Thursday, December 02, 2004

# Posted 1:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NEWS IS STYLE AND STYLE IS NEWS: One of the things I can't figure out about the WaPo is why most of its commentary on the media appears in the Style section. That's usually where Howard Kurtz's column shows up, not to mention this extraordinary inside account of a White House press conference.

When I say 'extraordinary', I don't necessarily mean it in a complimentary manner. Presumably without the intention of doing so, Mike Allen's essay demonstrates how transparent the fiction of journalistic objectivity really is.

In rhetorical terms, a George Bush press conference is a particularly vicious sort of trench warfare. Allen makes it very clear that the raison d'etre of the White House press corps is to trick, trap and otherwise embarrass the President, while the President's objective to say as little as possible about what he believes or how he is running the country.

In spite of most journalists' preference for nuance, Allen describes the ordeal of the press conference with a significant degree of moral clarity. He writes that

These sessions are a contest between Bush's desire to repeat his previously articulated views ("sticking a tape in the VCR," as one frequent Bush questioner puts it), and the reporters' quest to elicit something that will contribute to democracy, not to mention getting them on television or the front page.
How generous of Allen to admit that personal ambition sometimes influences journalists' behavior. Otherwise we would assume that journalists' only desire to defend our freedom from the depredations of the President.

Not surprisingly, Allen never considers the possibility that Bush is so maddeningly evasive precisely because he knows that journalists want nothing more than to put his misstatements on the next morning's front page.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that Bush is not just a poor speaker, but one whose unscripted performances are often disturbing to watch even when one agrees with what the President is saying. But since Bush can't magically transform himself into Cicero or Pericles, the logical thing for him to do is to avoid confrontations with hostile audiences.

It is also quite interesting to note what Allen and other journalists consider to be the best, i.e. most embarrassing questions that the President has been asked. The first question is
Do you believe that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, and are you satisfied with his and his government's assurances that there was no massacre in Jenin?
Bush responded that "I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace." Other memorable questions include
Whether Muslims worship the same Almighty as Christians. (Bush said they did, prompting a stir among some evangelicals.)
Finally, there is this:
In April, [John] Dickerson [of Time] asked one of the most famous questions of Bush's presidency: "In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?"

Bush did not have a tape ready to stick into his VCR and he struggled to improvise. "I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it," Bush said. He went on to say he could not think of a mistake he had made, providing months of fodder for his critics.
Again, I'll be the first to admit that Bush did a terrible job of answering this question. But think of what he was being asked to do -- he was being asked to provide the Democrats with admissions of fault that they could throw back in his face for the rest of the campaign.

Even though this post has entailed a defense of the President from Mike Allen's misleading accusations, I don't want to leave the impression that I am satisfied with the way that this administration treats either the press or the voting public.

Right now, neither side wants to give an inch lest it be taken advantage of. Yet the only way to raise the level of public debate is for the President to be more candid and for the press to challenge him on substantive matters, rather than forcing him to walk through a rhetorical minefield.

How, you might ask, can we build up the sort of trust necessary to reach this more civilized state of affairs? Frankly, I have no idea. But we certainly won't get there by pretending that either the President or the media is entirely responsible for the current stalemate.

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