; it's throwing red meat to the base. It's smart politically, a strategy to attack the press.

Yeah. Yeah, attacking The New York Times is good politics and good policy if you're a conservative Republican. ... The Republican base feels The New York Times is the worst offender in the mainstream media. You can't overstate the importance of The New York Times in shaping the larger mainstream media message every day. The other news outlets take their cue from The New York Times. ...

I travel with the White House press. I travel around with the president. What happens is the president will go somewhere and give a speech, and they'll set up a room for the press, and we all go in there and open up our laptops and sit there and chat with each other and write up our stories and make phone calls and so on and so forth. And there was a reporter from a major paper that I will not name who jokingly said to The New York Times reporter, "Hey, hurry up with that lede; I need to know how to frame my story also."

This sort of knowing laughter went up in the room. Everybody thought it was a pretty good joke, but the reason it was funny is because there was so much truth in it. The other newspapers will literally wait to see what The New York Times' angle is on a Bush speech or on any number of developments in a day and then will mimic that angle.

So you talk about the pack mentality or the herd mentality in the mainstream media. It's real. The herd is being led by The New York Times. …

Let's talk about The New York Times stories exposing the NSA [National Security Agency] warrantless wiretapping and how that played out.

Yeah, The New York Times story on the terrorist surveillance program -- or, as the press calls it, the domestic spying program -- was significant, and it was sort of like a Rorschach test. Liberals looked at that and said, "Aha, this is the reason why the evil Bush administration should be thrown out of office, because they're violating everybody's civil liberties." And conservatives looked at that and said: "Hey, we like this. We want suspected terrorists to have their international phone conversations tapped. We'd like to know what they're up to so they don't attack us." ...

And then there's [whether] it was appropriate to publish that information at all, in terms of national security? ...

I think the reason that the president and a lot of conservatives were upset with The New York Times for publishing the terrorist surveillance program story was that it arguably did harm our national security. It arguably did tell terrorists ... we're eavesdropping on international conversations. That gives the terrorists an excuse to go try some other way to communicate.

That allowed the Bush administration a pretty credible argument to make, to say that, "Hey, we're all for getting the story out there, but if you're going to harm national security, that's a little bit gratuitous for the press to be basically playing gotcha for the sake of playing gotcha and not taking into account the fact that it actually could hurt our efforts to battle terrorism."

[With the subsequent story being published on this program concerning the monitoring of financial transactions of terrorists, there have been calls to look into charging The New York Times with violating the Espionage Act. What's your take on that?]

... In the end, from a political perspective, there's limited utility in really making a federal case against the media where you're trying to prosecute them and take them into court and everything like that. The old saying, you never want to pick a fight with a guy who buys his ink by the barrel. You're basically allowing The New York Times and the mainstream media to become martyrs and victims of the overreaching, evil Bush administration, Big Brother. I don't think it would necessarily serve the president's interest to do that.

It's probably appropriate for the president to rail against The New York Times, for Republicans to rail against The New York Times when they make these disclosures, but when it comes to actually hauling them into court and prosecuting them, I think the Republicans would risk overreaching and would risk a backlash. ...

... You've been a member of the White House press corps. How relevant is the White House press corps today? ...

Less relevant than they were when President Bush took office, and that is a testament to Bush's successful marginalization of the press. ... They're still relevant to a degree, but less and less so as time goes by, and it's all part of the larger decline of the mainstream media. ... It's an indication of, again, the rise of the alternative press. ...

These different media outlets actually have a pull on each other, and it has the effect of keeping everybody a little bit more honest, because you don't want to be accused of completely ignoring one aspect of the other side's coverage, so you try to incorporate that into your coverage. ...

When the 60 Minutes II story [that came to be known as "Rathergate"] aired during the 2004 presidential campaign, ... how [was it] maybe used by the Bush administration? Was there a conscious decision to try to use the story to a strategic advantage once it was clear how wrong things had become?

Well, let me back up, and before I get to that question, for fairness' sake, I want to say that CBS, through its own words, felt that that story on Bush's National Guard service would have a political impact on the election. There's a famous e-mail that was sent from one of [then-CBS News producer] Mary Mapes' underlings to her that said that this story has the potential to change the outcome of an election. It's pretty clear, when you get down into the details and the evidence that was compiled about this whole sordid case, that CBS had gone beyond just wanting to report the facts. ...

Now, when the thing blew up in CBS's face, President Bush definitely saw a political opportunity, no question about it, because first of all, it discredited CBS, one of the biggest detractors of the Bush administration. Secondly, and more importantly, it took the question of Bush's military service off the table for the duration of the election. It was not going to be looked into by any news organization from then until Election Day. ...

What did it mean for journalism? ...

The "Memogate" story was validation to a lot of conservatives, who for years have been claiming that there is a liberal bias, because there it was. There, right there in black and white, you had clearly documents that had been created on a modern word-processing program and modern computer being passed off as early 1970s typewritten documents. And they're from a guy who's been dead for years, who can't explain whether they're authentic or not. It was just totally bogus. Everybody in America, except Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, eventually came to see this as a bogus story.

So it went a long way toward validating conservative claims of liberal bias, ... but it was [also] another nail in the coffin of the media's credibility. And it was a big one, because it ended up in an anchorman being forced from his anchor chair a year before he was supposed to retire. It ended up in executives at CBS, high-ranking executives, being fired or asked to leave, and producers being fired or asked to leave. ...

This was a story that had deep ramifications, not only in terms of destroying the careers of a lot of people inside CBS, but more broadly, it really was a major, major black eye for the mainstream media. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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