- Floyd Abrams
First Amendment attorney
- Steven Aftergood
Director, FAS Project on Government Secrecy
- Ken Auletta
Writer, The New Yorker
- Dan Bartlett
Counselor to President Bush
- Carl Bernstein
- Tom Bettag
Former executive producer, Nightline, CBS Evening News
- Patrick Buchanan
Commentator; former adviser to President Nixon
- Walter Cronkite
Former anchor, CBS Evening News
- Len Downie
Editor, The Washington Post
- Jeff Fager
Executive producer, 60 Minutes
- Mark Feldstein
Professor, The George Washington University
- James Goodale
First Amendment attorney
- Seymour Hersh
Writer, The New Yorker
- John Hinderaker
Blogger, Power Line
- Nicholas Kristof
Columnist, The New York Times
- Nicholas Lemann
Dean, Columbia University School of Journalism
- Eric Lichtblau
Reporter, The New York Times
- Josh Marshall
Blogger, Talking Points Memo
- Mark McKinnon
Former media adviser to President Bush
- Norm Pearlstine
Former editor in chief, Time Inc.
- Jay Rosen
Blogger; Professor, New York University
- Tom Rosenstiel
Director, Project for Excellence in Journalism
- Brian Ross
Chief investigative correspondent, ABC News
- William Safire
Columnist, The New York Times
- Bill Sammon
Reporter, The Washington Examiner
- Ron Suskind
Author, The One Percent Doctrine
- David Szady
Former assistant director of counter-intelligence, FBI
- Bob Woodward
Reporter, The Washington Post
The thing that strikes me is that you've got people, some of the best, least ideological people -- Andrew Card -- in the administration, being asked a direct question: "Don't you think that the press plays a sort of checking role on government?," and he said, "No, the press is just another special interest." He meant that. He wasn't saying that for political advantage.
The president's chief of staff.
The president's chief of staff. And I think that is probably the kindest, least angry response one would get from people around the president about the press, and that's very disturbing.
It's one thing to say, "Hey, look, you guys don't know what you're doing," or "You're messing up," or "You're biased," or whatever the argument is. But really, to deny flat out that the role of the press, certainly at its best, is to serve as some sort of monitor of government conduct and some sort of entity to try to help the public pass judgment on government misconduct, that's a very disturbing path we're going down. ...
... Are you seeing changes in how [the Bush administration] handles Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] requests?
There are a few different things going on. Wait times have become longer; backlogs of requests have grown; the standards under which information is released have in some cases become more restrictive. In other words, information that might have been released several years ago now gets withheld. ...
A lot of these changes were encapsulated in a policy memorandum that was issued by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in October of 2001. What Attorney General Ashcroft said is that the prior policy, which encouraged disclosure of information unless some foreseeable harm would result, that policy was being overturned in favor of withholding information whenever there was a legal basis to do so. So the whole orientation of the FOIA program was in a sense reversed. Instead of saying, "Release whenever you can," the policy became, "Withhold whenever you have a legal argument to justify."
One can detect the influence of that policy in how FOIA requests are handled. There are all kinds of things that once would have been released or were released that now get withheld under FOIA, and it's disturbing. ...
Has there been a qualitatively different relationship this president has had with the press compared to previous presidents?
Yeah. What I think is different from previous administrations is that the Bush administration does not accept that the press has a legitimate public interest role. They view us as a special interest. When I asked Andrew Card, [President Bush's] then-chief of staff, "Do you accept that the press has a legitimate check-and-balance function?" He said, "Absolutely not." He said, "Congress has a check-and-balance function; the judiciary does, but not the press."
What he was really saying -- and this was confirmed by my interviews with Karl Rove and [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and others high up in the administration -- is that they view us as people who have an agenda -- not necessarily a political agenda, though they think we have more of a liberal bias in the press than they would like -- but they think our agenda is something else.
They think it's a bias of conflict, a bias for getting scoops and [for playing] gotcha and for trapping them, and they don't want to deal with us. When their poll numbers were high, and Bush was re-elected, they didn't have to deal with us. But now that their numbers started to decline and they've had some real setbacks in policy, starting with Iraq, they feel the need to go to that filter more and to treat the press as legitimate middlemen.
[The notion about the press having a check-and-balance function, do you think that's what the framers of the Constitution had in mind?]
The framers had in mind the First Amendment, basically. ... They gave the First Amendment as a way of giving a fourth branch of government -- in fact, the press -- an ability to question those in power in any of those three branches of government. I think over the years the press, more often than not, has served that function very well. But many times we did not serve that function well, and many times we have acted like the special interests that people like Bush and others -- Democrats or Republicans -- complained about.
If you listen to Bush carefully, to his complaint about the press, he's really echoing much of what you hear from the left -- [political commentator and Air America host] Al Franken, [author and media critic] Eric Alterman and others. That complaint is that we do the bidding of our corporation owners. Bush would never put it that way -- he's a conservative, and free enterprise is good -- but the critique is the same. The critique is that the business interests that run the press are interested in scoops, headlines, selling papers, boosting circulation, and therefore they go for more entertainment stuff and more conflict stuff and more wow stuff. That's a legitimate complaint against the press.
But there are also very serious reporters who day in and day out get up in the morning thinking they have a public calling and try to do it honestly and try and find out what's really going on in Iraq at the risk of their own lives. And there are reporters who tried honestly -- Knight Ridder, for instance -- and really got the weapons of mass destruction and introduced a note of skepticism to that conversation, that maybe Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Those reporters are really performing a very vital public service, and I think politicians -- starting with Bush, but not just conservative Republicans -- too often forget that. ...
Bush has talked about getting around the media filter. ... [Is that normal, to want to sidestep the media?]
Well, every president wants to figure out a way to deliver their message unfiltered. They don't want an anchor telling you what it means. They don't want a reporter, [NBC's] Tim Russert, asking tough questions on Meet the Press. They want to be able to talk directly and not be questioned. By the way, CEOs have the same desire. So do journalists. I would love to be able to just have my version of the world and not have someone ask me inconvenient questions. We're just human beings, all of us.
The press is performing a necessary, adversarial function. Now, if we go too far and we say, "We are your adversary; we are your enemy," then I think we're stepping out of our proper role. But our job, proper role, is to ask questions of people in power, and oftentimes people in power don't like to be asked questions. It's very natural.
... What do you think of the Bush administration having so few press conferences?
The Bush administration says by having so few press conferences they've actually substituted in another way. They have press availabilities. You can come to his office, usually every day, and he gets asked two or three questions. But those two or three questions that he's asked, generally he starts with the wire services. The wire services tend to want to ask about meat-and-potatoes issues: "Is it true you're going to Russia next week?" for instance -- not a hard policy question, one that he's quite pleased to get. So you could argue the public is not being served. …
One of the functions that a press conference performs is it forces the president to get out of the bubble, to be exposed to aggressive questioning. I think … every president, living in that bubble, gets out of touch.
In terms of the message control you've talked about, things like the Web site, are there other ways the administration can get its message to us directly?
This White House has been pretty aggressive about getting its video news releases out there to local stations. And local stations, which increasingly are under cost pressures, want to raise their profit margin. They like cheap news programming. It's basically public relations masquerading as news. We shouldn't allow that without a disclaimer at least. But presidents like that because their message is unfiltered. …
... The Bush administration seemed to be strengthened by this amazing ability to speak with one voice on issues. [What do you make of that?]
Particularly in his first term, Bush has been very disciplined in a, policing leaks, not having that much leaking compared to previous administrations, including Reagan, including Nixon -- there have been much fewer leaks certainly in the first term of Bush; second, of getting people to know that this president would really be upset if you showboat, if you get a lot of press yourself, so a lot of Bush administration people are not quoted by name, much more so than, say, the Clinton administration or previous administrations, including Nixon.
He was able to police leaks and the way people talked to the press in his first term. As his poll numbers decline in his second term, and as he gets near the end of his tenure, there have been many more leaks and many more people talking to the press -- not on the record, but nevertheless talking to the press -- and I'm sure that drives him crazy. But there's not much he can do about it now. ...
... Who inside the administration is setting this tone for the intense secrecy that they seem to desire?
One person: … George W. Bush. The policy about the press is set by him. It's not set by the press secretary; it's not set by a communications director. They're just carrying out orders. It's policy that Bush wants.
Now, can they have an effect on the margin? Sure. But Bush has an attitude formed over a lifetime, probably most impressively in terms of the impression on his mind in his father's administration and his father's campaign. He remembers that Newsweek did a cover on the "wimp factor." He remembers that reporters who his father thought were his friends wrote stories that his father didn't like. He remembers that members of his father's administration leaked, and you had to surround yourself with people who were not strangers, but longtime loyalists to you. So it's a lifetime of attitude that is formed within George W. Bush. ...
In terms of the message discipline of who's deciding what the story of the day or the story of the two hours is, where is that coming from?
Well, that doesn't come from the president; that's the staff communications director's job. If you're in the communications office of any public official, the job is to try and go on the offensive. Don't let news, what happens, breaking news define your agenda for the day. Impose your agenda on the day. Increasingly you have to impose it several times a day. Their job is to figure out, how do we get our best story out there and minimize our worst story? That's not peculiar to this White House. It's not peculiar to anyone in public life. ...
I've had a number of people make the comparison, in terms of the attitude toward the press, between George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. What do you make of that comparison?
There are some comparisons. I think Nixon had darker caves into which he entered, but I think that he was angry at the press; I think Bush is angry at the press perpetually. But I'll tell you a difference. ... One of the things that it seems reveals the Bush administration's attitude about the press being a special interest is the way [it] has decided -- in a way that the Nixon administration and previous administrations did not -- to aggressively go after reporters.
It had been traditional that you don't press reporters for who their sources are. The presumption is that in order for us to perform our public service function, we will often need anonymous sources to reveal My Lai, Abu Ghraib, things that we're getting from people in the military or intelligence services or diplomats, things that happen that are scandalous, that the public wants to know about, and we help bring them. ... The public wants to know that and has a right to know that, and the press is doing its job in doing that. ...
Now we have situations where the Bush administration has decided that they are going to prosecute potentially the Washington Post reporter who reported on secret prisons in Eastern Europe, and they may prosecute the New York Times reporter who reported on secret eavesdropping [by the National Security Agency (NSA)], and they may prosecute the San Francisco Chronicle reporters [Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams] in the BALCO case for saying that [San Francisco Giants'] Barry Bonds used steroids. ... They've asked the San Diego U.S. attorney to investigate leaks to the FBI in the [private investigator Anthony] Pellicano [wiretapping] case in Los Angeles, which involves two New York Times reporters. ... So you may see sometime fairly soon reporters, as happened in the [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller case, brought before the grand jury, and if they don't identify their sources, going to jail. ...
These are big issues that are going to surface relatively soon and pit the Bush administration against the press in court, demanding our sources in a much more aggressive way than even the Nixon administration did. And the Nixon administration was very blatant -- I mean, [Chief Counsel to Nixon] Chuck Colson saying to Mrs. [Katharine] Graham, who was the head of The Washington Post Company, "We're going to take away your TV licenses." That's pretty strong stuff, and I [haven't heard] the Bush administration say that. But on the other hand, [the Nixon administration] didn't threaten to put reporters in jail the way the current Bush administration is doing. ...
... Pat Buchanan said in 1969 that you could cut the liberal bias in the press with a knife. Was that true? Is that still true today?
Listen, I think the press has to be honest and be more introspective about itself and its [bias]. Every survey of the Washington media shows that when they do these secret surveys of reporters, often more of them identify with the Democratic Party and with moderate to liberal policies, not left liberal -- they're not that; they're kind of establishment. ... The job of a press critic is to try and reveal that if it's there, so the public has transparency. They can see the biases.
But my own attitude is that the operative bias to worry about in the press is not a liberal bias, or even a conservative bias, though those exist. The operative bias you've got to worry about is the bias for conflict, and I think that oftentimes does cause us to have mindless coverage of events and to focus on the wrong thing, not on policy but on who's involved in a spat with each other. That gives a nice headline. And maybe our editors and bosses who worried about circulation and ratings like that more. But it isn't necessarily the function we're supposed to perform. ...
... And what have the media done maybe to help foster that impression or damage themselves?
Oh, let us count the ways. The media damages itself in many, many ways. One, you start with the blatant mistakes that are out there, be it Jack Kelley, USA Today, who makes up stories, or the fellow [Jayson Blair] at The New York Times who makes up stories and is thrown out for that; be it the television reports that are exaggerated; be it the pictures in Time magazine that are composite on the cover. So we're constantly making mistakes and giving ammunition to our critics. ...
On the other hand, we do a lot of good things and have for many, many years. There was a period of time when [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein were reporting Watergate in '72, '73 and early '74, where the charge was The Washington Post is biased, and people like Pat Buchanan and Bill Safire to a lesser extent were out there railing against the press, against the anti-Nixon bias. Well, in retrospect, they were right. They did a pretty good job. So the press has a mixed record like every institution has a mixed record. And we do better if we admit our mistakes. That's why it's a healthy thing to see ombudsmen or public editors or correction boxes, or to see press critics online, who hold us to account. ...
... What effect on the bias debate do you think that the Dan Rather/National Guard reporting debacle had?
Well, that's a classic. What happened with 60 Minutes [II] and Dan Rather in the fall of the presidential election, if you go back and look, you say, well, 60 Minutes actually had some good scoops in there. ... They had some evidence presented that Bush shirked his duties when he was in the National Guard and didn't really fulfill his functions and get away with it because he was politically well-connected.
But then they went the next step and said they had a document that proved all of these things and more. And that document -- in part because of the power, the speed of the Internet -- within hours, bloggers were up on the air over the Internet saying, "Hey, wait a second," or, "This can't be true; this IBM typewriter didn't exist at the time they said this report was issued, and it was typed on this IBM typewriter."
So the bloggers quickly got in, and then the Bush administration jumped in; a lot of people jumped in. But CBS, for 10 days, didn't acknowledge it may have made an error. It was full speed ahead; we stand by our report. They were not being transparent, not being humble, which is what we're supposed to be as journalists. We should never be sure of anything. ...
Ten days later, they had to admit that they may have made a mistake and they were launching their own internal investigation, reinforcing a view -- not just among conservatives, but certainly among conservatives, but also among others -- that the press doesn't always get it right, often gets it wrong, and when it does get it wrong, doesn't admit quickly that they got it wrong. That was very harmful to CBS. ...
Was there something in how the Bush re-election campaign played the "Rathergate" story so that it ended up focusing on the one wrong document out of all of it, or was it just a lucky break for them?
It was a lucky break for them that CBS made a big mistake, but they did more than that. The Bush administration is very good about going on the offensive. If you look at the campaign, starting with the way they were running against a war hero, ... they were able to change the narrative that [Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry wanted to present because they were aggressive about it.
And they were aggressive about CBS. They attacked Dan Rather for his well-known "bias" against the Bush administration -- not just this Bush administration, but his father's administration, and they used every technique to impugn Dan Rather and CBS. Unfortunately, CBS gave them some ammunition to do that. .....
[It] seems safe to say there are more conservative voices in media. The landscape has changed.
Oh, I think there is no question there are more conservative voices in the media. You just start with Fox News. Start with bloggers. Those are all things that didn't exist 10 years ago. You've got a lot more voices, and that's a very healthy thing.
But the important thing is transparency here. That is to say, if someone on Fox News -- if their slogan is "Fair and Balanced," is that a true slogan? Does that represent the truth? It doesn't. Sometimes it does, but oftentimes it doesn't. ... And when someone claims they have no interest, and they have an agenda -- be it a liberal or a left agenda or a right agenda -- it should be exposed.
But the good news is that you've got so many different sources of information out there -- cable news, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, television, satellite television, your iPod -- that people in a democracy can choose. That's a good thing. And if they want to choose a conservative blogger or a Fox News or a CNN, good for them.
[Is it always a good thing?]
It is more ways to get around the filter. That's a healthy thing. It's also an unhealthy thing in the following sense: You have so many sources of information that you don't have any common sources of information. It used to be that our common sources of information were the networks, let's say. So on a typical evening at 6:30 at night, 90 percent of Americans were watching one of three network newscasts, which were fairly similar. ... And in a world that is increasingly polarized between left and right, people have an excuse now to say: "Hey, I don't trust your news. I want my news. I want Fox News. I want The Nation news. I want whatever news that shares my views." Therefore that common source of news declines in value, and that's a problem in a democracy, which is based on compromise. ...
What do you make of the accusation that the press has sort of wimped out on Bush in covering him?
I don't think the press today is too soft on George W. Bush. I think there was a period of time, particularly after 9/11, where America was attacked, a lot of casualties, a lot of frightened people, including press people, and a lot of patriotic people included press people. America was at war, and it was a war unlike other wars, where you didn't know who the enemy was. You knew generically who it was -- militant Islam -- but you didn't know whether it was someone sitting next to you on the subway or not who carried a weapon.
People were frightened, and people probably gave Bush in the press more benefit of the doubt than they should have. So when he announced that somehow Saddam Hussein was connected to our enemies, including Osama bin Laden, and then had Colin Powell, the secretary of state, come up to the U.N. and show these horrifying pictures of places where the weapons of mass destruction were stored and manufactured in Iraq, there was a natural tendency to believe it. They were aided by the fact that if you go around the world to other intelligence services -- the French, the Germans, the British, the U.N. weapons inspectors -- there was a general consensus that, in fact, Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction. ...
So the press was hamstrung in part by the fact that it seemed there was a consensus that he did have these weapons of mass destruction. Very few people thought he didn't have them. Now, people thought he might not use them, ... but it was a hard story to get, because you couldn't find good sources, intelligent sources, who said the opposite of what the Bush administration was saying. Nevertheless, the press went through a period of time where their coverage was too soft on Bush and not enough skepticism. ...
[What has changed the relationship between the press and government?] Has anything changed for good in terms of the relationship between the government and the press?
Things like technology change the relationship with the press as much as anything else. If you think of 20 years ago, 15 years ago, a president can think about: "What is my story of the day? What's a story we want to promulgate today, we want to get out today? What's the headline we want in tomorrow's paper or tonight's evening newscast?" and, "Who are the people, the key people, in the media we can communicate this to, either through a leak or a sit-down for interviews?" etcetera.
How do you do that today? You don't have a knot of six or seven people who determine what's going to be written. You don't have that filter that everything runs through, be it The New York Times, The Washington Post or the three networks. You've got three cable news networks. You've got bloggers. You've got the BBC, which has an office here. You've got people who are alternative means of communication.
So what happens today, the president and his staff wake up; they don't say, "What is my news story for the entire day?" They basically say, "What are the five or six news stories we can come up with today that will top each cycle of news?" because there are ... many more opportunities for another news cycle and another headline to develop. So it's totally changed, and technology is the major change agent.
Where do you see the White House press corps in five years or 10 years?
We're going to see more of the trends we've begun to see in the White House and the press relationship. This started, by the way, with Nixon, when Nixon said, "I want to avoid The New York Times or Washington Post filter and go out to local newspapers and get them to communicate my story." They very aggressively organized to do that to try and get around the filter.
In the Clinton administration, Clinton got very angry at the press in his early years and talked about how he's going to avoid using the middleman, using early technology, which was satellite, communicate directly to local press around the country, etcetera, and calling in people who would be honored to be in the presence of the president to do interviews. Bush has extended that, and technology allows him to extend that.
I think what you're going to see more in the future is White House using its own Web site. … They can basically chase the press out of the White House press basement, put back the swimming pool that was covered over there, say: "Go out and do your job however you want. We're not going to help you by giving you these briefings. Check our Web site twice or five times a day. If you want [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's speeches, they're there." They'll do what [Vice President Dick] Cheney's been doing. Cheney travels all over the country, oftentimes without the press, kind of a stealth vice president, and it's an attempt to control the way we cover the news.
They have the power to do that. Will they dare do that? Politics may make it harder for them to do that if the public saw it as an attempt by a future administration to deny the public information. ... Bush has done fewer live press conferences than any modern president. Does the public say at some point, "Hey, where's his transparency?" We want it for Enron; we want it for corporate America; we want it for the press. What about for the president? In a democracy, you can't act unilaterally. You might want to. You might want to say: "Hey, deal with my Web site. Get all the information from that. You don't like my spin? Tough." Well, it may not be politically possible for you to do that. ...
[Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told The New Yorker that he doesn't believe the press serves a check-and-balance function, and the president's former media adviser Mark McKinnon told us he agrees.] What's your view of the role of the press in terms of the administration?
We actually believe the press plays a valuable role for the American people and is a fundamental aspect of our democracy. Without the media, the American people won't have the type of information they need to hold their leaders to account.
The relationship between government and media has always been strained, and I think most of the time that's a healthy strain. I think our relationship with the media particularly has been different maybe than past administrations'.
It's pretty strained. It has been very strained.
Well, sometimes the conversation about our administration and the media -- two different areas get conflated. One is the issue of the so-called access. We're not the type of administration ... who leaks a lot to the press, uses the media in the way maybe past administrations have, to advance personal agendas, policy proposals.
The other strains come from, I think, more from just being a country during a time in war. When there [is] a lot of more classified information, there's more conversations that should be happening in secret. There is the issue of access in that respect that has obviously played out very publicly and has been a strain.
But the administration in, let's say, the NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping story that The New York Times did, the president himself said it was, I think the words were "despicable," what happened.
And there were calls by the Republican Party and allies of the administration, including the attorney general, for the possible use of the espionage statutes.
Well, I can't speak of prosecutorial tools, but I will say that we do think it was a fairly egregious decision made by The New York Times. That's what I was getting [at]. A difference between the day-to-day relationship we have with reporters who cover the White House is one thing; the other is these issues during times of national security where there's decisions made by certain news organizations that we think are not in the interest of the country.
It was a very, I'm sure, a difficult decision for The New York Times to make. I think they made the wrong decision, and it actually really is a reflection of the type of war we're in. The media has been always traditionally very sensitive about not reporting on things that could harm the national interest, but it's taken a very traditional definition: troop movements; something that would [put] someone in the harm's way for an operation.
But now that so many elements of this war are fought through financial means, through surveilling the enemy, through conversations on the telephone, then maybe there's a different standard by the media used when it comes to the threats that may have [been made] to the American people.
But the reporters involved and the editors involved say all they reported on was the question of the legality of the program -- they didn't reveal how it worked -- and that the terrorists, if you will, know we're listening.
Well, they don't know all the aspects of how we're doing it. And for you to get into a conversation about whether it's legal, there are strong insinuations about how the program works, and the disclosure of such a program, whether it be on the one hand the NSA program, or on the other hand the financial programs, SWIFT, that I know you've looked at, those are putting up a big billboard to the enemy saying, "This is how they're defending their country." We think it's wrong.
[New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller said to us that when he left the White House after a meeting he had about this, the president was saying that The New York Times was going to give aid and comfort to the enemy. That's what he was being told; that he would have blood on his hands, basically, if he published.
Well, the president said nothing like that. The president did stress the importance of this program remaining secret. Our conclusion when this came out was that this has been one of the most effective tools in preventing attacks on our country. It's one of the most vital tools that we've had in our arsenal to defend America, and for The New York Times to make the decision to put it on the front page harmed the national security interests of our country. The president felt obligated, if he felt that strongly about it, that he ought to tell the person who was in charge of that paper how he felt.
But should they be prosecuted?
I'm not going to get into prosecutorial decisions made by the Justice Department. I'm not a lawyer, nor would I try to be. But it's an important debate for the country to have, for the media and government officials and others to have, who watch this issue closely, because we are in a new paradigm, where the enemies of our country use the very technology and comforts of our lifestyle against us.
It is a new paradigm in many respects, and it deserves a lot of debate and scrutiny and discussion. Whether it be shield laws that are being debated in the United States Congress or other things, this is a healthy debate for our country.
When we go on the air with this in February, two reporters in San Francisco, for example, are facing jail for reporting a story which the president himself has said was in the national or public interest. That's the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative] case, the steroids-in-baseball case. Yet they're facing jail because the Justice Department, using its discretion, has decided to try to force them to comply with a grand jury subpoena. Does the administration back that decision?
I don't know the details of that case, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an active investigation. But there is generally an important debate that we ought to be having in our country about the ... knowledge of criminal activity ... and the pursuit of a criminal investigation.
But this is playing out in several different cases, not just this one, and I think the courts are going to have to weigh in in this matter.
But the administration has a discretion, through the Justice Department, whether or not to bring certain cases. And I guess in this particular case, the question is, what's the rationale? You're going to shut down reporting on something which everyone says has been to the interests of our public health and to our youth who are involved in sports.
Well, I think that's subjective, to say that it would shut down. These are tough calls. We put very seasoned and experienced prosecutors in these positions, these U.S. attorney positions, to make the tough calls. But ultimately, that's why there's the checks and balances of a court system. The courts will ultimately vet that out.
So we cannot expect the administration to back down on the BALCO case?
Again, I speak only personally for the president. We would not interject from the White House into a criminal prosecution. The U.S. attorneys involved in this have broad discretion to pursue these cases as they see fit.
There's been a change, it seems, in the relationship of the administration recently to the press, sort of a reaching out. The president was on 60 Minutes; you're sitting here now. What's happened?
I think there actually has been a better relationship with the journalists who cover us on a daily basis than maybe some of the broader or more high-profile disagreements, such as the one with the NSA program, has shown. The president understands that the relationship is a two-way street. If he wants to communicate with the American people, he has to have a relationship with the media, and vice versa, if the media wants to learn about what this president is thinking.
So there was not a conscious decision, I guess, recently to increase our role. But I think if you looked over the course of the last -- now that these elections are behind us, that the president has been very accessible.
Well, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, when we interviewed him a couple of months back, said, "Oh, this administration isn't cooperating with us." It's been the worst he's ever seen. He went through a whole litany, and then two weeks ago he e-mailed me and said, "It's changing." So you'd have to convince him.
I wouldn't conflate our issues with 60 Minutes with the media writ large. If you recall, there was an issue with 60 Minutes' broadcast [about] the president during his re-election campaign, with Dan Rather. There's a whole new regime in place at 60 Minutes, including Jeff Fager, the executive producer for 60 Minutes. And we have a working relationship with Scott Pelley, a very seasoned journalist who interviewed the president recently. So I wouldn't use that as a microcosm for the rest of the press. ...
The perception has been that the administration wants to go to a friendly venue [rather] than the so-called mainstream media usually, whether it's Fox or whether it's local news -- get around, if you will, the filter that Pat Buchanan talked to us about. [Those efforts] began during the Nixon administration.
Well, I've heard that charge. We've increased our access to maybe the local media or the others, but I don't believe it's been at the expense of others.
The president has met with all the top anchors. He's done more than, I think, two interviews with Brian Williams since he's been the anchor [of the NBC Nightly News]. He did an inaugural interview with Katie Couric when she took over [the CBS Evening News].
So I know there's an reputation about this administration with the press, but if you look at the facts, we've been more accessible than people have suggested.
So you don't sense ... the hostility of the press?
Not on a personal level. ... Like I said, we've had some high-profile disagreements with certain media organizations, particularly on the national security front. But I can say with confidence that the president genuinely likes a lot of the reporters that he deals with on a daily basis; has good relationships, actually, with many of the reporters; and he respects their role.
Let me take you back to the Espionage Act discussions, because the result of that ... and other aspects of subpoenaing reporters, there is a sense that the press is at odds -- and not since the Nixon administration has it been at such odds -- with the White House.
Well, again, I think the interim timeframe between then and now is we are a nation at war. And it's a very unconventional aspect --
Well, we were at war then, too -- the Vietnam War.
Very traditional war. What I was saying is that we're in a very unconventional time in our lives where people who hide themselves as civilians are using the very daily elements of our lives -- telephones, computers, e-mail and the like -- to try to harm our country.
The ability for us to defend our country has changed, and the ways we have to go about defending our country. That doesn't mean you ignore critical aspects of the law. You still very much respect them.
But that has to change, in some respects, the relationship of how the media has approached some of those issues. And again, ultimately these have been very complex issues. They have been ones that have come under a lot of scrutiny, and it's one where obviously the courts are going to have to weigh in on it.
But you've already changed your policy. You've already said that the FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, can oversee this terrorist surveillance program, something that initially the administration said was not possible.
And after a lot of work with the court, after a lot of conversations on different elements of it, we were able to satisfy-- they were able to be satisfied with how we were going about these activities in a way that they could be comfortable with of putting it under a FISA order. And we are able to do that without any dimunition in the effectiveness of that program.
So it really is a solid victory for the American people that such a valuable program can not only go forward, but can go forward under the auspices of this court.
Finally, I just want to get your reflections on the [famously contentious] relationship of Richard Nixon and the press. ... How does that compare to George W. Bush and the press?
First, Nixon's relationship to the press was consistent with his relationship to many institutions and people. He saw himself as a victim. We now understand the psyche of Richard Nixon, that his was a self-destructive act and presidency.
I think what we're talking about with the Bush administration is a far different matter in which disinformation, misinformation and unwillingness to tell the truth -- a willingness to lie both in the Oval Office, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in the office of the vice president, the vice president himself -- is something that I have never witnessed before on this scale.
The lying in the Nixon White House had most often to do with covering up Watergate, with the Nixon administration's illegal activities. Here, in this presidency, there is an unwillingness to be truthful, both contextually and in terms of basic facts that ought to be of great concern to people of all ideologies. ...
This president has a record of dishonesty and obfuscation that is Nixonian in character in its willingness to manipulate the press, to manipulate the truth. We have gone to war on the basis of misinformation, disinformation and knowing lies from top to bottom. That is an astonishing fact. That's what this story is about: the willingness of the president and the vice president and the people around them to try to undermine people who have effectively opposed them by telling the truth. It happened with [Sen.] John McCain in South Carolina. It happened with [Sen.] John Kerry. It's happened with [Sen.] Max Cleland in Georgia. It's happened with many other people. That's the real story, and that's the story that [the press] should have been writing. ...
It's very difficult, as a reporter, to get across that when you say, "This is a presidency of great dishonesty," that this is not a matter of opinion. This is demonstrable fact. If you go back and look at the president's statements, you look at the statements of the vice president, you look at the statements of Condoleezza Rice, you go through the record, you look at what [counterterrorism expert] Richard Clarke has written, you look at what we know -- it's demonstrable. It's fact. Now, how do you quantify it? That's a different question.
But to me, if there is a great failure by the so-called mainstream press in this presidency, it's the unwillingness to look at the lies and disinformation and misinformation and add them up and say clearly, "Here's what they said; here's what the known facts were," because when that is done, you then see this isn't a partisan matter. This is a matter of the truth, particularly about this war. This is a presidency that is not willing to tell the truth very often if it is contrary to its interests. It's not about ideology from whence I say this. It's about being a reporter and saying: "That's what the story is. Let's see what they said; let's see what the facts are." ...
You've dealt with a lot of presidential administrations in your long career. ... But the Bush administration has had a very particular relationship with the press. ... Could you talk about that and how it's changed?
Well, one, I think the Bush administration was extremely well put together in thinking about how we're going to deal with the media. They've just got some very bright people who thought this through. But I think they're also the beneficiaries of the fact that there isn't an oligopoly that they have to deal with. There [aren't] three networks, and if indeed you don't get on one of those three networks, you don't get on; you don't get your message out.
Now, with this multiplicity of outlets, they saw that we can stiff all three networks if we have to, and we'll get our message out on Larry King [Live on CNN] or on Fox or on Rush Limbaugh. ... They've used that extremely effectively in seeing the changed media climate, ... and used it well, which is absolutely their right.
Let me give you a Bush line: "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people." That's really your line.
He sounds like Pat Buchanan 35 years ago. Uh-huh, you do; there's no question about it. Look, a president's got an obligation to communicate with the American people. ...
That's why when you say "go over the heads of them," we would go over the heads of national television, Nixon would. In the Reagan era, we would bring in the anchors from local [media], what we called "regional media," from, say, the Midwest, and bring in all the anchors into lunch with Reagan, and we would have briefings for them. Then Reagan would speak to them and he'd take questions at lunch, and the national press would be outside of it. In that way, all of these individuals would take back segments to their local districts.
That's the whole war -- the battle between the White House and the national media is the battle over who controls the national agenda. ... The real power of the left was in the national media. ...
When you see what happened back then with Nixon and that confrontation with the press, and you see what's happening today with the Bush administration and the press and the way in which the press is characterized, ... what do you think?
I think that there has been little change there. I think, however, in the present situation, that White House is so buttoned up, so lacking in associating with the press really, that the press itself, ... [the print press] who cover the White House, are embittered by the fact they're kept so distant from the people of authority, that they aren't answering back. ...
But do you think that this administration, in a way that we haven't seen since the Nixon administration, has a hostile relationship with the press?
All during the time that I've been working at The Washington Post, every administration at one point or another has had a hostile relationship with the media. It comes and it goes. Obviously the Clinton administration was very angry with The Washington Post during the period in which we were reporting on Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. ...
The Carter administration, when they first came to Washington, were very unhappy with the reporting that indicated that they were off to a slow start in their administration, making mistakes. The first President Bush was not pleased at all with the way the press covered him and blamed the press for his not being re-elected.
Probably the one administration that had the best relationship with the press, ironically, ... was the Reagan administration, because they knew that to get angry at us was not helpful to their cause. So instead they would try to kill us with kindness. Jim Baker, when he worked [as chief of staff] for President Reagan, was always available to reporters who covered him, ... but of course he was trying to manipulate them the whole time. So they had an entirely different approach.
This administration came to town determined, like all administrations, to control the message, and they tried to do it through secrecy. ...
But they're just the opposite of the Clinton administration when it comes to, let's say, freedom of information, declassification of documents. They're reclassifying things.
Yes, that's correct. The rationale they use is that we're now at war against terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, and I believe that rationale is not nearly adequate to cover a lot of the secrecy that they're trying to carry out.
This president had fewer press conferences than almost any president in living memory, so access has changed. I know you were trying to be evenhanded there, but it seems like there's a war with the press going on, not just with terrorism.
Certainly the relationship between this administration and the media is not a good one, and certainly we believe that the secrecy has been excessive, quite excessive. But at the same time, their job is to do their job, and our job is to find out what's going on. This always happens with the administrations after they've been around in Washington for a while: Personnel begins to change; schisms occur within the administration itself; its control over the message begins to fray. We're finding out more and more all the time. ...
At least if that is the thinking, I can see why that would have been very upsetting. The mistake was admitted. The report that came out actually proved that there was no bias involved, or at least stated that. I think you have to move on. I guess one of the legacies of this White House will probably be a disdain for the reporters of the world whom they worked with, and that's just unfortunate. There's always a tension with the White House and the press; this one just seems to be more intense. ...
There's always a tension between the White House and the press, and we always feel it. I just think that the president made it apparent that he's not necessarily reading the newspaper every day, that he's not watching the broadcast. There is a certain distance that the White House has had from us from the get-go, and I think that they are prepared for us to not be fair to them. ...
I'm trying to put myself in the seat of [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and the White House: "Here comes 60 Minutes, and they do Abu Ghraib to us. And then they try to do a pre-election story [with] apparently phony documents. And you're not biased?"
I'm not going to try to defend the document story. ... I will defend Abu Ghraib forever. Of course we're not biased. You're doing reporting, important reporting about the war that ended up being -- the American public had to know that. The Pentagon, the Department of Defense cooperated with us in the end on that, gave us an interview with the general [Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt] who really sealed that piece, and we aired it with their cooperation eventually.
So we're doing our job there, and it's not an easy job to do. Nobody wanted to report what was going on in Abu Ghraib. We were the first to report it, and it was a tough thing to do, and it took an awful lot of time to vet it. We worked that story forever in terms of fairness and making sure that those pictures were accurate. ...
When did you first realize that the White House really didn't care what you said or what you did with this program?
I don't really know when I first realized it. I got the message over and over again -- a lot of our people did -- that: "We don't want to cooperate. We don't want to help you. We don't want to help you tell your stories, because we don't think there's anything in it for us." We didn't get that message in a soft, subtle way; we got it loud and clear.
Now, I feel like we have done some stories that were very fair to the White House and to the president. I also think we did -- at least this organization did -- one that was incredibly unfair by using the bogus documents. So if that had something to do with their feeling toward 60 Minutes -- even though the four people involved with that ended up losing their jobs -- I suppose you can understand that to a degree. ...
One of the things I was surprised about when I read the report, ... they were not told to try to check the documents as to their veracity, were they real or not and where they came from, actually.
Right. And I think that's a shame of the entire episode, which is that nobody knows if they were real or not. The unfortunate part is that it's not for us to put something on the air and tell the viewer to prove it's not true. The onus is on us to prove it's true before we use it. ... I can see how that would have upset the White House.
Or in the end helped them?
Or in the end helped them, because we're a good target. [It's] proven time and time again that if you take on 60 Minutes or any big news organization, it can really help you as a politician. ...
Things have gone at least 300, if not 360 degrees in a circle. What you have now is an administration that is waging a war on the news media in a way that no administration has since the dark days of Richard Nixon. You have an administration that is going after the press in a fashion we have not seen in a generation. Threatening to prosecute reporters for espionage? I mean, espionage! That's for spies. That's for saboteurs. That's not for reporters. ...
You've had a whole host of other ways that this administration has gone after the press -- as minor as not allowing photographers to Dover Air Force Base to take pictures of the coffins, of caskets returning from the Iraq war. That's not about national security. That's about political security. That's about not wanting to fuel anti-war opposition in this country. So they ban the press even though there's no national security threat. They have done all kinds of things to go after the press in a way we haven't seen since Nixon's day. ...
... I think that Bush is as anti-press as the Nixon administration [was]. The Bush administration, however, is a little bit more diplomatic about what it says about the press. But no doubt in my mind the Bush administration would be very happy if the liberal press were decimated. ...
It's very important to have a powerful mainstream media, ... because we know, among other things, the Bush administration believes in the powerful executive. They've said so. They've nominated Supreme Court justices who like that theory. We must have countervailing power. You can't have countervailing power if the press turns over everything it has to the power ... it's supposed to countervail.
Why would they then want to do things like prosecute you under the Espionage Act or call your editors and tell them not to run the story -- there's documentary histories out there, Sy, on the public record.
Well, it's not different now under this guy [Bush] than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Then it was that if you write this story, why, the Communists will be sending paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco.
It's the same story. What we do in the business is pretty simple. We get a lot of secrets, and some we publish, and some we don't publish. Where the problems get in, as you know, is sometimes when there's stuff that should be published that isn't published. I think that's more of a problem. ...
What do you mean?
Well, it's the classic stories like the NSA story not being published for a year, the Times story not being published for over a year, etc., etc. You know, I generally think you publish.
You think that the NSA story should have been published a year and a half earlier?
I really don't know all the facts of it. I know what I think are the public facts. I'm like a lot of people. I'm generally inclined to think you should publish, and that's why I'm a reporter and not an editor.
Most editors are different than you and me. I always think that they're all mice training to be rats, basically. So editors have a different point of view, and reporters have a different point of view, and that's the way it works.
There's been a truce, in effect, hasn't there, since at least 1974, when the [Justice Department] guidelines went in about subpoenaing reporters?
I'm not a legal scholar. I don't really know. I sure have been threatened enough with action, so I'm not sure there's much of a truce.
Lowell, I've been reporting, what, for about 40 years now on national security, some heinous events -- My Lai, Abu Ghraib. I don't think I've ever met a public official that didn't think he was doing the right thing. I can't think of one.
It's just the way it is. It's the inevitable, horrific conflict. You've got people in power, people in the public life, who are absolutely convinced they're doing the right thing, just like they were in Vietnam, just like they are in Iraq, just like they were at Abu Ghraib. ...
But the bottom line is people tend to think that they're always virtuous, and we always look at people as less than virtuous. That's our job. You can call it chasing conflict, but it's sort of chasing -- that's what we do for a living. We're there to say, "Hey."
So there's going to be horrific consequences always. And sometimes it will spill over in jail, and sometimes it won't. But none of this is going to change the structure. I think the moment anybody seriously tampers with the First Amendment you're going to see an outcry.
I've spent my life hearing that reporters [are] not popular in any way -- until somebody really challenges the First Amendment. Then all of a sudden you're going to see this country rise up, because it's really inherent. It's a great, powerful fact that we have on our side, which is that this is a nation that publishes. That separates us from a lot of other nations, and I don't think you can change it. I don't think this president can change it ... or one trial can change it, or some reporter's doing something right, or some reporter's doing something wrong. It's just there.
It's very, very powerful. And that's why, ultimately, whether the government likes it or not, we wear the white hat, because we are there, ringing the little bell, saying, "Truth, truth, truth," or at least our version of it. And it works.
So if you were to compare what's going on today to the Nixon era?
Same stuff. Remember they had the enemies list there? A lot of reporters were on it. We're never going to be popular with people that think they're doing the right thing that aren't doing the right thing. And of course, we ultimately have the ultimate say. We can shape public opinion, and we do.
Many people believe the Bush administration came into office with a hostile attitude toward the news media. Fair?
I don't know of any evidence that the Bush administration started out with a negative attitude toward the news media. Anybody who's in politics as a Republican knows that when you're talking to a reporter, there's probably somewhere between an 85 percent and 95 percent chance that you're talking to a Democrat. I think that's the basic reality.
Reporters always like to say: "Gee, I'm a Democrat, but it doesn't influence how I report; it doesn't influence my other attitudes. I can be fair. I can be neutral." If you had an environment where half the journalists are Republicans and half the journalists are Democrats, half are liberals, half are conservatives, the individual reporters would at least have a fighting chance of keeping their biases under control, because they'd be in a culture that had diversity. But when you're in a newsroom where there's 40 people and 38 of them are liberals, and you're one of the 38, the idea that that is not in any way going to impact how you report the news or what news you choose the report is unrealistic. ...
The Bush administration is profoundly different from most of its predecessors. I think there's a much deeper skepticism about our role in the press -- much less willingness to cooperate, often less willingness to leak to us as well.
I was struck in interviewing President Bush when he was governor and running for the president. From my point of view, here is this son of a president, this blueblood who's governor of Texas and perhaps about to become president, and he seemed the epitome of authority to me. It became clear in the course of the interview that he saw himself as this Texas good old boy who was being interviewed by this authority figure from The New York Times and that we each saw the other as the establishment figure. I found it kind of bizarre that he would perceive The New York Times to be the establishment, given his own background, but I think that there is something to that in this White House staff.
But I think that there also is a genuine distrust, a genuine sense that the press doesn't like them, that we're not going to treat them fairly. We also have different kinds of values.
And what does this case say about the relationship of the Bush administration to the press?
Well, what it says to me is sort of counterintuitive, because everybody goes around saying, "This administration is the most leakproof and the least hospitable to the press ever, the most hostile to the press ever." I've covered Washington on and off for a long time, and I don't disagree with that. This is an administration where you can't just stroll into the White House and the Executive Office Building and phone people up and go see them. It's pretty locked down.
But what this case shows is that even the Bush administration, because of the way Washington works, is in constant, chummy, off-the-record contact with the press.
Selected members. But the people that they're talking to are a mix of friendlies and fairly neutral people. In other words, [Time magazine reporter] Matt Cooper did not have a reputation as a member of the conservative media or somebody sympathetic to the Bush administration or unsympathetic; just a reporter covering the White House for a major news organization.
Is this administration different?
Well, certainly it has the reputation as being secretive even by the standards of the White House. [Times reporter] Scott Shane did stories recently about the National Archives reclassifying documents from the 1950s about Soviet agriculture programs that the intelligence community felt were wrongfully declassified in the first place, and that caused quite a backlash when that came out, because there had been millions of documents that were once in the public record that have now been pulled and reclassified. ...
You don't think the press had done a very good job covering the Bush administration.
No, no. And some of that is undoubtedly just because of my own political viewpoint, that I'm a critic of the Bush administration. But I think it goes beyond that. I think it stems from a few different reasons.
One reason, again, is the resurgence of conservative media in this country over the last couple decades -- Fox News, talk radio, all these kind of things that have pushed ... the dialogue in a rightward direction. 9/11 clearly had a huge part of that. The press felt very cowed after that. In some ways, I think that the Bush administration has played to the weaknesses of how journalists understand journalistic objectivity. ...
What's to stop partisan journalism, like Fox News, for instance -- I think you would call that partisan journalism, right? -- from the slippery slope of becoming propaganda? I think in a lot of cases, Fox News has already slipped down that slope. They've fallen and they can't get up. It is a slippery slope.
What stops engaged opinion journalism from descending into propaganda is the integrity and honesty of the reporters and editors who produce this stuff. What the media has to rely on in general is having a sufficient diversity of voices, so that you're not depending on the individual integrity or honesty of writers and reporters; that you have enough diversity of voices that if parts of the news media is slipping into propaganda -- the fundamental dishonesty with readers that propaganda is -- that you have other voices that are bringing them back to the facts. ...
Who establishes the media strategy for the Bush campaigns?
The president. This is a president and a candidate who … said: "These are the issues that I want to talk about, ... so here's what I'm going to run on. Now, you all can do what you do and do your jobs well and help us try and communicate those issues." He was quite clear about what his message was going to be. Let me put it this way: We did not have to remind him of his firmly held convictions.
Would you argue with him about what's practical and what's going to get him elected?
Sure. We said: "Social Security is a very problematic issue. Many candidates have run on that issue, and their bones are in the political graveyard." He said: "I don't care. I think it's the right thing to do, and we're going to run on it." Those are the best kind of candidates: candidates who are clear about who they are, what they believe in. That's why he won that election. John Kerry didn't know what he was all about. People like President Bush's character. Even if they disagreed with his policies, they believed that he knew who he was and where he was going.
In [writer and media critic] Ken Auletta's article in The New Yorker, he referred to an interview that he did with the president's former chief of staff, Andy Card, who talked about the press just being another interest group. What is the president's or the administration's attitude toward the press?
I don't think the president thinks, nor do I think, that there's an inherent ideological bias in the press. The president has described the press as a filter, which is exactly what it is. It filters the news and presents it in a way that it determines is the best way to present the news. But we live in a different information age today, ... so the president and the White House, unlike any other White House, has opportunities to deliver news straight to viewers and straight to voters without the press filtering it. ...
But do you see the press as another interest group?
Yeah, I think the press has an interest. I think the press has an interest in communicating to its viewers or readers, and their viewers or readers drive profit for those news organizations, so I think those news organizations have a certain bias toward their own readers. Yeah, I think they are a special interest. Of course they are. …
Would you say that the so-called mainstream media is biased against President Bush?
No, not necessarily. I think it's just a bias toward conflict. I think they'd write a conflict story about Bush just as they'll write a conflict story about Kerry. I don't think that the press in 2004 was any more unfair to Bush than they were to Kerry. The same thing with the 2000: I don't think they were any more unfair to us than they were to [Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al] Gore. They were unfair to both of us.
So you simply just don't trust them.
I simply don't trust them. I know that they want [to] write a story that has conflict. I know that, I acknowledge it, and I proceed accordingly.
Listen, it doesn't matter if I go on CBS, PBS or Fox. Whoever is interviewing me is going to want to create some conflict in the story, or it's not interesting. That's just the way the news is. We can go out in campaigns, and we'll try and strategize: "Let's go do a press conference on our policy on the environment. Let's go to a manufacturing plant and talk about our economic plan" -- zero coverage or the back of [page] D17. We do the story attacking Kerry -- page 1. Biased for conflict.
I think the press are good people; I think they're educated people. But when they go to report, it's going be about conflict.
But you don't think that the press, especially the Washington press corps, has a bias against the president and the vice president?
The Washington press corps would have a bias against whoever is president. It doesn't matter who's there. ... I think that the Bush administration recognizes that coddling the press doesn't get you anywhere. ... And with the proliferation of news organizations now, the president can't sit down with every news organization in the world and have interviews, so they pick and choose their opportunities to get their message out in the way that they think will best communicate their message. Pretty standard operating procedure for any presidency. ...
So you don't accept the idea that there is a professional form of journalism that attempts to be objective.
I think everybody tries to be objective, but what's objective? Everybody has their own idea of what the truth is. ...
I'll just run a standard definition: presenting both sides of the story. I think most journalists try and do that. Why do you need to get around this filter if it's going to present both sides of the story?
Because both sides do it differently. Everybody presents their own side and their own versions of what both sides are. ...
This administration had a lot of discipline in the way in which it has controlled its message. Did you talk about that with the president? Was that explicitly stated?
The president has always been disciplined about his message, and the campaigns have always been disciplined. We've always determined, it being a campaign, what we want to talk about, and we stick to it.
I would imagine that every presidential candidate, every administration, has said that at the beginning. This one really was very successful keeping people on message, in line.
That's right. You have a guy at the top who knows who he is and what he stands for, and he's very clear about what kind of campaign he wants to run. If [the campaign] starts to get out of bounds, he lets us know. If we get off message, he lets us know. And we have a team of people that have worked together a long time. We know what works, and we know what doesn't.
So this is just discipline? It's not authoritarian control?
No, not at all. Not at all. It's good political strategy. Good political strategy suggests that even if you've got flawed strategy, you stick with it, rather than change your strategy every month, which is what John Kerry did. We may not have had a perfect strategy, but we stuck to it. ...
[Political commentator] Pat Buchanan said the Nixon administration, faced with the networks and their commentators, decided to strike back and do two different things: one, to publicly criticize the news media, which had not happened before; and two, to go around the filter and directly to local media and others. Is that basically what's going on now? ...
I think Pat Buchanan was a smart guy, and I think every presidential administration since Nixon has tried to determine what [its] message is and how to best communicate [its] message in a way that it gets to the public unfiltered. Now, it's going to get filtered by the press in some way, and the job of the administration and the press office is to figure out a way to get that message out in the clearest way possible.
But is there a perception that there's political capital to be made by attacking the press, by saying that the press distorts, is biased toward conflict, and therefore you'll get political points by attacking the press?
I think there are other presidents that have attacked the press much more than this president. ...
... So what I understand from what you're saying is you don't think the White House press corps really is as powerful as it once was.
There's no question it's not as powerful as it once was. The White House press corps' influence is considerably diminished from years ago. They used to be the only funnel through which news was poured to the public, and today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of news channels beyond the Washington press corps for getting information out to the nation and to the world. ...
Why do you think that so many journalists believe that this administration not only wants to get around, but also wants to discredit what is called mainstream media?
I don't think it wants to discredit mainstream media so much as it wants to acknowledge that there is other media. I think mainstream media doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that there's other people out there. The mainstream media wants to hold onto the monopoly it once held. That has dissipated. And the mainstream media gets mad when the administration goes to some other news outlet.
Well, what they point to is Clinton had 191 press conferences, and the Bush administration, as of middle of '06, had 74.
The last time I read the Constitution, there was no obligation to do any press conferences. I think 74 is plenty. ...
My own experience with the Bush administration was that I was told, "We don't really care what the mainstream press says; we'll get our message out anyway."
As I said, unlike a decade or two ago, there are [now] thousands and thousands of press channels. Every administration going forward is going to determine the channels that it wants to communicate its message to. ...
The news was once controlled by a handful of news organizations, and now it's not controlled by anybody. In fact, any administration now can walk out and put its news out to the world totally unfiltered, because it's covered live.
And you can spin it, too, via the Internet and blogs.
Well, it goes both ways. There are thousands and thousands of people spinning it back the other way. You've got the blogosphere, and you've got others who are putting their own spin on what the administration is saying. There is just as much pushback on the administration as there is on the administration pushing its news out. It's a hurricane of information and people trying to filter it both ways. ...
... Yeah, but you can have, for instance, your own bloggers, your own paid bloggers in a campaign, right?
Yeah, sure. That's just another way of getting information out.
But you don't label it as advertising as you would before or say that this is a paid political ad. You can just simply put it on the Internet without any connections to where it came from.
Well, I think consumers know if they're reading a blog that they understand that that's the blogger's opinion. ...
But do you remember another administration paying someone and getting them credentials into a news conference to ask questions?
It's apples to oranges. It's a different time. It's a different world. It's a different universe. Listen, I don't condone that. I think that was a mistake, and others have acknowledged that was a mistake. But the point is that this administration, like every other administration, has a message. They try and get it out, and they use whatever channels are available to them. In 2006, there are thousands of more channels available to this president than there were to presidents previously, so this administration picks and chooses the channels with which to communicate, which any president would do. ...
When 60 Minutes II was doing its story about Bush's National Guard service, what was the reaction in the Bush campaign? You knew it was coming.
Right. It was another National Guard story. ...
How did you use it? I mean, you must have thought about the advantage it was going to give you.
I think it did its work on its own. ...
Before it was discredited, did you see Dan Rather as being biased?
I would say that he had a pretty consistent [record] of producing stories unflattering to the administration. ...
You didn't expect Dan Rather to do a positive story about the administration.
I certainly didn't.
But you would expect, for example, that [Fox News'] Brit Hume might do a more positive story about the administration.
Every administration looks out at a sea of reporters, and ... [they will be] evaluated for what kind of reporting they do, whether or not it's objective and fair. Every administration will take that into account for who they do interviews with. ...
Let me take you back to Ken Auletta's interview with Andy Card. "Do you accept," he was asked, "that the press has a legitimate check-and-balance function?" And he said, "Absolutely not." He said, "Congress has a check-and-balance function; the judiciary does, but not the press." And Karl Rove and apparently [Counselor to the President] Dan Bartlett and others that Ken Auletta talked to confirmed that. Is that the administration's view? Is that your view?
I think Andy Card was right. I think the true checks and balances are the judiciary and the Congress. The press is not elected, so who's going judge which press outlet is the proper check and balance?
But the First Amendment -- it's there for a reason. President Jefferson said he'd rather have a free press.
Sure. Nobody's suggesting that there shouldn't be a free press.
But do you see it as having a check-and-balance function in terms of especially the federal government?
I think that the press has a duty and an obligation to report on local government, state government, federal government -- to be aggressive, to do its job. And its job is to report on whatever it's covering. The administration's job is to make policy and execute policy, and the press's job is to report on that.
When The New York Times reported on the National Security [Agency's] wiretap program, was that a legitimate function of the press? ...
Listen, the press is going to report what it gets. The problem is with the leak, not the report of the leak.
The problem was that somebody didn't stay on message.
Because apparently they thought, according to the reporters involved, that there was something illegal going on.
Well, I think that there was a true national security interest at stake there, and the Times chose to do what it did. We happen to disagree with that.
Well, more than disagree. There's a leak investigation, and there's been some calls for prosecutions, not only of the leakers, but of possibly the reporters or the news organization.
Right, correct, as I think there should be.
You agree that the press should be prosecuted.
In that particular instance, yeah.
Even though a federal judge has said that, at least initially, that the program was illegal.
Well, we'll see how it ends up. ...
But you think it did damage national security.
Yeah, I do.
And the news organizations should be held responsible.
Well, I think the leakers should be held responsible for sure, and the news organizations should be held accountable as well. And well, we'll see where this goes. ...
You went to jail, right?
Why did you go to jail?
First Amendment issue.
In 1980, during the hostage crisis, a representative of the shah came to speak at the University of Texas. I was editor of The Daily Texan, the newspaper at the University of Texas. Some students demonstrated -- some Iranian students -- and local law enforcement officials arrested and prosecuted those individuals. The prosecutors wanted unpublished evidence of the demonstration, which we refused to hand over. I was held in contempt of court and jailed briefly.
You believe in civil disobedience.
Sure, absolutely. I believe in the First Amendment.
So when you see reporters being subpoenaed not for national security but for reporting on doping in baseball, and then being threatened with jail, what's your reaction?
Are you talking about the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative] investigation? I generally support the reporters' right to do what they did in that particular circumstance.
As I understand it, the president of the United States personally acknowledged the work of these two reporters when he met them; he said it was a great public service, and yet now they're faced with jail by the same administration that's praising their work.
Well, the justice system will run its course. ...
So you're saying that the media landscape has changed so much that the major media that you grew up around really has lost its power.
It still plays an important role, but it's certainly not as powerful as it once was. The power has shifted, and I think that's a healthy development.
Is it easier to manipulate this decentralized media?
No, I think it just offers more channels to get information out, that's all. ...
[But these technological changes must have helped presidents stay more on message?]
Technology has had more of an impact on the presidency and how the presidency communicates than anything. News is virtual now. It is not 24-hour news cycles; it is instant news cycles. It is live. News is live all the time, around the clock. That has a huge impact on news organizations, on weekly news magazines. Their whole profit enterprise is completely turned upside down now.
It changes the way you, as a media strategist, look at a campaign as well.
Yeah, absolutely, sure. Everything we do is radically changed because we can digitally compress media now. Whereas I used to have to send a little box overnight to news stations, now we can just punch a button, and it's digitally sent immediately. In the 2004 campaign, we could produce an ad, and with one button it would go to 6 million people just like that. ...
Technology has reformed the process. We've always been accused of only communicating in 30-second sound bites. Well, I never liked that, but we were hostage to broadcast media, and that's all we could do. Now I can produce long-format video -- substantive on issues-- and put it on the Internet, and voters can see and hear and feel where our candidates are on a variety of issues without being limited to 30 seconds.
When you sit down in a media strategy now, in terms of putting a budget together, you don't necessarily have to be thinking in terms of how many minutes or hours I'm going to buy on local TV or pay the rates on local TV, because you can get around that, too.
It hasn't changed completely -- we're still buying broadcast from cable television -- but the paradigm is shifting, no question. And as I said, we can produce video; we can produce it quickly and we can distribute it broadly. We can have somebody talking about an issue for five minutes rather than 30 seconds, which is great. It's good for voters, and it's good for the candidates. ...
[Does the Bush administration have a different attitude toward the press?]
I think there's been an adversarial relationship between the press and different administrations. ... It was not easy to interview Hillary Clinton on Monica Lewinsky.
I think what's different here is that we've been in a war for the last few years that has not gone the way that the administration had hoped it would, and that has made the media more aggressive in its coverage and, I think in the administration's view, more hostile. So the administration has been less cooperative than we might like it to be.
Certainly the existence of 24-hour news networks, of bloggers, creates a plethora of outlets that has changed things somewhat considerably, and in some cases, the administration has thought it could go around mainstream media to find out outlets that it thinks will be more sympathetic. Therefore, it hasn't had to really respond to some of the reporting and certainly some of the editorializing in some of the big newspapers and so forth. The administration, the daily press conference has gotten to be an exercise in jousting rather than a place where much usable information comes out.
I don't just mean the adversary relationship, [but] reclassifying documents, not providing information. We hardly see any, for instance, Cabinet-level officials holding press conferences.
Correct. I think that this administration has certainly wanted to communicate with the American people in ways in which they can channel the message far more easily than they can going through a vigorous, aggressive questioning press. I think it's true of all administrations. I think this administration has been more rigorous in that respect than others partly because it's been more disciplined, partly because it has been so much on the defensive since going into Iraq. ...
How would you describe the Bush administration's relationship with the press?
[From] 2003, when [White House Press Secretary] Scott McClellan was appointed, to when he resigned [in 2006] was a period when the White House decided that it would manage the press by completely disengaging from it and refuting it and embarrassing it on the world stage. This represented a radical break with the past. ...
In what way?
In the age of what I call news management -- [from] 1963, when the networks first went to a 30-minute broadcast and they became national institutions, to 2003 -- during that period, White Houses, Republican and Democratic, had the same basic assumptions: that it was key for the White House to engage with the media, certainly to be mindful of its power, and to try and answer reporters' questions. ...
What we saw in this new interval -- 2003 through 2006 -- was the total overturn of that idea and basically the withdrawal from a consensus that had prevailed for four decades. The key to it was McClellan. He was completely inept in every single skill a press secretary has to have. He wasn't good on camera. He wasn't quick on his feet. He wasn't particularly eloquent. He didn't have superior command of the issues. He wasn't good at spin. He wasn't artful in his evasions. He made people mad. He basically went out there with nothing to say and produced a kind of informational emptiness that would have been thought, in the age of news management, to be suicidal, to be totally uncool -- I mean, not what a competent White House would ever allow itself to do. ...
Before, it would have been thought, well, if you're not making news every day, you're missing out on this big microphone you have to speak to the nation. If you're not trying to manage the White House press by releasing information to it carefully, they're going to go and dig up their own information. You can't do that. This is what I call the Gergen consensus, the [commentator and adviser to several presidents] David Gergen consensus. ...
... What is that?
The Gergen consensus was that look, there might be struggles and tensions in the relationship, and there are times when one side is totally frustrated at the other, and most of the time they go around grumbling about each other. But in the end, the White House and the White House press need each other and will cooperate, and so it's our job to understand them and still get our message out, get our agenda through by dealing intelligently with the Washington press. And people, [not only] Gergen but many others, strove to tell the White House how you did that.
This was the era in which people like [President Reagan's adviser] Michael Deaver were said to be media wizards, not because they shut out the press, but because they arranged for it to transmit a pretty picture that would be effective in communicating the charisma of the Reagan machine. Well, that's a strategy. It's totally about manipulation and using the press to your advantage, but it takes for granted that the cameras and what they're showing are extremely important. There was this atmosphere [not] of competition but cooperation, which ... basically described what successive White Houses did from Kennedy through Nixon through Reagan to Bush. ...
Somehow the [George W.] Bush White House overthrew that wisdom and put a whole new system in place, which is: We don't have to answer your questions. We don't care if you find us in contradiction of norms or facts. We're just going to go on as if you don't exist. That's a new idea. ... It's also a very risky strategy.
Is this what you mean by rollback?
Yeah. Rollback is just the word I used to describe a certain pattern that I see in the Bush White House treatment of the press.
Give me a specific example.
... Well, we saw it in the conversion of the White House briefing into an empty ritual. We saw it in the president vastly cutting back his encounters with an unscripted press. We saw it when, in public occasions where the press might be watching, the Bush White House decided not to allow any unfriendly questions from journalists or citizens.
We saw it in the way Dick Cheney basically made himself uncoverable as vice president. ... The White House press doesn't even know where Dick Cheney is much of the time. He doesn't have a daily schedule that would allow you to see what he is doing. That whole idea -- that you put more power into the vice president than almost any president in recent memory, and simultaneously take this person out of the public realm entirely, into a shadow world -- that itself is an amazing transformation, because it says, "This portion of what we're doing, you don't look at; you don't watch; you don't monitor."
No reporters travel with Cheney. Did you know that? That's amazing. How can that be when he has such an important role in our government? …
Let me read to you what [former Bush Chief of Staff] Andrew Card said at one point: "The press don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function in the press." ... Does the press have a check-and-balance function? ...
Every single person who's gone into that room as a reporter believes in a check-and-balance function. If you ask them, they'll tell you that. What Card is saying is the very premise of sending you to the White House to ask us questions, we [don't agree with that] at all.
Bush has said that "we don't think you represent the American people." That's another thing every single person in that room believes. They think they're there asking the questions that the American people would ask, could ask, should ask. The White House is saying: "We don't agree with that either. You don't represent anybody. In fact, you're more like a special interest. ... We reject you as a representative of other Americans. And in fact, we kind of like it that there are people out there in the culture, in the culture war, who are discrediting you all the time, because you deserve to be discredited."
Another thing the White House did: It provided aid, comfort and ideological soulmate-ship with forces in the culture who are attacking the press, seeking to destroy and discredit it.
But how is this different than the [Pat] Buchanan/Nixon/[Vice President Spiro] Agnew/[Nixon Chief of Staff H.R.] Haldeman attitude toward the press?
It's not different at all. It's the gradual building of what started 35 years ago, until it took over the White House itself. That philosophy that the press is out to get us and is a liberal wing of the country -- just like the universities are captive to a small elite -- that notion, which started out in the political fringes, built over 30 and 40 years, and it came to occupy a central notion. ...
So if you have broken that mold, then how do you get your message out?
... You get your message out directly, through the president himself. He gives tons of speeches. He didn't stop communicating with the people in that sense, right?
What he stopped was any situation in which he could be questioned. What he stopped was explaining himself. This whole idea that part of the president's power comes from his ability to tell the story of his policy to the American people, … the Bush White House dissented from that and decided that less is more and that we shouldn't explain ourselves too much, because it dims the authority of the presidency. ...
A lot of what they did, besides rolling back the press, was try and set up their own media system or recognize the alternative one that was already there. But yes, part of it was broadcasting themselves. And you have to admit, in a day when you have whitehouse.gov, that's a perfectly good way to communicate to people, right? "Go to our Web site, and we'll tell you." Just that ability alone certainly changes the picture. And they have been very aggressive in using a whole bunch of alternative ways of becoming a media producer themselves.
One of the shifts in power going on today, beyond the White House, is that a lot of power is shifting to sources, because sources find it much easier to become media broadcasters themselves. ...
What do you mean, "sources"?
Well, let's take Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks and is a technology entrepreneur and businessman. He once had to deal with the beat writers for the Dallas Mavericks when he wanted to talk to the fans or address an issue in the team, and now he has his own blog, Blog Maverick. He doesn't even answer the questions of the beat writers anymore, who he's very impatient with. He's a source, somebody who would be quoted a lot in coverage of the team, who just doesn't deal with the reporters anymore. ...
And the Bush administration does the same thing?
Right. They're adapting to that. ...
... Besides whitehouse.gov, what other examples are there about how the White House gets its message out?
Well, Armstrong Williams: Pay him $240,000, and he broadcasts your message in the guise of being a television host and questioner on the same show.
And write columns.
Write columns for you, yeah, and all of it friendly to the basic message that "No Child Left Behind" is a great idea and the Department of Education is charging ahead. I describe that as [going] from Meet the Press to Be the Press.
Produce video releases to local TV stations?
Yes, which were inherently deceptive, where you had a PR person saying, "This is Karen Ryan reporting," as if a government-paid employee, in effect, could be a reporter. That was a serious thing, and that was distributed by the Bush administration. ...
So what's wrong with that? ...
Well, when the executive branch, with the immense powers of the presidency, becomes also producer of news about the presidency and the main source of information that we as Americans have about it, we have just slipped into a dangerous situation if that ever happened. I don't want the main source of news about the presidency to be the presidency. And when the White House ceases to deal with independent providers of news and becomes itself the provider, we are certainly entitled to worry about that. ...
So the press is basically not as powerful as it used to be.
Exactly, exactly. ... It's not as much of a monopoly as it once was. It doesn't have anywhere near the same kind of cultural authority it once did, and I think the Bush people recognized all of those things.
What you're describing has also taken place because of all this multitude of new outlets, with a rise of what some people call "partisan journalism" or "opinionated journalism," which has put into question the tradition of objective journalism. What do you think about objective journalism? ...
What American journalists actually mean when they say "objectivity" is about 12 or 15 different things, but they're all similar. It's the idea of neutrality. It's the idea of backing up and being detached. It's the idea of not choosing sides. It's an idea of getting all perspectives. But it's also [that] we're professionals, and we're kind of trained not to react. It's caught up with the idea of being a crap detector and being a good skeptic. But fundamentally, objectivity in the American journalism was a way of generating trust and maintaining [it] over time in a particular group of people and their practices. ... But it is, in many ways, breaking down. ...
... By being adversarial, we perform a kind of a watchdog role. And if you have completely failed the country in your watchdog role and a war resulted, then it's beyond a misplayed story; it's an evacuation of your role.
The way that the press was sold and spun and just fooled by the White House in the run-up to the [Iraq] war represents more than just a missed story. How can one say that we have a watchdog press after a performance like that? There have been many other lapses like that, but this one was so systematic, and it involved such a critical question of, should we do this as a country. …
What should [journalists] do about this situation with the White House, with this rollback?
Ultimately it becomes incumbent on the serious press to quit their relationship, to stop going [to briefings] and start reporting completely from the outside. ... They're already on the outside. They should just quit entirely and go to work on reporting the White House from the outside. ...
Are bloggers journalists?
My opinion is that people who write blogs do things that are journalistic all the time, and lots of it isn't. We really shouldn't oppose these things to one another. They are actually going to end up working together much more than they are going to be at loggerheads. I've tried to follow those principles myself in exploring the blog revolution as a blogger. But I think this bloggers-versus-journalists drama is way overdone. It's just kind of the way professional journalists react to things. ...
It doesn't mean that professionals are going away or they're going to be replaced by troops of citizen journalists. I've never said that; I don't believe it. But the picture has changed a lot. The monopoly that they once had, they don't have anymore. They just have to change and adjust to new conditions that are coming about every day.
But there are some people who are advocates for blogging, if you will, but they call it "citizen journalism." They believe that the wisdom of the crowd is superior to what has traditionally gone on [in the mainstream media].
That's not really what they're saying, no. That's what a professional journalist might hear them saying. The wisdom of the crowd is more like this: Have you ever noticed that the most e-mailed articles on the site can be interesting and cause you to discover stuff that are kind of fresh and new? It's like what a lot of people do actually has some information in it, and it's a lot easier for us today to record the choices of what lots of people do. And if we look at that and say, "What is there?" that's what people mean by the wisdom of the crowd.
Now, what a professional journalist hears when they say that is they immediately add 10 reflex reactions where they associate that to market research and giving people what they want, and all of the sudden you've lost all professional autonomy, and you're just catering to people's whims and desires. ... That's what it seems like, but it's not. ... There are certain situations in which group intelligence can be tapped. It's not a replacement for this or that; it's just a new development.
… [An example would be something like] the blog that notices something significant in the case of [Sen.] Trent Lott talking about [Sen.] Strom Thurmond and saying, "It would have been better if he had been president back in '48." The general press reported that story as, "Oh, there was a tribute to Strom Thurmond." They didn't analyze the inner meaning of that statement in terms of segregation and Thurmond and so on. …
Well, what happened with Trent Lott was very interesting. He gave these remarks at a birthday party that was covered, and [ABC] sent some young producers who were low on the totem pole to this routine event. One of the producers who thought what Lott said could be newsworthy wrote it down, but a senior producer said, "Nah, that's nothing." But it ended up in a short report on ABC, and it made it to the Web.
What happened then is that the bloggers, representing a kind of a second jury of newsworthiness, looked at it carefully and said, "You know, he really said something amazing here." Then it reverberated from the bloggers back to the traditional press, who then made a story of it, and that is when Lott had to resign [as Senate majority leader].
Now, the interesting part was the chance of your average young [ABC] producer not knowing very much about the 1948 presidential campaign and therefore not really hearing much in what Trent Lott [said], those chances were pretty high. But the chances of the blog world, interconnected the way it is, not knowing that relevant background -- zero. So the blog system was actually more likely to catch the significance of what Lott said than an individual producer or a reporter would be.
Is that why 60 Minutes II wound up with "Rathergate"?
Oh, definitely. Another big reason why 60 Minutes II wound up with Rathergate was that [CBS News] didn't have the Web literacy that they should have had. ... They didn't know what was happening to their story on the Web. They went into a defensive crouch and said, "We stand by our story." But nobody in power, nobody with any decision-making influence actually was monitoring what was happening to that story online, and they didn't know how weak their story was. They persisted for at least seven or eight days in something that many other people knew was going to fall. ... It was a case of a news organization that was not actually current with knowledge of its own story. It was extraordinary. ...
Conservative bloggers that we've talked to say, "How many times has this sort of shoddy journalism happened in the past and nobody ever found out about it?" Is that fair?
I guess it would be a fair question, yeah. Their assumption that it goes on all the time is not fair. I actually think this was an extraordinary situation, extraordinary lapse that is not necessarily typical, but nonetheless extremely disturbing. I don't agree with CBS, and I don't agree with the right-wing bloggers, either, about what happened in this story. ...
[How important is Fox News in terms of the changes that have happened in the media landscape?]
Having a news network organized on different principles is important because it breaks the monopoly. It shows that there are other ways of doing things. It says there's an alternative. It generates a new audience. Fox demonstrated that there was a market for another formula in news, and that's significant.
[Do] you like it, partisan journalism and Fox News?
I don't like Fox News, but not because it's partisan-inflected. I don't like it because it's unreliable. It's very sensationalized. It's low-cost news that puts entertainment ahead of actual news gathering. So I don't like it for those reasons. I think a conservative network that had high professional standards and was also well financed and had a large, active newsroom would be interesting. I don't think that would be necessarily a terrible thing. ...
Is the Lott case an example of partisan journalism doing good?
Well, first of all, journalists are the ones who think that opinion disqualifies someone from giving good information. In reality, lots of people connect to the public world and the political world through opinion and argument and controversy and belief and conviction. Certainly rooting [for] our side against them, that's normal. It's not abnormal. There's not something defective about it. That's the way most people participate in politics.
It turns out that getting people engaged through argument is a good way of getting them to go look for information and get interested in [something] and want more. That's the genius of the lobbying the way [Talking Points Memo blogger] Josh Marshall does it. He engages people through argument, political conviction, what you'd call partisanship, if you want to. It's his membership in the community of liberal left thinkers, and it's through the intensity of that relationship that he leads his users and readers to be interested in lots of information, new information, recently unearthed information, information buried in documents and hearings and lots of other places that he digs around in.
Now he's hired people who are investigative reporters to dig around in that. And if mainstream journalists keep looking down their nose at anything that they can label partisan, they're just going to miss what's going on in the larger world, and they're going to make themselves increasingly irrelevant.
How did the content of news coverage in the media change after 9/11?
… After 9/11, what you saw was a media culture that was scared straight. The hard-news component in network news, in morning network news and on cable news, surged upward. …
That wasn't sustained. By the second quarter of 2002, we saw the media reverting back to the mix of hard and soft news that we'd seen before 9/11 -- not completely, but it had gone about three-quarters of the way back to this somewhat more tabloid, more lifestyle-oriented news agenda. We saw that in various studies that we conducted, and that others did.
In the initial stage after 9/11, how well, in your estimation, did the news media do in covering the war in Afghanistan?
I think you have to break understanding the press coverage after 9/11 into three parts: The first part was the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington. What happened there was that the press became very serious, and also very cautious. There was a marked effort by journalists not to rush to judgment, as there had been after the attacks in Oklahoma City, to follow the evidence fairly carefully; to not inject too much opinion into the coverage.
In studies that we did, we saw a higher degree of factualness or reporting without opinion than we'd seen previously. And we also saw in public opinion surveys an uptick, the first time in 15 years, in public confidence in the press in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
There was another component to that, which was that the networks went on the air for several weeks without commercial interruption. In other words, they did something that was not in their immediate economic interest because there was an overriding public need and curiosity. …
The second phase of the press coverage after 9/11 was the move to Afghanistan. There you saw the Bush administration and the Pentagon take a harder line toward the press than we'd seen even in the first Iraq war. … Reporters were penned in in hangars. They weren't out with troops. They really didn't have access, and they were begging for it. But it was also not very controversial, because what we were doing in Afghanistan we had virtually universal approval, both in this country and in much of the world. We were going after, directly, the people who had coordinated the attacks on the United States.
The third phase of the coverage after 9/11 was the run-up after Afghanistan, the run-up to the war in Iraq. I think this is the phase that people now remember as policymakers debated, should we go to war in Iraq? What was the predicate for the war in Iraq? Were there weapons of mass destruction? What was our intelligence? This third phase culminated with [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell going to the United Nations and making his international explanation of why war in Iraq was justified.
In that phase, I think the press made what was largely a realpolitik calculation, at least in its own mind. It decided that since there wasn't significant opposition to the war by Democrats or others, that it wasn't going to give a lot of coverage to what little opposition there was. The question of whether there were weapons of mass destruction or any of these other claims got less scrutiny from the press, because it made the calculation that war was going to happen anyway. …
There were tensions inside some news organizations, and reporters who were more skeptical of the administration claims were told basically, in some instances, "We're not going to give your stories a lot of prominence in the paper, because this is going to happen." …
Why has there been so much scrutiny, so much attention to The New York Times' coverage of the WMD claims?
It's important to understand that the number of news organizations that actually have a national security reporter or bureaus overseas and can penetrate the intelligence community are very limited. You're talking about a handful of news organizations, and The New York Times is at the top of that list. This is an elite debate understood by elite audiences, and that's the newspaper of elites.
So when The New York Times began to have stories that supported the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that was very influential. It had an echo effect. It had an echo effect that the administration was conscious of and employed. They had berated The New York Times for liberalism in the past, so when there were stories in the Times that supported their point of view, they would then turn around and say, "Even The New York Times has got a story here the other day that supports our position about weapons of mass destruction." It was kind of a loop.
And it was a conscious loop. We now know that you had people on the vice president's staff talking to Judy Miller, who was one of the key reporters doing these stories for the Times, leaking that material to her or helping her with her stories. Those stories would appear, and then they would reference the very material that they'd given her and say, "See, this is coming from The New York Times, not just us," when, in fact, it was coming from the administration.
I want to give you some of the responses we've had from journalists and get your critique on things that they've gotten wrong. Judith Miller, for instance, says that she's getting the same intelligence that the president does, and her sources were wrong. Therefore, she's wrong. And she's never known intelligence to overestimate a threat. It's always been the opposite in the past.
I think the problem with the argument that the intelligence was wrong and therefore the press was wrong is that not all the press went along with the intelligence. And not all of the intelligence went one way. There were reporters even at The New York Times who were hearing contrary information. They just had more difficulty getting it in the paper.
There were other news organizations that were reporting different things. The Knight Ridder Washington bureau was reporting different things. It's true that significant sources in the administration and in the intelligence community, including, at the time, the head of the CIA, were arguing this way. But there was enough tension there, I think, to merit some skepticism. …
I think it's important to point out that, historically, the press has not done a wonderful job of being skeptical in the run-up to war, and when the commander in chief says, "We have to go," the press, historically, has fallen in line. … The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution at the beginning of the Vietnam War turned out to be something of a trumped-up charge, and it took decades for the press to correct the record on that. At the time, the resolution in the Senate passed overwhelmingly, and the press went along.
We talked to Clark Hoyt, who was with Knight Ridder at the time, and he's still at a loss as to why. He said, "We were just following good reporting." … He said, "I felt very lonely."
One of the things that people don't appreciate is that the instances in which journalists go out on their own for an extended period of time are rare. [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein and Watergate going for almost a year without the press following them and confirming their stories, that's the exception. Most journalists don't want to have a scoop that remains a scoop for more than about 48 hours. They want their rivals to write affirming stories; they just want them to be a day behind. …
Knight Ridder continued with its skeptical coverage. Now we're at a point where that coverage looks very good, but I think for a long time, people thought, well, that's just one group of reporters, and it's in a relatively -- you know, this is not The New York Times; this is not The Washington Post. …
Now, in the broadcast world, any skepticism?
Well, we're at a point now where broadcast news does not have the influence over the news agenda that it once did. There's a [survey] out that shows that most journalists don't even see what's on the network news; they're working on their own stories at that time. So the instances in which the coverage on network television or cable television shapes the agenda of the news generally is pretty limited. …
The thing to understand about cable news and its influence over the news agenda is that most cable news is actually extemporaneous. It's people going on camera live. The journalists themselves have a diminished role there, because they're basically talking off of notes, talking off of the tape, the top of their head, and repeating what they've been told by newsmakers or the news, or they're interviewing newsmakers. …
So the journalism itself on cable has an agenda-setting impact in telling us what to think about. But the nature of the coverage itself on cable is really controlled, I think, to a much greater degree by the sources than it is by the journalists. …
How would you rate the job done by the news media in covering the invasion of Iraq and major combat operations?
The invasion of Iraq was dominated by the use of a new tool by the Pentagon, which was the embedded reporter system. … I think, in general, the use of the embedded program by the press was not very good. The program itself was better than the way the media employed it. The embedded program gave hundreds of reporters very limited perspective -- it's been described as a soda straw's-eye view of the war. You could see exactly what a grunt, what one soldier could see. You knew only what your unit was doing. …
To make use of the embedded program, the press probably should have collected each of these soda straw's-eye views and put them together to get perspective, to get context. You saw some of this in the evening newscast on the networks and some in the papers. But the studies that we did of the embedded program suggested that the dominant use in morning television and on cable was to just go live; that you'd see one embedded reporter doing a kind of extemporaneous off-the-cuff report, and then they'd go to another embedded reporter whenever they were in a place where they could transmit.
It was very frustrating for the American public, because they were just getting these disconnected snippets of information. It was very difficult to know what they added up to.
It was also very sanitized, because the reporters were kept at a safe distance. We monitored the first week of embedded coverage, which was the heaviest week of the war. You would see bombs and artillery and weapons fired, and you would even see, occasionally, where they would strike. But you didn't see any video of the effect. … This stood in contrast, of course, to what people were seeing in the Middle East. …
I want to shift and talk a bit more about the Bush administration, specifically in relations with the media. … What about this broader charge about the media being unfair to Bush? …
The president has, up until probably midway through 2006, taken the point of view that the news media is a hostile special interest, that it doesn't represent the public or the public interest. He's articulated that, and others [in the] administration have articulated that.
They have data to back up that theory. We have now two decades of public opinion polling that shows that Americans increasingly doubt the morality of the press, the accuracy of the press, the intentions of the press by any number of different measurements and different ways of asking the question.
When you boil that data down, increasingly Americans doubt that the press is operating in the public interest. They perceive news organizations as operating out of their own economic interests, and they perceive individual journalists as operating out of the motive of advancement of their own careers.
The Bush administration has capitalized and exploited that increasing cynicism about the press, and they've done that, in part, out of a genuine suspicion that the press is liberal. I think that there are many people in the administration who are sincere in their sense that the press is biased. I think there are others in the administration who think it's a useful calculation.
It's a useful strategy to accuse the press of bias, whether they believe it or not. It's useful because it discredits bad news, and it's useful because it puts journalists on the defensive. It makes them less aggressive if you accuse them of being biased. …
I also believe that the Bush administration believes in what you might call the conduit model of press management. The conduit model is: The press is a technology. It's a machine, and you want to use that machine to your purposes. You don't want to persuade journalists of your point of view; you just want to use their cameras.
Democrats and liberals, both by nature and by training, believe in what you might call the constituent model of press management, which is the press is a constituency. We're going to persuade them; we're going to win them over one journalist at a time, let them see our point of view. That's how we'll win positive coverage. …
So the Bush administration has, following on the heels, to a large degree, of the Reagan administration, felt that it [would] have more success in using the press than winning the press over. … I think they really have given up on the idea that the press is even trying to be fair.
They also have a lot of media today that did not exist 20 years ago in talk radio, in certain cable programs, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, where they can get their message out in an undiluted way. … The technology of modern communications has generally ceded more power to the newsmaker. …
So much of the strategy of attacking the press works because there's already a good chunk of the population that believes the press is biased. But why is that?
I think that the growing sense of unease about the press is fed by three different things. One is the press's behavior itself. The technology has exploded, and that has resulted in most news organizations having a smaller piece of the pie, smaller audience. They've cut back on their news-gathering resources as their audience has shrunk. … That's fueled the sense that the press is not operating in the public interest, but has been operating in the interest of its shareholders and maintaining profit margins and things like that. So that economic behavior has fed a dissatisfaction with the press. ...
The second reason that attacking the press has worked is that we've now had 10 years of politicians, mostly on the right, attacking the press as being biased. There's a context now. When you make that accusation, I've been hearing it for so long it must be true. There's also more information out there about the press that shows that journalists tend to be more liberal. That newsrooms in the 1990s actually did become, between the 1980s and the 1990s, more liberal.
Then the third reason that it works is that we know, in public opinion polling, that more people are inclined to think that the press is biased for the other two reasons. So you're now preaching to a more persuaded audience when you make these accusations.
Then, quite apart from whether or not it works or not in terms of public opinion, it does tend to put reporters on their heels, because reporters feel that they're trying to be fair, by and large. Often they don't succeed. But when you attack them as failing in their professional ethics of fairness, they want to redouble their efforts to prove that they're fair. …
Can you talk about this administration's exercise of message control?
Well, for much of the president's first six years in office, the Bush administration demonstrated the greatest amount of discipline in terms of message control of any administration in modern history. There was a sense that the administration was filled with veterans who had been in other White Houses. … They knew what they were doing, and they knew how to control leaks. And they made loyalty, the ideological loyalty and personal loyalty to the president, a greater value in picking key people in agencies here and abroad, and even in Iraq, than previous administrations did. …
You also had a high degree of skill in message control to go along with the discipline. Usually vice presidents are typically people who are sort of loose-lipped, and they're the guy you send out to say anything. But this vice president is one of the most skillful communicators. …
From a political standpoint, I think future administrations are going to study how the Bush administration did this and admire and emulate that level of discipline in message control. Only now, after six years, are we beginning to see the [rifts] over message and the policy disagreements that usually, frankly, you see after three years or two years in an administration.
[What has happened when former officials have broken with the administration message?]
In this administration, we've seen that there are consequences to leaking and breaking faith, if you will, with the administration line. You are not treated well. Secretary [of the Treasury Paul] O'Neill, who wrote with journalist Ron Suskind a book raising doubts and concerns about the way the Bush administration made decisions, was made to look like a laughingstock by the message controllers who went out with great discipline and attacked him. This is a man who's served past presidents with great distinction. …
That may begin to change. We're now seeing a series of nonfiction books appear about the administration in which sources who talked before and did not reveal things are beginning to reveal doubts. I think some of those people are beginning to feel that history is not going to treat events in Iraq all that kindly, and they want to get on the right side of that story and that may be more important to some of these people than what happens with the Bush administration and their former friends there. …
I want to talk more about the public relations in this administration. ... Estimates show, best we can tell, that this administration has spent roughly double in terms of public relations contracts what the previous administration had. Do you have any sense what's behind this?
I think that the administration's attempt to use public relations and video news releases and to create their own pseudo-journalism to spread out into the media machine reflects two things: one, the sensibility that the press is a technology to be used rather than a group of people to be persuaded -- this conduit model of press relations, I think. The other thing that it reflects, I believe, is that as the press has cut back on resources and spread itself thin, that your ability to succeed in getting this material into the media bloodstream goes up.
We know from the work that we've done that in local television, the use of wire feeds, material that's secondhand from other sources, has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. The number of stories in which there's a correspondent in the piece in local has gone down. The amount of enterprise work in local television is going down. As you lose audience, you spread your resources thinner, and this has created more potential for people to just take stuff from elsewhere and put it on the air.
I've heard this from liberal and conservative activists in Washington that 10 years ago, they would send out raw materials that they hoped might be used in television pieces, and gradually over the years they've discovered that if they send whole pieces with scripts and off-screen narrators, that those pieces will appear on the air re-dubbed by a local newscaster. …
Can you talk about in that context, the paying off of the columnists Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher?
Yeah. Now, I think that the production of video news releases by the Department of Education or Health and Human Services or other agencies falls into one category of press manipulation which the Bush administration was more aggressive about than Clinton administration. But the next administration of whatever party it's from may be also very aggressive about it, because they can do it because the press is willing to be manipulated. …
You're really walking a dangerous line, it seems to me, when you start paying off journalists, because you risk antagonizing not only the press in general, but also the public, [which], for all of its doubts about press performance, does respect still the job of an independent press, the notion of an independent press. Even today, if you ask most Americans, "Would you rather see a partisan press or an independent press?," overwhelmingly they want an independent press. And as the administration has become somewhat less popular in the last two years, the levels of support for the watchdog press has gone up.
Right after 9/11, in a poll question that the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has asked over the years, two-thirds of Americans said if given a choice between national security and the public's right to know, after 9/11, two-thirds supported national security.
Today, those numbers -- really just in the last two years -- have gradually reversed. Today, two-thirds of Americans said they'd be more worried about the public's right to know than national security. Why? Hard to say, of course, but I've got to believe that declining confidence in the administration as his approval ratings have dropped, declining doubts about policies, probably mostly related to Iraq. If you begin to lose confidence in a government's policies, you begin to want a press to be more skeptical. …
I want to talk about the "Rathergate" story. What did CBS do wrong?
Well, in what's become known as the Rathergate or "Memogate" story at CBS, CBS's 60 Minutes II did a report about the president's war record during Vietnam and the National Guard and cited documents that it claimed were proof that his National Guard supervisor at the time thought that he had gotten special preferential treatment.
What CBS failed to do was to authenticate whether those documents were legitimate and accurate. It claimed that it had authenticated the documents, but in reality, all it had done is gotten experts to document that the signature was that of the person whose name was on the documents. But it's quite possible the documents themselves were manufactured. …
Within 24 hours, there were people in the blogosphere raising questions and supposing that the documents were falsified. In the end, it was never resolved whether the documents were false or not, but it was clear that CBS had not done a sufficient job of authenticating.
I think we'll look back on Memogate as a moment when the news media discovered that it can no longer get away with claiming to know things that it really hasn't verified, claiming to have authenticated things that it really hasn't authenticated, or claiming to have brought in experts who are really not experts in all the things that the media may claim. In a sense, in the age of the blogosphere, the news media is in an open courtroom and in a sense kind of under oath, because it's going to be cross-examined in real time by any blogger or any critic who wants to raise questions.
What about the charge of liberal bias laid bare right there?
What we know about Memogate was that it was a failure to authenticate documents. Why did CBS and Dan Rather fail to authenticate documents? Was it because Rather's got a liberal bias? Was it the producer who has a liberal bias? Was it a failure of systems, because the ranks of CBS News had been so thinned out over the years that there weren't sufficient checks and balances? Was it some combination of all of those things?
My gut is that it was a combination, that you did have some people who had an anti-Bush bias, and then you had other people for whom that wasn't a factor, but there just weren't enough bodies in the system anymore. And too much responsibility was handed over to somebody who did have a bias.
What do you think it does in the end for the public's perception?
Memogate is going to mean for people who see bias in the press as proof that it exists. It's going to mean for people who deride consolidation [and] conglomeration in the press as a sign of the corporate decline of CBS News. For other people, it means that what CBS claims that it represented, which was too much speed, too much eagerness to get something on the air. …
I know for Don Hewitt, who developed 60 Minutes originally at CBS, Memogate represented a loss of perspective, because the story that did Dan Rather in in the end wasn't a story that was all that new. It wasn't really a dramatically different story about George Bush's war record than we knew in the past. It wasn't worth, in other words, going out on a limb. A week later, The New York Times had most of the same story without the falsified documents or questionable documents, and it didn't make a ripple.
You mentioned liberal bias. ... It's what you study. Is there a liberal bias in the media?
Yeah. I think there is a problem with liberal bias in the media. It's not the one that some conservatives see. It's not a conscious attempt to help one party and hurt another. …
The problem is that we don't have sufficient intellectual diversity in our newsroom -- too many reporters who are left-leaning and not enough reporters who are right-leaning. When you lack the debate in the newsroom, you lack a certain perspective.
How does that play out? It's not that journalists don't want to be fair, but it's difficult to be fair when you lack a wide enough range of views pouring over the news. So it plays out when new conservative ideas come up. Whether it's school vouchers or partial-birth abortion or something else, you'll see a liberal instinct in first reactions: "Oh, that's a phony issue," or, "It's just designed to win votes," or, "There's no substance behind that," or, "That's only going to hurt the poor." …
So it is harder for new conservative ideas to gain currency, to get fair coverage. That, I think, reinforces this sense that conservatives have that, "Ah, there it is again: God." And they sense then it can't be unconscious. "It's so apparent to me over and over and over; it just has got to be on purpose."
There is just no question about the makeup of the American newsroom. We know from studies from different sources -- and I don't mean quick and dirty studies about who you voted for in the last election, but deeper studies that have been done over time -- that the percentage of people in American newsrooms lean, politically, a certain way. …
... Could you talk sort of broadly about how anonymous sourcing in journalism has evolved since Watergate?
Yeah. I think that it's important in understanding the [Valerie] Plame case to understand how anonymous sourcing has changed over the last generation. During Watergate and before that, confidentiality was a tool that journalists would offer to reluctant sources to coax them to come forward. It was the journalist who would say: "If you won't tell me on the record, why not go on background? I won't name you. I'll protect you. You're safe."
Over the last 25 years, that has shifted to the point where confidentiality and anonymity are conditions that the source often imposes on the journalist before even talking to them in the first place. We've reached the point in Washington where today, it's a standing, understood rule that every press spokesman on Capitol Hill will be anonymous. Why? Because only the members should speak for his or her office.
So you have a situation where people who are paid by taxpayers' money are granted freedom to not be accountable for what they say on the record because everybody uses background all the time, and it's just the way of the world: "If you won't play by those rules, I won't talk to you." It's been a complete power shift in which what was once a journalistic tool for coaxing sources, whistleblowers, to come forward, has shifted over and is now in the employ of the source, not the journalist. …
How does the public feel about anonymous sourcing?
Well, anonymous sourcing is one of those fascinating issues, because the public hates them. The public hates having information withheld from them. We've seen this in surveys for years and years and years. It's one of the things that the public finds very, very irritating. Anonymous sourcing is extremely unpopular.
Yet the public supports the notion of a watchdog press. It's one of the few things that the public still likes about the press is that it serves this watchdog function. So journalists have this complicated reaction: How can I perform the watchdog function for you and not get whistleblowers and other sources to tell me things in confidence? I can't do one without the other.
If you press the public with a series of complicated questions, you'll get the answer that, while they don't like anonymous sourcing, if there's no other way to get the information, they understand and they accept it. …
How did these issues play out in the Plame case?
The Plame case was very complex and changed over time. In the beginning, you had a sense that there was a runaway prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] who was getting people in government to sign these flimsy waivers that would say to a reporter, "I may have spoken to you, but I've signed this waiver under threat of losing my job." …
You had a variety of journalists in town who were saying, "This makes me sick," the idea that you forced a government employee to sign a waiver, and now you can use that waiver as a club to get a journalist to repudiate his promise of confidentiality.
Suddenly, everything is now turned on its head. Eventually people began to see, however, the sources in the Plame case not as confidential sources or whistleblowers, but there was this sense that these confidential sources were different. They weren't really sources; they were political spinners. They were using confidentiality as a political weapon to retaliate against someone who disagreed with the administration, Valerie Plame's husband [former Ambassador Joseph Wilson].
This notion that anonymity and confidentiality had been flipped, some jujitsu had happened in Washington -- suddenly it was not something that the journalists controlled, but that the sources controlled -- came to dominate the background of the Plame case. ...
The Plame case has had different phases to it. Initially, I think there was a sense that the prosecutor was out of control. He began to investigate reporters who had not written stories. … That, I think, in the early days of the investigation alarmed a lot of people in Washington, particularly journalists. How can you possibly grill a reporter for what he didn't write? Now you're really getting into thought process and work process. This is not good for free press.
Then suddenly, these reporters began to talk, reporters who were highly regarded in some cases, and there was a lot of confusion. Why would these reporters talk? What's the pretext? … Some of these reporters used the waivers as an excuse to testify. Others said, "No, I think the waivers themselves are being signed under duress."
Initially, there was a sense that these reporters who resisted were really being heroic. But even, over time, that began to change as the perception about the whole question of leaking and who was leaking and who were they leaking to and why were they leaking became more complicated.
How did this come to be on Judith Miller's head?
I don't remember the number now, but there were about a half a dozen reporters who were involved in this case and who were asked to testify. Gradually, every single one of them capitulated and ended up testifying; in other words, saying, "I know I granted these sources anonymity, and I know that in some cases I didn't even write a story, but I'm going to testify anyway." This goes against the grain of all the training that journalists have, which is, "If I give you my word that I'll protect you, I'll go to jail." …
Suddenly Judy Miller of The New York Times, a reporter who is extremely controversial and whose work on weapons of mass destruction had been largely repudiated by the time of the Plame case, is now the last standard-bearer, the last reporter who is willing to stand up to protect her sources. Whatever mixed feelings [people] had about Judy Miller, or even who her sources might be, there was a lot of residual respect for the fact that she went to jail and sat in a jail cell and actually slept on the floor and not even on a cot, because she had to share the jail cell with another inmate, and the other inmate got the cot. So there were a lot of mixed feelings here among reporters. I think those mixed feelings persisted until Judy Miller explained in her own words her motivations and her decision, ultimately, to testify. …
It seems like she was attacked pretty strongly.
Right. The Miller case is complicated because she's so complicated. She had been a champion, really, of the administration's point of view in the run-up to the war with her coverage of weapons of mass destruction, which supported the administration's point of view; relied heavily on sources that the administration was promoting, particularly [Iraqi National Congress founder] Mr. [Ahmad] Chalabi; and was then an extremely controversial character inside The New York Times and inside the journalism fraternity. …
I think that Judith Miller was perceived as a complex but heroic figure until the very moment that she decided to get out of jail. What did her in, in the end, was her own words. Her own explanation of why she chose, in the end, to testify, and to respect the waiver was unpersuasive to reporters. She said, in the end, that, "I chose that I owed it to myself to get out of jail." And people said: "Well, what does that mean? What First Amendment principle are you upholding at that point?"
Then her explanation went on to talk about the details of her interaction with her source, [then-Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney] Scooter Libby, and journalists were even more concerned. She granted him confidentiality. It was so protective that it didn't appear that her motivation was to work in the public interest at all. She was willing, at one point, to describe him as a former Capitol Hill aide, which, as The Washington Post later said, is the equivalent of describing a person in Washington as "some guy." Within days, frankly, of her first-person account in The New York Times, her career in The New York Times was effectively over. …
What's the difference between Judith Miller's source, and Deep Throat?
Well, from the journalist's standpoint, there is no difference, to tell you the truth. A source is a source, and the motive of the source really shouldn't be relevant to the journalist.
One thing people need to understand is that when you're negotiating the conditions for a conversation, you do so at the beginning of the conversation: What's the ground rules here? Are we on the record, or are we on background?, which means I don't name you. Are we on off-the-record basis?, which, properly, means I can't quote you under any basis. All I can do is take this information privately and use it to try and pry confirmation from others.
At the beginning of a conversation, you don't know what your source is going to tell you, and you don't know what their motive is for telling you, particularly if you're talking to a high-ranking administration official who might be leaking you information about some things, but doing political spin about other topics in the conversation. …
However, to the public, and to the popular imagination that's looking at the press in an interaction, the motive of the source is everything. And the whistleblower who was Deep Throat, reluctantly guiding an investigative reporter, and to correct and steer him on the right, more accurate course, is very different than a high-ranking administration official lunching in an elegant Washington hotel and spinning a reporter with the protection of background confidentiality to protect them from any political ramifications of what they've said. …
Does this investigation tell us anything about the Bush administration trying to get their message out, their viewpoint out?
Washington journalism has always operated, and continues to operate, even in the age of the Internet and the age of cable news and instantaneous communication, with very high-powered, top aides to the president talking in salons and in restaurants and in private conversation with elite journalists.
That situation, which existed even in colonial days, continues to exist. It's as old as journalism. Why? Because that's the powerful trying to get their message out to other elites, through elite media. And that's what occurred in the Plame case. It's what occurred in Watergate. It's what occurred during the Nixon administration, the Kennedy administration, the Roosevelt administration, the first Roosevelt administration, the Lincoln administration.
The lessons there are simply that, in an age of media scrutiny, the journalists have to be more careful about whose interests they're serving. Are they really having these conversations on behalf of the public, or are they having these conversations on behalf of themselves? Whose allegiance are they serving? There is more transparency now about these elite conversations than there's ever been. We're going to know more about them. There's going to be more scrutiny of them. Bloggers are going to start wondering about, "What was going through your mind as you were interviewing that Cabinet secretary?" …
In terms of the big picture for First Amendment freedom of the press, what do you think the long-term consequences of the Plame affair will be?
I think the Plame affair was a sobering moment for journalists and for the public of just how far out of control the use of anonymous sourcing has become.
It was a moment in which journalists realized they've lost a tool, that confidentiality is no longer something that is in their employ, and I think that there will be some healthy pulling back. Even before the Plame case was over, you saw new policies at The New York Times, at The Washington Post and at a host of other news organizations in which, if a source asks for anonymity, now several news organizations are going to explain not only in some cases why the request was made, but even why the news organization agreed to honor the request. …
So are anonymous sources bad for reporting?
Anonymous sourcing is like any other tool. Is a chainsaw a bad tool? Well, if you don't use it properly, it certainly is; you can cut your arm off. And the same thing is true of anonymous sourcing. …
Are you not concerned about a chilling effect from the legal precedent from this case?
Well, I don't know that we know yet what the legal precedent in this case will be. I am concerned about the use of the waivers. The special prosecutor was viewed, by the end, as almost a kind of heroic figure to journalists, because he was going after sources who were using confidentiality for political reasons, and he was trying to get at whether they then lied about their conversations with reporters.
But the use of waivers, however judiciously used in this case, [is] going to only be used more widely in other cases. That's just what happens. We're in an environment where there's no harm to judges or prosecutors for going after reporters. I think we're going to see more waivers; I think we're going to see them used less discriminately. And I think that journalists, in the end, are going to regret what happened in the Plame case. …
You talked about the public opinion of journalists and their practices changing over time. How much do you think public opinion comes to bear on judges when they're deciding whether or not it's appropriate to subpoena journalists?
I'm not a lawyer, but as a journalist, I have a strong sense that judges operate in a political context. Today there seems to be almost no penalty in the press or in the popular imagination for going after journalists. …
What do you think of the prospects for a federal shield law?
I'm not sure what the betting would be on whether we'll have a federal shield or not, but I wouldn't put a great deal of stock in the idea that that shield law is going to make much difference.
There are shield laws all over the country, in different states, and they vary from very good for the press to not being worth much at all for the press. In the political context we're looking at in Washington, I would gather that whatever is passed, if anything is passed, would be in the latter camp.
Given what you said about liberal bias … is President Bush justified in his attitude toward the press?
I think the notion that has become popular, that the press is an illegitimate institution and the mainstream press is just not to be trusted, is really dangerous, really unhealthy for the country generally. I don't think it's wise for politicians to go down that road. It's not constructive criticism, if you will.
The independent press model that we've developed in the United States the last 150 years is really the envy of the democratic world. … What [a partisan press model] would mean is a less professional, a less accurate press, a more opinion-oriented press. And we're not lacking for opinion in the media culture that we have. What we're lacking is on-the-ground, shoe-leather reporting.
But this notion that the press is just another special interest, just a corporate interest, that you should write them off, that objectivity is a joke, and that we should all just sort of assume that the one press is liberal and another press is conservative doesn't serve our political system. It doesn't serve our geography, our political culture, and it's not going to lead to a better journalism. What it will lead to is a kind of fractious marketplace, where it will be hard to know who to trust or what to believe. …
You've been in this business 32 years. Has the pressure related to confidential sources ever been like this?
This is the most pressure that I can recall in 32 years, with the government having the most success in going after phone records [in the case of The New York Times reporting on two Chicago mosques suspected of terrorist financing] and trying to put reporters in jail. It's become a true occupational hazard now.
It's mostly the federal government, right?
It is the federal government, and it's this administration in particular. The people I talk to at the FBI say this would never have been the case, but now they have no problem getting approval to go after reporters' phone records and trying to go after reporters.
To give them their best case, I think it's Sept. 11, 2001. They sense that it doesn't matter what reporters may think or say; we're fighting against people who want to kill us, and we have to do everything we can, and reporters can't stand in the way of that. ...
They're issuing grand jury subpoenas now in leak investigations to people writing about steroids in professional sports.
Right. Well, they've set a number of precedents based on the war on terror, which they're now using. That's now spilling over, as everyone predicted it would. The rulings of the Court have changed the landscape substantially.
The Court says that all they're doing is enforcing the 34-year-old Branzburg [v. Hayes] decision.
Well, that's a political decision, and I think there's a legal argument about that. I'm not a lawyer -- I leave that to others -- but they have taken that and tried to use that to their advantage, and that is essentially a political decision that other administrations haven't made. ... But this administration, the people I talk to inside say it is a green light to go against reporters. …
Did you do a story that your phone records were being tracked by the government?
I did a story with one of the producers and reporters I work with, Rich Esposito. It related to the CIA's secret prisons, the flights of captured terrorists around the world, and also the various interrogation techniques the CIA uses. We had extremely good sources on that: current and former CIA officers who were upset with what happened to their agency. They felt they'd gone down the wrong road, and they gave us a lot of information.
After those stories were aired, one of our sources in law enforcement told Rich Esposito: "We know who you're calling. I know who you called. You've got to be careful here; they're tracking you." Now, as far as we know, nobody asked for our phone records. There's no record that we know of anybody subpoenaing our phone records. But that's what this source said.
Are they looking at other reporters?
We know that from cases where it's shown up in court, trying to get The New York Times' [phone] records [in the case of a government raid on two Chicago mosques suspected of financing terrorism]. And we know the CIA has made criminal referrals to the Justice Department to go after reporters' sources involving stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. ...
You reported, "Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation."
That's what we were told. How they got them I don't know, but we did report that.
Are you saying that the government hasn't confirmed this to you, or other sources haven't? You still have one source.
We had the initial source. Others in the government told me this was going on, and they were not knowledgeable about how our records in particular were known to them.
But do you see a similarity between the Bush administration distancing itself, the White House, from the press and the Nixon, if you will, adversarial relationship with the press?
The Bush administration's "isolation" is the word that the media likes to use, is nowhere near the calculated wall that was put up during the Nixon days. Nixon changed the name of the press conference to the news conference. Why? Because it wasn't the press's conference; it was the president's conference to make news. He thought about that. That wasn't an accident.
At one point, he would tell Klein and Ziegler: "I don't want to see that guy on the plane again. Make sure he doesn't get on the plane." At one point, I remember Ziegler had to say to him: "Look, we've got a press pool of four guys. It's picked not by us, and we really can't say no." And Nixon kind of licked his lips and said: "Tell you what. Put all four of those guys on Air Force One. Go ahead; do it." And Ziegler said, "I can?" And the president said: "Right. And I'll ride back on the press plane," the other plane riding in back. Well, we talked him out of that. (Laughs.)
But you don't see a similarity with this administration attempting to control its message?
Managing the news, which is always the charge made against both Democratic and Republican administrations, is always attempted to a certain degree, and it should be. I mean, you should say, why should we be concentrating on foreign news when people are worried about inflation or recession? So let's put out stories about this and put out legislation about that. That's managing the news. ...
You don't see any special wall with this White House?
Not more than ever.
Or discipline about what their message is?
It always is tried, and it always breaks down, thank God.
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. ...
Tell me a little bit about the access that you had when you were writing the  Esquire piece. What that was like?
... The [Esquire] profile was of [former Bush Communications Director] Karen Hughes. Now, journalists, we need to pitch and pitch to the folks at the White House. Mark McKinnon was helpful, the media guy. [He said]: "Look, it's the midterm elections. The president is having trouble with women voters, [from] what I understand. It would be nice, I would gather, if they knew that his right-hand man was a woman, truly and fully." ...
I interviewed almost everybody in the West Wing. It was extraordinary. At one point I even had a desk across from Karen Hughes' office. ...
Why do you think they chose you to do it, and were you surprised?
Frankly, I think part of it is they didn't really do all their homework. One of the things that someone said to me later, a person close to the Bush crowd, is, "Don't mistake conviction for thoroughness." They often don't engage in the kind of due diligence you'd expect. In this case, maybe they didn't do that. I had written a big work of narrative nonfiction that really touches the heart, and maybe they were thinking that's more of what I did at this point.
In any event, what was clear is that they were feeling a kind of confidence. They had a kind of hubris, ... especially in early 2002. If you had to look at a few months of this administration as to maybe the perils of-- of overconfidence, you probably would look at these few months. At that juncture I think they were feeling a kind of warmth: "We are giants, and let someone document that." So that was, I think, part of what got me in the door and got me that kind of access. ...
[Hughes] ultimately ends up announcing her resignation at the very end of my reporting. That was a surprise to everyone. It was so closely held inside of the White House that really just the president, the first lady, the vice president [Dick Cheney], Andy Card knew. ... I called everyone back and said, "I think it's fair for me to request one more interview with everybody." ...
Ultimately, the key interview ends up being with Andy Card, the chief of staff. Andy, in his office, commits a kind of cardinal sin, which is candor. He just sorts of lets it out. He goes through the particularities of what it would mean that Karen is leaving. Essentially, he says, the whole balance of the place will be out of whack. Hughes has been a pragmatist; she has been a clear-eyed realpolitik to Karl [Rove]'s more ideological view. He says that Karen has been the beauty to Karl's beast. Essentially, he walks into every meeting with the sharp sword of partisanship, and she beats it into a ploughshare. ... Of course that goes into the story.
The story comes out in early June of 2002. Esquire faxes it immediately to the White House. ... Later, Dick Cheney was Bigfooting around the West Wing, looking for heads. ... And the vice president's advice to Card was, ... "Your job is to go out and say he made this up, that he lied." ...
[What was the media fallout?]
What I saw that weekend [after the article came out] was fascinating. First on Friday, [then-Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer ... says, "We're going to get a pool of money together to buy Ron Suskind a tape recorder." [In other words], that the story is more fiction than fact.
Now, he says this sort of as a joke, but that's everything for me. That's my reputation. I've been a reporter for 20 years, and I don't ever get things wrong. That's important in terms of my professional status. ...
So what do you do?
Well, that weekend, Andy Card goes out to do his road show for Homeland Security. Of course, all people want to ask about is this Esquire piece and these quotes. ... Card tried to do what the vice president recommended or ordered him to do, and it didn't work. He just couldn't manage it. ... At that moment, I think the Fourth Estate said, "Fine, then we can pile on," and the story roiled through the media for the next month. ...
Is this when the White House really started to lock down and not give anyone access every again really, or had it happened before, and you were sort of the exception?
In terms of their media strategy, their lockdown -- keep the mainstream press out -- it starts from the very beginning. ... Presidents have always furrowed their brow and said, "Oh, God, do I have to meet with the gentlemen or gentlewomen of the press again?" But they understood that part of the role of being president is explaining yourself, and these folks, though unelected, are kind of proxies, are intermediaries, are in a way kind of ombudsmen. ... Every president, I think even Nixon, understood that, which is why there was regular access of the media, regular visits, and the newspapers had a rotation. They knew every year they would go in a certain number of times. They prepared for it. ...
That stopped when the Bush administration arrived. ... Clearly they said, "Let's look at why that has always been the case, and let's move in some other direction." That direction was to say, the mainstream press will not have regular access to this president. ... What is the thing that is to be avoided? The informed, unmanaged question. That's the most dangerous thing at a press conference anywhere. So what you do is several things at once: First off, from the very beginning, you close off the sources for the informed question; you tell everyone in the administration new rules of the game. ... No one would speak to a reporter ever without permission.
I don't know if this is widely known, but they issued cell phones to everyone in the administration. This is a first. So they have their office line, but they also have a cell phone that's issued -- inside of the White House, certainly -- to key officials, so that any call you make to a reporter is easily knowable and findable [in] the databases of the White House. If you speak to a reporter without permission, there will be consequences. ...
You close off the leaks by saying, "There are penalties for leakers." You close off the place or the places in which you get the information, as a reporter, from the truly informed question. ... Message matters. Message matters almost as much as actions. This is the philosophy.
[Other administrations have tried to do the same and failed.] What makes the Bush administration so successful at this?
A few things made it a successful strategy. One is the view that access is really the currency. If you constrain access to the president or the key officials, then each moment of access will be more valuable, like a precious mineral, and in exchange for that precious mineral I can exact conditions. That's the idea. ... Reporters do need access. We have trouble living only on the thin gruel of official-speak. ...
How is it that they're able to contain their message so carefully?
You never, ever speak without permission about the president. God forbid you should have access to the president, have ever met the president -- you never speak to anyone about it, ever, without specific permission from on high. It's a centralized model, hierarchical, top-down. And if you do that, if you speak without permission about the president, you risk permanent exile, period. You get the call. ...
Permanent exile means a lot to someone who's affectionate to the president, who's a Republican supporter, who's contributed money, ... with a president coming into office, exerting his authority, and all the goodies that might emerge from that or might flow from that. But that is what you risk if you speak to a reporter without permission. ...
[Talk to me some more about the administration's retaliation against journalists.]
Part of the playbook from the White House is to attack journalists, to say: "You are not an appropriate repository of public faith. Your role we do not feel is valid, to act as an intermediary between us and the public." The way you do that is treat the press just like any other interest group in Washington. There is no special role or special designation. We could be the health care lobby, or we could be the anti-gun lobby -- whatever. ...
In this case, what they do is they attack the journalists themselves. They did this to other journalists [as well as myself]. They do it in terms of access in some cases. "We didn't like what you wrote in The Washington Post or The New York Times, so you don't get any calls back for maybe quite a while. So now what are you going to do?"
With me, I don't have access issues. I don't need their access at this point. People come to my office -- they come to me. And frankly, the line goes around the block at this point. So they've got to come after me as an individual. After The New York Times Magazine piece runs in October of 2004, just two weeks before the election, ... there's this interesting moment where [then-Republic National Committee Chairman] Ed Gillespie is on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and Gillespie says, "This story that's making all this news, well, we just want to tell you that we at the RNC have done some investigating on our own." Now Wolf is sort of startled, and he says, "Do tell." [Gillespie] says: "Yes, we have investigated Ron Suskind, and this is what we have uncovered. ... We checked a variety of records, and we found that Ron Suskind" -- and he holds up a sheet of paper -- "that Ron Suskind is a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia."
Ah, the smoking gun. ... And the fact is that some journalists I don't think register for political parties for this reason. I've never felt that was important. The fact is, I can vote for anybody; independents, Republicans, Democrats. But I'm a registered Democrat in the District of Columbia. It was listed as a crime.
What makes this administration so sure of themselves and so [bold] that they can just go ahead and do this and believe that they're going pull it off? ...
Their view from the beginning -- and Karen Hughes and I had a talk about this during that interview process -- was that they don't need the mainstream media. ... There are other avenues now for them to get their message out. There is the friendly media -- Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or the conservative press -- and ultimately they would attempt to keep the mainstream press away. ...
There's no doubt that the existence of the friendlier, conservative-leaning media was clearly an arrow in their quiver, a key arrow in their quiver, in terms of them saying, "Let's ignore the mainstream media as best we can." Will there be any penalty? ... I think their view was: "We don't think so. There are a lot of people out there that don't like reporters, who are not that happy with the television networks. There's been a movement for decades about truth and media and all those groups attacking them, calling them liberal." ...
[Do you think the media has a liberal bias?]
I absolutely reject that idea that the press is liberal and what it does is liberal. In my view, it's like accusing a doctor of malpractice or a lawyer of malfeasance. The fact is, most journalists I know are not particularly political. They move around a lot. And to say that by virtue of whatever my political beliefs may be that I would compromise what I do as a journalist and not understand where those lines are drawn is just exactly the same as accusing a professional of some manner of perfidy. ... It is no different, and I utterly reject it.
But the fact is that it has been a convincing case that they have made without a clear counterpoint. And all of that fit together, whereby folks were saying, "Well maybe I'll go to Fox News; maybe that's the place that I can get the news in some way unfiltered." Of course, nothing, I think, could be further from the truth. ...
Let's talk about your friend John DiIulio, [former director of the White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives]. ...
Well, it's a fascinating moment, the DiIulio episode. DiIulio and I knew each other at a distance. He reviewed this other book I wrote, A Hope in the Unseen. ... I think we had generally good impressions of one another. We start[ed] to talk, ... and it was just an extraordinary interview. ...
DiIulio arrives at the Bush White House [to carry out] Bush's public pronouncements during the campaign about these faith-based initiatives: that the churches are the last rampart against chaos in the inner cities; we need to affirm them in some way. DiIulio buys all that. He believes what the president has said on the campaign trail. He gets it. But he finds out otherwise. He leaves after about a year.
We speak actually almost not at all about the faith-based initiative. ... What's fascinating is that DiIulio was genuinely concerned for the president -- he likes the president. He said [to me], "This is very dangerous to make decisions without checking what we know [is] knowable, without doing any due diligence. ... The president needs to know that he is out on uncharted territory here if he doesn't have a policy apparatus that essentially nourishes decisions." ...
And he says after a pause, "It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." After he says that, it's almost like he wakes up from a moment of testimony, and he says, "Can we make all of this off the record?" ... A couple of weeks pass. There's a Manhattan Institute dinner in Washington. DiIulio's the speaker. I go to the dinner, and DiIulio's had a couple weeks to think about all the things he said, and he says, "Well, it's all on the record, and I don't want you to worry about that. What do we have to fear about the truth?" essentially.
Few more days pass, and DiIulio's secretary calls me, and she says, "John wants to send you something -- a fax. But it's kind of long." ... It's about eight pages on the fax machine. It's a 3,000-word memo on the record, explaining his comments to me in the interview -- including the comments about the Mayberry Machiavellis. It's now called "The Manifesto."
[Editor's Note: Read an excerpt here]
It is probably the most telling, entrenching, heartfelt, substantive thing written by any insider in this administration, even to this day. DiIulio talks about the perils of not having a policy apparatus. He talks about the president and his strong, positive feelings for him. He says he's a good man. He says that the political mandate, if that's all you have, is going to get you into trouble. ...
So now in terms of the message machine, the White House is in a real jam, because the story comes out in the first week of December , and it's clearly filled with these things that DiIulio wrote in his own hand, parceled out inside of this story. What do you do? They can't go with the first model, saying, "Suskind made it up." ... Now they have DiIulio himself expressing what he saw with his own eyes and felt at the key moments. What do you do?
That Monday morning, the first week in December, calls go from the White House to the University of Pennsylvania, [where DiIulio is a professor]. ... He already in that morning starts to make comments: "If I said the head of domestic policy, what she knows about domestic policy you could fit in a thimble, I'm sorry. If I said Karl Rove and the faith-based initiative is cottoning to the Christian right, I didn't mean it." That's the start.
At the noon press briefing, the questions are coming from every direction. Fleischer just shuts them down: "I'm not going to comment about Suskind's story. I'm not. But what I'll say is that John DiIulio's comments in that story are baseless and groundless." ...
At 4:00, I'm doing Inside Politics, the Judy Woodruff show on CNN. After the show I come out, and I turn on my cell phone, and there's about 40 messages. The University of Pennsylvania has now sent out a statement: DiIulio will no longer be available for comments -- ever, really. ... Essentially, at this moment, DiIulio retires from his role as a public intellectual. He will not be heard from again. ...
Did you talk to him ever again?
There were moments where I tried. I called. He vanished for quite a while. Even his friends he wasn't talking to. He had some personal issues with some illness in his family. He canceled speeches. ... He's a guy I've got enormous respect for, and I think it's earned respect. But at this moment, he ran into the White House meat-grinding machine, and John DiIulio essentially vanished. He retreated from his role in the marketplace of ideas. ...
Let's talk about [former Treasury Secretary Paul] O'Neill, another terrific story. [He was, like DiIulio, another administration whistleblower, but he felt he couldn't be hurt by their message machine.] Why is that?
That's interesting. What's fascinating about O'Neill is that O'Neill is ousted -- he leaves office -- the same week of the DiIulio flap, the same week that Esquire story came out. A month later, ... I'm essentially sitting in my kitchen with my wife, ... and she passes a little flyer across the kitchen table [that] says, "Paul O'Neill is speaking tomorrow night at the Celebrade Club," at which point I'm like: "Paul O'Neill -- that's impossible. The man's in the witness relocation program." ...
I go and I see O'Neill in the center of these tall, white-haired men in Brooks Brothers blue suits. ... And I see him there, and he looks at me, and we have a moment of recognition; The Washington Post had done a story about the Esquire pieces where they ran my picture. O'Neill's like, "You did that DiIulio story." I said, "Yeah." He says: "Good God, I've been thinking a lot about that whole thing lately -- for obvious reasons, concerning my own life. Why would a guy like that say those things?" And O'Neill says: "You know, this crew, this group -- the Bush crowd -- they're different. And I've known all of them." He says: "They're nasty in different ways, and they have very long memories. And John Dilulio's a young guy, kind of like you, and I guess he had to make a tough decision. Could he afford a 50-year struggle with them, both personally and professionally? I guess he decided he couldn't, so he pled for mercy."
We're just sort of standing there, and it's actually kind of quiet, and he looks off. ... And he looks back at me, and he says: "But here's the difference. I'm an old guy, and I'm really rich, so there's nothing they can do to hurt me." That was really the start of our relationship. ...
What's fascinating about this story is that they overreach: What they do to DiIulio in a way creates some of what occurs with O'Neill. ... People were kind of startled by it. It's almost like the baring of the teeth. ...
After [O'Neill first] leaves government about 20 years ago, he moves into corporate America. And at Alcoa, where he was just most recently, he became a zealot about transparency. ... From the top to the bottom, everyone was out in public. It was, "Best idea wins." If some guy in the factory floor in Australia has the best idea, he gets the bonus, not the senior vice president. ...
Again, don't mistake conviction for thoroughness. ... I said to Paul O'Neill, "Did they know who you had become through those years at Alcoa when they brought you into this White House, because in some ways, here you are, a transparency zealot, arriving in Dick Cheney's 'Dome of Silence.'" And he's like, "Nope, I don't think they did." ...
Let's talk about the "reality-based community." ... What does it mean? ...
In 2002, when those Esquire pieces were running, at one point they decided in the White House that maybe I could be educated. ... I was essentially set up to have a meeting with somebody from the inner circle who was going to tell me things that I ought to understand.
The aide and myself [were talking about] the global news cycles, about the fact that when you send out a message, it gets picked up now by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, by news outlets around the world. If that message is strong and coherent, it does alter the landscape. It creates its own kind of tailwind, its own kind of force.
At this point, [the aide] looks at me and says, "You know, Ron, guys like you are in what we call the 'reality-based community.' ... But that's not the way the world really works now. We're an empire of sorts, and when we act, we create our own reality. ... We're history's actors, who are willing to do what's needed, and you can study what we do. And if you start being nice to us --" he says at the end, "-- which you haven't been, maybe one of us will deign to visit you at that seminar you teach up at Dartmouth in the summers, in your tattered tweed blazer."
I said: "God, you're so angry at me. You know, I have a job here, and it's one with a real history, and I'm trying to do it effectively. The fact is, if you come to my office and check the books on the shelves -- any one marked "history" -- you will know that people who believe what you just said end up in history's dustbin. Just check the books. Don't trust me; check history." And he just sort of smiled at me and says, "Well, we've agreed to disagree." ...
... How does something like the "reality-based community" translate with how they treat the media?
... I think the view is that those in the mealy, muddling, fact-based, discursive, reality-based community are going to get caught in the weeds. They trust facts too much. They will make the mistake that some presidential candidates make, thinking that you win presidential debates like you won a high school debate, on debater's points. You don't win it that way; I think a lot of failed candidates will now tell you that. You win it with message; you win it with attitude; you win it with [what's] emanating from your posture, from your confidence. You stick to message. That's their view. The fact is, we are a nuisance. ...
[Where is the administration at now? ... They recently brought on a new press secretary, Tony Snow. What did that signal to you?]
The administration is right now in a puzzled and quizzical period. I think they are seeing that the message machine has started to work less and less. ... Up to this point, with Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan, it was get someone up there just to fight the press, to be almost like a splatter board. ... I think with Tony Snow, they're saying that's not working well enough. ... He's an articulate, sort of elegant guy. He can fence pretty well, and he's certainly more appealing to the general public than a Scott McClellan. They already feel like they know him. He was on Fox. He's someone who's been in your living room. Now let's put him up at the White House briefing room, and we'll see how that works. We'll see if some of this is transferable. ...
I think in the last year, two years, there has been a strong countermovement among the press, saying, "Now, wait a second -- we get a seat at the table in the Bill of Rights." The founders knew about us. ... They understood that the free press is one of the key things that will make a democracy work. Most importantly, a free press is at the center of what the founders might have called the self-correcting processes of self-governance.
... The fact is that in a way, journalists become a kind of default in the system when you don't have substantive two-party back-and-forth inside of the government. ... The media has become more forceful, has begun to recognize its traditional historic role and act on it, and truth is infectious. When you get people standing up saying, "I'm going to just tell the truth; what do we have to fear?," it encourages others, and it creates a counterresponse. And that counterresponse, I think, is what's occurring. And I think on balance, it is a good thing for democracy. Some people may challenge that opinion, but I certainly believe it. ...
This administration, as you may have read recently, was reclassifying stuff that was in the National Archives. They have been reversing, if you will, the declassification policies of the Clinton-Gore administration in certain ways. And a lot of people in the journalism community in particular see them as much more secretive, much more, if you will, fixated with the idea of keeping information inside the government as opposed to the public knowing. My question is, because this administration is more secretive, isn't that going to result in more leaks?
Well, first of all, you're making the assumption this administration is more secretive. I don't buy that premise at all. I think that during the previous administration, the Democratic administration was very concerned about media leaks, extremely concerned about them, and in fact rewrote an executive order to deal with administrative processes and procedures to deal with leaking and the seriousness of it. So I think that every administration recognizes the seriousness of leaks.
Again now, my focus is on classified information. ... You will find very few people in the government in any administration that thinks that media leaks are necessarily a good thing when it comes to classified information. Policy issues, political issues, things of that sort, that's a whole different ballgame.
So you don't think that, for instance, 9/11 and the war on terror has made it more likely for there to be leak investigations just because the government is --
No, no. No more than we've had in the past or no more than we've looked at previously. This isn't a new phenomenon. People may think that things are overly classified or there's too many things that are classified, and there may be some truth in that when you look at everything that's classified, but again, remember, that's why you have the 11 questions. That's why you have somebody who seriously looks at the information that was leaked, again, to determine its classification, but also to determine, based on the victimized agency, the damage to the national security. ...
Let's talk about the Bush administration for a minute, because you've obviously covered them from Nixon to the present. Is this the most hostile administration to the press?
I think Nixon was much more hostile. We now know from the Nixon tapes and the convictions and all of the investigations that it was a criminal conspiracy that they were covering up, so the incentives to immobilize the press were as high as they might be.
In the case of the Bush administration, I haven't seen convincing evidence that there's a criminal conspiracy. They are secretive about decision making on all kinds of things, particularly national security. But their incentives are not, as best I can tell, to keep themselves out of jail. Their incentives are to keep the public from knowing how the sausage is made.
Well, you can say their incentive isn't to keep themselves out of jail yet, because they haven't had to deal with a hostile Congress until now.
That's possible, but we'll see. There are lots of important legal issues, debates about whether something falls under a certain law, whether they should disclose more, NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping and so forth. But I haven't seen evidence of criminality.
Now, you're right. Maybe congressional investigations will so discover, or the press will so discover. But we're six years into this. Watergate really was something that occurred in the first Nixon administration and obviously ended his second administration more than two years prematurely.
Now, you say that they're not as hostile as the Nixon administration. Your critics say that you were on the outside with the Nixon administration looking in, or attempting to get inside, and with the Bush administration, they let you in. You were one of the few people who ever got inside.
But that's because I worked the outside and had low-level and mid-level sources who gave me information that then I took to other officials. People were willing to respond to one extent or another. People don't understand the method is not calling up the White House and saying, "I'd like to come interview the president." The method is, as I've written, sending a 21-page memo to the NSC [National Security Council] and to President Bush saying: "This is what I know. This is what I want to talk about, or some of what I'd like to talk about. Will you respond?" For two books, they were willing to do that. For the last one, they were not.
And were they willing to do it for the first two books because they thought they had a good story to tell?
I don't know. There always are mixed motives in something like this. And the books present a mixed picture. People try to pigeonhole it and say it's favorable, or that it's pro this or that. But anyone who's read it realizes that it is a pretty often unsparing examination of what they've done.
Well, on the surface at least, the titles of the book -- Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and then State of Denial -- it looks like you had a sea change in terms of your perspective on it.
That's not really the case. And again, if you read the books -- but they're long, and in the aggregate I guess they're 1,300 or 1,400 pages -- and it is not a sea change.
I want to go back 35 years ago, [to] the era of the Branzburg [v. Hayes] decision and the attitude of the administration toward the publishing of national security information. The same things are happening again: going after reporters for their sources and being generally hostile to anyone speaking out of school.
Well, interestingly enough, the most visible going after reporters for their sources, the Valerie Plame case, is one where they appointed an independent counsel and I think for a long time deeply regretted that. So in a sense, they lit the fuse on that. I don't know that they found any sources -- at least at this point -- or that they've prosecuted anyone [for leaking Valerie Plame's name]. So, there is a chilling environment, but I don't think there has been success, at least that I know of, in finding sources.
In the wake of the Branzburg decision and Watergate, the Justice Department promulgated guidelines -- guidelines that became more of a public recognition that reporters needed some protection for their sources. It appears that that truce, if you will, has broken down --
Yeah, that's a good term. There has been, by and large, a truce for a good number of decades on this --
-- in the federal courts and federal procedure. And it's the Justice Department that has to do these investigations, and the Justice Department is run by the White House, basically.
So the Justice Department and the FBI is being involved in investigations of reporters for leaks of information, whether it's [Rule] 6(e) material or national security information, right? And there's willingness to subpoena reporters, which FBI officials have said to us was always the reason they never liked these cases, because they could never subpoena the reporters until now. So things have changed.
That's obvious, that it has changed. Your question, though, was, does it mean it's more hostile than it was in the Nixon administration? I don't see it, because they had much more to protect in the Nixon era.
That doesn't mean this isn't real or serious. My sense of it is that it is one of the many things they haven't totally thought through. I think it's kind of, "Investigate leaks; go out and do this." You hear about it, and as a journalist, I think it's really just awful public policy, unless they can really show serious damage. And I haven't seen any evidence of serious damage yet.
No? The president of the United States publicly praised these two [San Francisco Chronicle] reporters in the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative baseball steroids] case for their reporting, saying it was in the public interest and that it was a great thing to do. Yet they're now threatened with jail.
My point is exactly that: I don't think they've thought this through. I think it is a clumsy war on the press, and it's got its own internal contradictions; namely, they don't have a good case of saying, "Look, these people got killed because of a national security leak, or this happened because of that leak."
So you just think they're clumsy?
Isn't that [the] evidence?
Well, I don't know. Because there's the BALCO case, these two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle and the steroid situation. They've already jailed a video blogger [Josh Wolf]. … They say it's a federal case. He doesn't want to give up his videotape because he's afraid they want him to identify people. He's in prison, and he's going to be there until July.
It's an outrage that they would do something like that. And you've pointed out the inconsistency of the president praising the reporters who got the information about baseball steroids, and then they're investigating these people.
Look, there is such a thing as public policy and public interest. And based on the information available now, I don't think anything has really been damaged or harmed. Maybe there are cases that will come down the pike, but what they ought to do is just stop this and let the press do its job, as we make our own mistakes and have our own problems.
I truly hate the idea of reporters being called to grand juries. To do it I think is a matter of public policy and common sense and the political interest of the country. You have to have an absolutely compelling reason, and the compelling reason would be harm to national security or individuals, and I haven't seen it.