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ken auletta

He writes The New Yorker's Annals of Communications column and is the author of several books on the media and technology, including Backstory: Inside the Business of News [2003]. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2006.

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.

“The good news is you've got so many different sources of information ... if they want to choose a conservative blogger or a Fox News or a CNN, good for them.”

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. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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